What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer. So wrote Francis Bacon in the 16th Century, quoting from St John's Gospel. Pilate was responding to Jesus' assertion "I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
A primary school teacher, an engineer and an accountant each answered the question, "What is the sum of 2 plus 2?"
The teacher answered, "Four."
The engineer was more specific, "If by two, you mean 2.00, then the answer is 4.00, but if your twos are really 2.28s rounded down to 2 to zero decimal places, then the correct answer is five, or 4.56 rounded up to 5."
The accountant was worldly-wise, "How much would you like it to be?"
I have been thinking about truth ever since reading a book called 'Freakonomics' by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. This book hit the headlines when it made the astonishing claim that the falling crime rate in America was a direct consequence of Roe v Wade.
Freakonomics is about challenging the conventional wisdom. Between 1975 and 1990 violent crime in America had risen by 80%. Experts were predicting a bloodbath. Fueled by crack cocaine, the black areas of inner cities were exploding. Then in the nineties it all began to go away. Crime levels have fallen back to the levels of 1960. Why?
There have many suggestions: The 'broken windows' approach to inner city policing introduced by Rudolph Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton, in New York City has gotten a lot of the credit, but so has simply putting more police on the streets. Tougher gun-control laws, gun buy-back schemes, laws against concealed weapons, all have their advocates. Or is it simply a strong economy cutting down the numbers of unemployed? The devil makes work for idle hands. Is harsher punishment acting as a deterrent - longer prison sentences or the return of capital punishment? Or is it a change in the market for crack? Or simply the greying of the population?
Levitt and Dubner have considered all these possibilities. About a third of the decrease comes from locking up criminals. Prisons are expensive, they often brutalize the inmates, and often it is the inadequate, the addict and the mad that are locked up, but there is no getting away from it; career criminals commit no crime when incarcerated. On the other hand capital punishment, as it is practised, makes little difference. The truth is it turns out to be safer for a criminal on death row than it is selling crack on a street corner in Chicago. He is less likely to die.
Criminals didn't march to jail by themselves; someone had to put them there. Homicide rates in New York City fell from 30.7 per 100,000 in 1990 to 8.4 per 100,000 in 2000. However, the fall began before the broken windows strategy began. It began when the previous Mayor, David Dinkins, started increasing police numbers in response to Mayoral contender Guiliani's law and order campaign, four years before 'broken windows' was instituted. In fact the homicide rate fell in other cities that increased their police numbers and didn't adopt the Bratton philosophy of policing. Increased police numbers accounts for about 10% of the drop in crime; less unemployement on the other hand cannot be responsible for more than 1% or 2% of the total fall.
Tougher gun laws have had little effect. Indeed, in Britain where all hand guns are banned, gun crime is increasing. Surprisingly, criminals don't obey gun control laws any more than they obey the laws of property.
More important was the fall in the price of crack cocaine. Most of the inner city murders were not by crackheads but part of the intense competition for prime selling sites. Gang member shot gang member. These were turf wars. The use of crack has not diminished since 1990. The supply has become more available, but roughly the same number of users are able to obtain more for their money. The profits have diminished, the street corners aren't so valuable and not worth dying for. The change in the crack economy accounts for 15% of the fall in crime.
The greying of the population accounts for the rest - about 40% of the fall. On the whole the over-65s tend not to commit violent crimes. But why are there fewer young people? Obviously contaception is part of it, but abortion available to all is the major component. Every year in America over one and a half milion babies are aborted. By and large these are the children of the young, unemployed, unmarried, inner city poor. These are the characteristics of those most likely to become criminals. Unintentionally, America has been aborting its potential criminals.
Lies, damned lies and statistics! Statistics are notoriously misused to mislead. Levitt and Dubner's assertion received a bad response from those on both sides of the abortion debate. However, the figures seem to me to be true. The greatest contribution to the fall in crime in America is the fall in the number of those likely to become criminals and the reason for this is the increased availability of abortion. Since Roe v Wade conceptions have risen by 30% but live births have fallen by 6%.
Consider this. Had the American government, as a solution to the crime wave, brought in a law that ordered the killing of a large proportion of babies born to unmarried, teenage, black mothers who were poor and unemployed, the world would rightly have been in uproar. Headlines would have screamed George W Herod (or William J Herod - take your pick). Instead, women of America have freely chosed to abort these babies before they were born.
Try as I might I have difficulty in seeing a fundamental difference between killing a developing fetus and killing a newborn. I know that a certain proportion of fetuses will not reach term, but nobody is concerned about them; the reason for an abortion is to kill the fetus that will come to term. I know about a woman's right to choose, but that presupposes that she harms no-one but herself. It presupposes that the developing fetus is not an individual in its own right. When does it become an individual? At 8 weeks or 13 weeks or 24 weeks or 28 weeks or when it is born or when it begins to talk? Legislation in the UK forbids experimentaion on an embryo after 14 days, when the primitive neural streak appears.
As a man I struggle with this area. To bear a child is a particularly female thing; no man can begin to understand the intimate relationship between a mother and child. Of course there is a difference between killing a fetus and killing a baby. It is an esthetic difference; it is an emotional difference; but is it an ethical difference? And should we beguided by ethics or esthetics or emotions?
I suspect that I will have responses from both sides of the debate. I have my views, but I'm not calling anyone by a rude name. Please refrain from calling me by one. However, the debate is enhanced by facts that allow us see clearly what is actually happening.
If you haven't read Freakonomics than I recommend that you do. There are other topics like why do drug dealers live with their mothers, and how you detect a cheating Sumo wrestler. And the next time you move house or sell your car you might want to ponder on the power of experts to rig the market against you.