Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Guy Was Murdered In My Neighborhood Pt. 2

There is a story about a renowned Russian statistics professor who refused to go into the bomb shelters during the raids of WW ll. "There are 7 million people in Moscow and the odds I will die are miniscule", he would say. One night however he shows up in a bomb shelter and his neighbors demand an explanation. "There are 7 million people in Moscow and one elephant at the zoo, and last night they bombed the elephant".

This is how we process danger, or more precisely the appearance of danger. We reach and overreach to form a narrative that supports its existence rather than entertain the possibility that danger appears in ways that can be purely random. That impulse is going to understandably be on display in my neighborhood in the next few days as a result of a murder at Central and Irving Park.

Towards the end of this news clip a neighborhood guy demonstrates pretty well how an event like this gets shaped into a larger story whether there is any evidence to support that story or not. The notion that we seemed to be wired to accept is that everything is getting progressively worse and that event spikes like this crime are the empirical evidence of that decline. But in reality that is exactly wrong.

In 2009 there were 453 murders in Chicago which was down from 509 in 2008 and while that may not be cause for rejoicing it is a vast improvement over 1992 when there were 943 murders in the city. Clearly the trend represents an almost unimaginable improvement in not only the number of murders but all crime statistics, yet people do not feel proportionally safer.
Indeed they feel progressively less safe.

One can understand an evolutionary advantage in over valuing negative information but it also
has a downside in that sometimes we do an exceedingly poor job of responding to things as they actually are. I think the case of McDonald v. Chicago currently before the Supreme Court is an example of exactly that. This is the case concerning the Chicago handgun ban and while Im not interested in discussing the 2nd amendment particulars here, which I agree with in principle, I am interested in trying to understand why a city with a crime rate that drops like a stone is populated by people who feel that instead crime is out of control and their only hope for survival is to own a gun. It can only be the entirely mistaken notion that the streets are out of control that feeds this and I think we arrive at that notion by placing entirely too much emphasis on the one spectacular event while completely de-valuing the overwhelming number of days where nothing happens at all.

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