Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Opportunity is a very bad explanation for crime: A critique of Crime Science

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n science good explanations are hard to vary and easy to refute. Crime Science's key explanation that opportunity is the most significant cause of crime is easy to vary and impossible to refute. This makes it a bad explanation for crime and questions the veracity and knowledge base of Crime Science
I begin this short essay by asking what is a good explanation for any phenomenon? We might wish to consider Newton’s Law of gravity as an explanation for why apples fall out of trees rather than fly upwards. But I'm actually interested in the social phenomenon of crime. Can science explain crime?
In his latest book, the world’s leading quantum computing scientist Professor David Deutsch (2011) of Oxford University tells us that good explanations are:

(1) Hard to vary – in that you cannot alter them after your experiments or observations in order to make them fit your data post-hoc.

(2) They are refutable. In other words, they can be shown to be either right or wrong.

Let’s move on now to Crime Science, while bearing these two crucial points in mind.
Here I refer the reader to Professor Gloria Laycock’s (2003) online publication, by the Department of Security and Crime Science within the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science at University College London (UCL), which is entitled “Launching Crime Science” and is published on the UCL website with its own ISBN number. Google Scholar reveals that this paper has been officially cited in several scholarly articles. This is the paper that launched Crime Science. It has an incredibly optimistic and glowing foreword written by the broadcaster Nick Ross and is likely to be of major interest to all criminologists, scholars of the history of scientific progress, policy makers, police officers, and Crime Scientists.

In her (2003) paper, Professor Laycock’s main explanation for crime is that the single most significant cause of crime is opportunity (see also Tilley and Laycock 2002 to find the exact same claim). She, her fellow crime scientists, and some criminologists such as Professor Marcus Felson (Cohen and Felson 1979), define the existence of crime opportunity as comprising three necessary elements that all come together in one place. These essential components of the crime act occurring in a place are:

(1) A suitably motivated and capable offender
(2) a suitable target (person, place or thing) for that offender and
(3) the absence of a capable guardian to protect the target or keep the offender in check
This ubiquitous crime as opportunity explanation seeks to explain every kind of crime known to mankind – from someone opportunistically keeping the £50 they just happened to spy sticking out of an ATM, burglaries carried out by opportunity seeking prolific burglars, to the most audaciously and carefully planned and executed jewel robbery.

With all crimes, there must have been a crime opportunity for it to have occurred. Therefore, with all crimes – at least once they have been committed – it is obvious that the perpetrator exploited an opportunity. How else could the crime have happened? This is what is known in philosophy as a truism.

The opportunity explanation for crime is very handy because it is easy to vary.

In order to handily explain the reason for any crime, Crime Scientists simply vary the extent to which the offender is deemed to be motivated, the target suitable, or the guardian incapable. In other words, if the crime happened it was because the guardian did not have sufficient 'capability' to defend the object or target against the infinitely variable degree of motivation and/or infinitely variable capabilities of the offender and the related infinitely variable degree of 'suitability' of the target. If the potential crime never happens, then that is because of the relative capability of the guardian to one or both of the other elements. This fool-proof post-hoc 'matter of fact' variation makes the explanation for crime occurring and not occurring impossible to refute. In short, the opportunity explanation is always tweaked by itself to perfectly fit the data it is used to explain.

Crime Science appears to be based on the premise that it is these easy to vary and impossible to refute self-tweaking characteristics that make opportunity the best explanation for crime because that means that no one can refute it. Of course, many scientists would disagree.

Crime opportunity, however much you might seek to vary its three integral parts, is an essential characteristic of all crime and as such it is in fact not an explanation at all. It is actually the crime data that Crime Science is seeking to explain. As a mere truism, crime opportunity explains nothing we do not already know. Put simply, data (of any kind) cannot explain itself.

In science, the fact that hydrogen and oxygen are essential parts of water does not explain why water is what it is, or how it came to be. For that you need an explanation of causes. Explanations for causality of a thing are not descriptions of the characteristics or behaviour of that thing. Saying that opportunity is a cause of crime is like saying hydrogen and oxygen are the cause of water. Whereas knowledge about what causes water is the explanation embodied in the discovery of the physical law that governs the way atoms stick.

The crime as opportunity explanation merely describes, albeit to an extremely limited extent, the behaviour and characteristics of people and targets at the scene of every successful crime in progress, or crime prevented (it does not for example explain failed but attempted crimes or discovered criminal conspiracies).
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The criminological notion of crime as opportunity does not explain what it is in society that brought the three core components of the crime scene in progress together as offenders, defenders and targets. It does not explain what motivates, rewards or causes someone – such as a prolific burglar - to set out and look for these so called opportunities. The crime as opportunity explanation does not explain, partially or wholly, the cause of crime. Therefore, it seems erroneous to state (e.g. Laycock 2003: p.5) that: “The most significant and universal cause of crime is opportunity.” And it, therefore, appears wrong to believe that the opportunity element of Routine Activities Theory (e.g. Laycock 2010 p.227) provides some kind of underlying principle to explain crime.

