17 February 2009

Catechism of Cliché (Homicide Edition)

In what manner do rates of murder decrease?
They drop.

In what fashion do murder rates escalate?
They soar.

And crime rates?
They soar, also.

Causally, in what relation does alcohol consumption stand to such escalation?
It fuels it.

Yes, its time again to dust off our joylessly moribund public vocabulary, consult the catechism of cliché, and scratch out the news that Scotland has won another international prize for the excellence of our incidence of homicide. Statistics can be bracing things, often surprising. For example, did you know that, according to the 2001 Census, only 15.88% of the Scottish population are Roman Catholic? Or only 426,000 Muslims?

In my experience, folks are often surprised by these quantitative accumulations, finding that the sturdy numbers are not reflected in popular representations and cultural expectations. Statistics, then, can be a valuable tool.

However, nothing without caution, my lovelies. Nowhere is this truer than in crime statistics, particularly perilous when cross cultural comparisons are made. Although the term "murder" is applied rather blithely, in strict legal terms, comparison of the offences in Scotland and in England and Wales are not completely symmetrical. Any analysis of the Scots law on rape, at least until the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill is passed, must be seen in the light of the very narrow definition of rape - while also recognising that what might be described as "rape" in the media or conventionally - rape where the victim is a male for example - will be recorded and prosecuted under another category altogether (in the Scottish context, probably as an indecent assault).

These, perhaps rather minor objections aside, I'd also point out that we ought not to get too excitable about increases in percentages. They can be highly misleading. Consider the following, unrelated, example. The Times reported late last year, in the spirit of egalitarian effusion, that "for the first time" the number of female "devils", aiming to join the Faculty of Advocates was "equal" to that of men.

Actually, the figure is 5/11 devils. Sounds nice. 50-odd percent. Huzzah for us.

However, a closer examination across the last ten years shows that while the naked percentage male-female in this intake is roughly 50-50, the simple number of women taking on as devils has hardly shifted. And so the egalitarian balloon, while superficially exciting, plump and kindly - deflates, flatulently.

A similar note of caution should be kept when eyeing the homicide statistics, and care taken (considering the numbers are relatively small) to note how a relatively slim increase in the overall rate can produce a more dramatic seeming percentage shift. In 2006/07 16% of homicide victims were female. In 2007/08 that percentage ostensibly "leapt" to 21% of of the total. Actually, sans percentages, only five more women died in 2007/08 than 2006/07.

Questions of the rate aside, the available figures reveal a number of potentially surprising features about murderous phenomena in Scotland. 62% of recorded homicides from '97 - '07 took place residentially. Men slain by men are most likely to be acquaintances - 67% of total - while 52% of female homicidalists killed their partners. In 2006-07, eighty four per cent of homicide victims were male. That is 100 men to only 19 women in total, across the whole country. However much one might, perhaps tacitly, recognise that our criminal justice system is primarily a male affair, the extremity of that last percentage is striking.

Certainly, there isn't much to be proud of here, but don't lets get too upset about ostensibly significant changes in percentage incidences. And please, for the sake of the continued vitality of linguistic endeavour, crack open your thesauruses ye ladies and gentlemen of the press. Everyone knows crime rates don't fly.

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