Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Sept.  7, 2009)


Back-to-school skepticism


  By John Martin


Here we are at that time of year once again when students return to their next year of university and others are stepping into the world of post-secondary education for the very first time. I tend not to spend too much time thinking about my own university days, but sometimes early September stirs a touch of personal nostalgia. One of the most memorable, teachable moments I recall came not from a professor, but rather, a fellow student. It was during a fourth-year course in research methods in which we had to present the findings of our own little research projects. We were pretty well permitted to examine any phenomenon or issue we chose as we were being evaluated, not so much on our research, but our presentation of it. Most of us picked something quite mundane; attitudes toward the courts, the impact of drinking and driving awareness campaigns and such.

One girl in the class though, was thinking outside the box and came up with something a little more interesting; actually, a lot more interesting. For the entire semester she picked up the Vancouver morning paper and recorded the weather forecast. Then she flipped to the sports section and documented the paper's picks for thoroughbred horse racing at the old Exhibition Park. She would check the forecasts and predictions with what actually happened and compare their respective track record. At the end of the day it turned out that some sportswriter at his desk with a racing program was almost 20 per cent more accurate with his horse racing predictions than all the satellites, scientific equipment and teams of meteorologists responsible for our weather forecast.

Of course this type of stuff is fun, amusing and stirs great conversation. But it's much more than that. It's the type of example that stresses the need to be skeptical. Far too often we immediately defer to the so-called experts; even when they have a track record of being wrong.

You can count on one hand the number of economists who predicted the global financial meltdown. And once they were blindsided, they promised there would be no relief in sight for years. Wrong again. Gasoline was supposed to be three dollars a litre by now. Global warming was going to wipe out the hops industry, and the price of beer would double. By the way, whatever happened to that global warming thing now that the planet is suddenly getting cooler, not warmer? Oh right, we're not supposed to mention that.

The experts have pretty well consistently blown it every time they offer their expertise regarding crime as well.

Almost every criminologist in the country guaranteed the firearms registry would save lives. It didn't. South of the border, the experts swore that mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines would have no impact on crime rates. They did.

The latest sure thing is that free drugs for addicts will reduce crime and won't encourage drug use whatsoever. How do they know this? They don't. There are examples of jurisdictions that have identified some successes with decriminalization and legalization. And there are other jurisdictions where the experiment has been disastrous. As is too often the case, they conveniently cite the former while ignoring the latter.

Textbooks, laptops and calculators are all well and good. But one of the most valuable resources the university student can take to class is a double scoop of healthy skepticism.

Certainly, there are no sure things in this world. But compared to some of the stuff that's been passed off as science in recent times, the thoroughbreds come pretty darn close.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at


Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2009