My own position on criminology and a natural science criminology

This brief essay is totally concerned with the fact that Laycock’s – and by default Crime Science’s perception of science, arguably, does not take account of what many natural scientists think science is. For example, the same type of error of confusing (or mixing together) of explanations (theory) with the data to be explained was deemed unscientific by an amicus curiae brief of 73 Nobel Laureates in the earlier Louisiana Creation Case (Shermer 1991). I throw my hat in with them. So that my position is that the notion of science is in fact governed by a number of broad “principles” that have their roots in the philosophy of science. And the one just stated is arguably the most fundamental principle of the natural sciences. Laycock writes that she wants crime science to be like the natural sciences.

I think that crime as opportunity - combining the Brantingham's (1991) five necessary components of crime: law, place, offender, target, victim with Felson’s (Cohen and Felson 1979) description of the crime act: capable offender, suitable victim./target in the absence of capable guardian for a crime in commission (or thwarted) is in fact an excellent observation and description of the data. And, to repeat the point already made, since it always occurs it is a truism (like H2O is water), but that does not explain its causes. Therefore, it is not an explanatory theory or hypotheses of causality.

Even if you were so contrary as to seek to break that fundamental principle of the physical sciences that you should not confuse your explanations with the data you seek to explain - just to weirdly argue that crime as opportunity is an explanation – then the fact that in criminology the notion of opportunity is an infinitely post-hoc variable truism makes is a useless explanation in science. Such handy variability is much better suited to post-hoc rhetorical story telling. Ironically, such ‘making of stuff up’ after the event in order to be wise about what you never predicted would be coming is the sort of thing that I believe crime scientists would criticise as being mere rhetorical fallacy.

Regarding whether I think crime can be explained by a real crime science informed criminology, that might one day predict the future of crime, my answer is that I just don’t know. Even Popper’s work on the fallacy of induction had to rely upon past and current failures to refute the usefulness of such induction as a predictive method. So who knows, one day an Antiswan might replace his white and black swans? After all, Popper’s black swans are the unimaginable and unimagined future. And Popper never imagined the possibility that one day man might overcome the problem of induction. In short – I keep an open mind. Who knows what man can achieve in the next 1000 years. I wrote a blog on my open minded Antiswan (Sutton 2011) that considers the possibility. If I had to bet on it I'd say that accurately predicting what will happen next in the affairs of man is a problem to be solved and that man may one day solve the problem. Perhaps not in my lifetime, but perhaps a 100 or 1000 years from now. Ultimately, because I am an optimist, I think Real Crime Science is a worthwhile project. And I think we should start on it today.


Science does not confuse its data (such as crime) with the theories (ideas) that seek to explain it. It keeps them separate. Being a truism, the crime as opportunity explanation is in fact an excellent comprehensive summary, by way of concise description, of key elements at all successful crime scenes in progress. This description is about how all crimes takes place, but it is not about why they take place. How something happens does not explain why it happens. For that we need an explanation in the form of a hypothesis or theory. Good explanations are expressed as hypothesis or theories and are easy to refute and hard to vary. The crime as opportunity explanation is impossible to refute and infinitely easy to vary. In fact, varying it is what is necessary in order to make it fit the data. Contrary to what Crime Scientists weirdly believe, this makes it a bad explanation for crime.

On the other hand, to give a most eminent Crime Scientist the last word, an alternative argument is that it is good enough for the science in Crime Science to be defined by explanations that he gleaned only from Wikipedia (see: Pease 2008).
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Brantingham, P. J. & Brantingham, P. L. (1991). Environmental Criminology. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press
Cohen, L. E. and Felson, M. (1979) Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach. American Sociological Review, 44, 558-608.
Deutsch, D. (2011) The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that transform the world. London. Penguin Books.
Laycock, G. (2003). Launching Crime Science. Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science. University College London. ISBN 0-9545607-1-X
http://www.ucl.ac.uk/jdi/downloads/publications/crime_science_short_reports/launching_crime_science.pdfIf for some reason this publication remains weirdly removed from the Internet, despite its having an ISBN number and having been cited in several scholarly texts, anyone unable to obtain a copy can get a free copy of the original by emailing crimescience@hotmail.com and simply asking for it to be returned by email.
Laycock, G. (2010) Crime Science. Encyclopaedia of Victimology and Crime Prevention. Thousand Oakes. Sage.
Pease, K, (2008). How to Behave Like a Scientist? Policing http://www-staff.lboro.ac.uk/~ssgf/KP/2008_Pease_Behaving_Badly.pdf
Shermer, M.B. (1991). Science Defended, Science Defined: The Louisianan Creationism Case. Science Technology and Human Values. Vol 16. No. 4. 517-539. http://www.jstor.org/stable/689806
Sutton, M. (2011) On the Antiswan. BestThinking.com. Criminology: The Blog of Mike Sutton: http://www.bestthinking.com/thinkers/science/social_sciences/sociology/mike-sutton?tab=blog&blogpostid=12179%2c12179
Tilley, N. and Laycock, G. (2002). Working out what to do: Evidence based crime reduction. Crime Reduction Series Paper 11. London Home Office.

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