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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Superpredator Scare

At The New York Times, Clyde Haberman writes about the "superpredator" scare of the 1990s.  (h/t Jessica Garcia) The United States was purportedly on the verge of a huge crime wave featuring ultraviolent youths.
What happened with the superpredator jeremiads is that they proved to be nonsense. They were based on a notion that there would be hordes upon hordes of depraved teenagers resorting to unspeakable brutality, not tethered by conscience. No one in the mid-1990s promoted this theory with greater zeal, or with broader acceptance, than John J. DiIulio Jr., then a political scientist at Princeton. Chaos was upon us, Mr. DiIulio proclaimed back then in scholarly articles and television interviews. The demographics, he said, were inexorable. Politicians from both major parties, though more so on the right, picked up the cry. Many news organizations pounced on these sensational predictions and ran with them like a punt returner finding daylight.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. Instead of exploding, violence by children sharply declined. Murders committed by those ages 10 to 17 fell by roughly two-thirds from 1994 to 2011, according to statistics kept by the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Mugged by reality, a chastened Mr. DiIulio has offered a mea culpa. “Demography,” he says, “is not fate.” The trouble with his superpredator forecast, he told Retro Report, is that “once it was out there, there was no reeling it in.”

So why did the trend go into reverse?
Various ideas have been advanced, like an improved economy in the late ‘90s (never mind that it later went south), better policing and the fading of a crack cocaine epidemic. A less conventional — not to mention amply disputed — theory was put forth by some social scientists who argued that the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling on abortion in Roe v. Wade had an impact. With abortions more readily available, this theory went, unwanted children who could be prone to serious antisocial behavior were never born.
Here are a couple of lessons.

First, the media love a good scare, especially when it involves a catchy term.

Second, we should never assume that trends will persist indefinitely.  As Mark Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi:
In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period,' just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.