In defence of sociology

Posted on May 1, 2013 in Governance Debates – opinion/op-ed
April 30, 2013. By Joseph Heath, Ottawa Citizen

Why do conservatives have such a peculiar hatred for sociologists?

This is a question that many people have been asking themselves in the wake of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s accusation that Justin Trudeau was seeking to “commit sociology” by inquiring into the “root causes” of terrorist violence.

But it doesn’t start with Harper. The common-sense conservative disdain for sociology is long-standing. After delivering a swingeing 25-per-cent budget cut to Ontario universities in the 1990s, then premier Mike Harris specifically fingered “sociology” as one of the useless disciplines that the universities might consider cutting.

As a liberal intellectual, whenever I encounter this sort of hatred, I naturally ask myself, “What are the root causes?” What did sociologists ever do to them? Why isn’t “society” something that conservatives consider worthy of study?

In this case the root cause is not hard to find. It comes from an accident of intellectual history, which is that criminology developed as a subspecialty of sociology. The people who conservatives actually hate are criminologists. They hate criminologists because criminologists are pretty much unified in the conviction our common-sense ideas about crime, both with respect to its causes and its remedy, are wrong.

In the past, Harper has actually gone so far as to describe these “ivory tower experts” as a part of the crime problem in our society. They are people who “are not criminals themselves, but who are always making excuses for them, and when they aren’t making excuses, they are denying that crime is even a problem.”

The idea that criminologists are in the business of making excuses for criminals is not exactly true, but it is easy to see how the confusion could arise. I’ll give an example in a moment, but first I just want to mention that we live in very strange times when it comes to criminal justice policy in this country. The Harper Conservatives have been advancing a “law-and-order” legislative agenda, introducing more than 60 different crime bills in the past five years, all of which are broadly acknowledged to be either useless or counterproductive when it comes to actually fighting crime. Many of them simply restate existing provisions of the Criminal Code, or introduce slight changes in wording that have no legal effect.

More puzzling perhaps has been the fixation on mandatory minimum sentencing and extending prison terms. There has been a huge amount of research generated by the precipitous decline in the American crime rate over the past two decades. Out of all this, one thing that has been shown quite clearly is that increasing the incarceration rates has absolutely no deterrent effect.

On the other hand, one thing that has been shown to have a deterrent effect is increased policing. Unfortunately, at the same time that the government is building new prisons, in order to accommodate their planned increase in the prison population, the number of police on the street across Canada, and the amount of money being spent on policing, has been on the decline. So even if you look at things from a strict law-and-order perspective, with an emphasis on “arrest and imprison” as the core approach to crime control, resources are being taken away from the one part of the system that has been proven effective (“arrest”), and transferred to the part that has been proven ineffective (“imprison”).

This explains why so much of the intellectual establishment in this country, from right to left, has been criticizing the government’s agenda. Of course, the Conservatives have repeatedly emphasized that they don’t think criminal justice policy should be dictated by research and “statistics.”

Furthermore, as Harper’s former chief of staff Ian Brodie has explained, part of their strategy in this area was specifically to antagonize criminologists and other intellectuals, so that the Conservatives could position themselves as defenders of common sense. “Politically,” he said “it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition, so we never really had to engage in the question of what the evidence actually shows about various approaches to crime.”

Given this strategy, it’s not entirely surprising that the government should regard anyone who wants to bring data to bear on the question of criminal justice policy as an enemy combatant. But that does not fully explain the hatred of criminologists, since the antipathy long predates the current commitment to evidence-free policy.

The real problem with criminologists, from the conservative perspective, is that they have repeatedly challenged our common-sense ideas about crime and punishment. To take just one example, people who study actual data on crime and recidivism know that punishment is not nearly as effective as most people think it is. Our common-sense view is biased by a cognitive illusion caused by “regression to the mean,” which leads us to underestimate the value of reward and to overestimate the effectiveness of punishment.

This is something that teachers are all familiar with, from the experience of grading student work. Most students, most of the time produce average papers. Every so often, an average student will produce a particularly good paper, or a particularly bad one, but on their next assignment they are likely to “regress to the mean” and produce a paper that is merely average.

Because of this, good papers are typically followed by papers that are worse, whereas bad papers are typically followed by papers that are better. This means that if you punish the student for a bad paper by giving her a very low grade, you will get the impression that the punishment was effective, because the student is likely to “pull up her socks” next time and hand in a paper that is better. If you reward the good paper with a high grade, on the other hand, you will often get the impression that the reward has not only failed to motivate good performance, but that it has even had the opposite effect, of encouraging her to “slack off” and hand in a paper that is worse.

So even if the punishment and the reward have no effect at all, the world tricks us into believing that the punishment worked while the reward failed. The result is that most of us have a huge bias in the way that we think about punishment, which affects our judgment in everything we do, from raising kids to managing people at work, and, of course, to thinking about crime. The only way to correct this, and to figure out what actually works, is to collect data and look at long-term trends.

This is why people who read books and study statistics are much more likely to support programs that appear to coddle criminals (what conservatives like to call “hugs for thugs” programs). It’s because social scientists actually know something important about how the world works, and in this case reality does have a liberal bias.

Hostility to expertise in all of its forms is the closest thing that Canadian conservatives have to a unifying ideology. Criminologists, however, rankle them just a little bit more than others, because their expertise happens to touch on an area that many conservatives feel strongly about. Recent changes in Canadian criminal justice have served no productive purpose, other than promoting punishment for the sake of punishment and vengeance for the sake of vengeance. This may make some people feel better, but it does nothing to prevent crime. Criminologists are the ones with the data to prove this, so it’s no wonder they’re unpopular with the government.

Joseph Heath is director of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto.

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