‘Race crime’, newspapers and inference

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From the letters page of Tuesday’s Age newspaper:

Statements by government ministers and police that there is no evidence racism was a factor in Nitin Garg’s murder are to our discredit. India sees through it and is offended. If the spokespeople had been more honest, they would have added there is no evidence that the attack was not racist.

[…]

John Murray, former vice-president, Australia-India Society, Hawthorn

Coincidentally, Ray Solomonoff died last month. I’m yet to see solid evidence that John Murray (or Fairfax columnists Gerard Henderson and Miranda Devine) didn’t kill him.

Whenever fallacious arguments are judged fit for newspaper publication, we mustremember to blame their appearance on cynicism rather than stupidity.

It’s not that the poor editors, short on staff and brainpower, can’t detect faulty reasoning. If that were true, their choices would exhibit no systematic error, and over enough time we’d observe no more than the expected amount of rubbish.

Is that what we see? No, we consistently see regular opinion columns granted to provocateurs, contrarians and Catherine Deveny. It’s no accident. The well-known commercial logic is outrage -> page views -> advertising revenue.

The representation of Nitin Garg’s murder as a story about ‘racist attacks against Indian students’, with little evidence, seems to fit this pattern. Just like ‘French sex murder‘, ‘Italy sex murder‘ and ‘rail chaos‘, it is an opportunistic, rather than stupid, bid for our attention.

But this time there’s more to it.

When trying to explain the string of violent assaults and thefts that’s been committed, over the past few months, across Melbourne against young men of South Asian background, we’re performing a search in hypothesis space. The space is vast: there are many possible reasons for this conjunction of events.

In choosing ‘race-hate crime’ as the preferred hypothesis, we pick a single point in that space. I think there’s a good reason we home in on the solution region marked ‘race’  – and it’s not due to overwhelming evidence.

First, we share an unfortunate tendency to attribute the behaviour of other people to some personal characteristic or disposition, rather than the situation those people are in. To an observer, the ethnicity or group identity of an assault victim (or occupation/clothing of a rape victim) may stand out more than, say, that person’s travelling at night through a park, in a taxi or via public transport.

Second, skin colour, for better or worse, is a very salient phenotypic trait. It’s one of the first things we notice about people. Because skin is by far our largest organ, and its pigmentation exhibits a lot of variation across groups of people, it’s probably the most visible distinguishing personal characteristic. So we naturally use it as a criterion of group classification, far more than e.g. height or eye colour. (Though note many Australians’ discomfort and confusion over whether South Asians are to be considered ‘black’ or ‘Asian’.)

With the victims now defined as ‘Indian students’, a motive is readily imputed to their attackers: evidently, racial hatred.

We’re thus led very quickly, by a few cognitive biases (and official encouragement), to privilege unduly (i.e. without sufficient evidence) a certain hypothesis about these violent attacks.

Sure, it could well be true that anti-Indian sentiment is behind the violence, but without evidence there’s no reason to grant the hypothesis any particular attention. That it does testifies to the hold of racial taxonomies on our thinking.

Some of this is induced by media treatment: if we keep hearing about racial violence, we tend to think it more probable, the same way we can’t help but overestimate the frequency of highly reported occurences like homicides, plane crashes and terrorist attacks.

Newspapers thus prompt our irrationality, while having an interest in provoking hysteria.

I leave open the possibility of whether racial violence could be caused by such reporting.

People like John Murray of Hawthorn are, no doubt, well-intentioned (I’m less sure about Gerard Henderson and Miranda Devine).

But their arguments are merely the inverse of talk about ‘ethnic crime’ and ‘ethnic gangs’ (terms which only apply to non-Anglo-Celts – ‘Aussies’ are not an ethnic group, you see) which sparks up any time someone of Lebanese or Vietnamese background gets in a fight.

Until suggested otherwise by the evidence, race shouldn’t be considered a salient factor in any crime or group of crimes.

The alternative leads us to innumerate hate-speech, like Andrew Bolt or Kevin Andrews claiming that Sudanese people are eight times more likely than others to commit crimes.

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4 Responses to “‘Race crime’, newspapers and inference”

  1. kathi Says:

    you are a very intelligent young man nikolai. you articulate very well a puzzling factor in public perception of crimes.
    although, i’m not sure that we can discount racism being a motivator for the attacks we have been seeing over the last year or so. but i guess you’re not saying that we should, just that neither should we focus on that as the only possibility.
    by the way, this piece only backs up my claim that you ought to be writing for the public! (as opposed to on a blog that only some of your friends know about.)

  2. Nick Says:

    Thanks for the charming compliments, Kathi.

    You’re right: I don’t think we should discount the possibility that this is racist violence. But without evidence there’s no reason to assign a very high probability to it. Given all the other possible explanations, this has a vanishingly small likelihood. Probably we should just accept that Melbourne is becoming a much more violent place.

  3. mrthedj Says:

    I tend to think that it’s a vicious circle. The media appeal to our prejudices and we consume the media to have those prejudices confirmed one way or another. There is now publications to mirror almost every view point. Despite that, it is becoming increasing regular than in instances such as the deplorable attacks against Indian students that the cycle becomes so vicious that it is easy to forget the real issues regarding this particularly situation.

    I think your piece a refreshing take on what has become a circus.

  4. Raise your hand if you love statistics and want to do a survey « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] control for potential confounds, and thus finding spurious correlations. As previously discussed here, this one is beloved of blowhard journalists who, for example, tie crime figures to ethnicity (look […]

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