The unreliable count of hate crimes

Laws on hate crimes raise longstanding questions of fairness both in theory and application, including (when enacted at the federal level) dangers of overextension of federal criminal law and inroads on the prohibition against double jeopardy. The role of hate crimes as culture war rallying points can make things worse. In the Jussie Smollett episode, journalists came under fire for raising questions about unlikely elements of the actor’s story — Smollett had been “doubly victimized as the subject of speculation by the media industry and broader culture,” said the head of one progressive outfit — and even for hedging their stories about with words like “allegedly.”

After Smollett’s story fell apart, some advocates argued that no matter what might have happened this one time, data show that hate crimes are sharply on the rise and reports of them hardly ever prove unfounded. Is that the case? I tackle the question in a new piece at Inside Sources

An oft-repeated talking point is that FBI statistics last year, to quote Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), “revealed a 17 percent increase in the number of hate crimes in America.”

Let’s be polite and say those FBI figures are difficult to interpret….

In the state of Oregon, the college town of Eugene reported 72 hate crimes to the FBI in 2017, about as many as the rest of the state put together. According to the Daily Emerald, the difference reflects “the city’s active approach. … The city carefully catalogs reported instances … and even classifies certain crimes — such as vandalism — as a hate crime that other cities would classify in a different way.”

Word is that the Eugene approach is spreading as other cities get interested in steps such as asking officers to write up on their own initiative as a hate incident a graffiti epithet they might see, rather than only if a public complaint happens to come in.

Should those methods spread in coming years, the FBI count of reported hate incidents is sure to mount — yet still not demonstrate with any certainty a genuine rise.

For whatever reason, many of us are predisposed to accept findings that seem to highlight the prevalence of terrible injustice. The impulse to believe extends to matters of scholarship. So it was with a recently retracted 2014 study that purportedly found “structural stigma” in society shortens the lives of LGBT persons by a remarkable 12 years. The authors acknowledged that they had inadvertently committed a coding error with the data; once it was corrected, there was no statistically significant correlation at all between “structural stigma” and mortality. Yet the paper, with its inherently implausible findings, had already achieved “highly cited paper” status, and has continued to garner citations even after its retraction.

More: David Kopel 2003 (recommending stronger penalties for the perpetration of hoaxes).

One Comment

  • The trick of changing the measurement process/methods to create the truth desired is an old one. When the government wanted to disguise the obesity rates, they changed what constituted overweight. When they wanted to disguise the inflation they were creating, they stopped reporting certain money supply measures. When they wanted to push the trafficking panic, everything under the sun became trafficking. The changes to the process gets lost as context is forgotten (or ignored) and all that is left is the new desired “truth”.

    “For whatever reason, many of us are predisposed to accept findings that seem to highlight the prevalence of terrible injustice.” – People have been being told for decades about how bigoted society is. They are primed to believe it. Additionally, large swaths of current politics & policy are predicated on there being widespread serious prejudice. Plus it gives people an excuse to be righteously indignant.

    So if not enough hate is happening to support your favored hobbyhorse or victimhood claim, well then go out and make some! So now you have hate hoaxes (faked incidents), hate hypochondria (malice inferred where none existed), and hate hallucinations (distorted/exaggerated instances). Extreme hoax example: Israeli kid is responsible for roughly 2,000 threatening calls over 2 years across multiple countries, including the U.S.. He was doing at least some of them for money.

    Or this one: Some of you might remember that brouhaha a year ago about a racial slur written at an Air Force academy supposedly targeting a room housing some African-American cadets that lead to a semi-viral speech by the overseeing general. Turns out a student wrote it on his own door.

    Smollett isn’t new, just blindingly obvious and high profile. This won’t be the last incident, by far. “Hate” is the new moral panic. A good rule of thumb is that the more inflammatory the incident, the more likely that it is either outright fake or otherwise being distorted.

    P.S. First time trying to use the HTML tags for links. Hopefully they come out right.