Lying with Data: Hate Crimes Edition
My interest was piqued when I saw a much-tweeted article about the “most-prejudiced places in America”. Maybe not the most grabbing headline, but it sure was when accompanied with this map:
Something jumped out at me right away – the Deep South is a bastion of tolerance! Until you look a bit closer – because the map doesn’t actually measure tolerance, it measures hate crimes. Is it possible – just maybe – that in more prejudiced places, hate crimes don’t get prosecuted as such? For a quick thought experiment, place yourself at the scene of a Mississippi cross-burning in 1962. The chance of that hate crime being reported, much less prosecuted, is somewhere roughly between zero and “not in a million years”. As the disclaimer at the bottom of the story clarifies, the data for this map comes from voluntary submissions by local law enforcement – I think that this might be a wee bit biased, especially considering that the 9% of agencies that don’t report almost certainly have unusually high numbers. So we have two problems with using this data to make claims about American prejudice – first, that there’s some very nonrandom missing data, and second that the data is probably coded in a biased way.
If you see a map that seems to obviously conflict with well-known facts, you should look more closely. Yet there’s just something about pretty maps that makes people lose their ability to think critically. I really need to start working those into my research,