Archive for category Crime

The Daily Mail blames “brain chemicals” for riots… the research they cite doesn’t

Daily Mail headline: Rioters have ‘lower levels’ of brain chemical that keeps impulsive behaviour under control

Do they? Well, some of them might, but the research in question wasn’t about rioters at all.

Researchers from the University of Cardiff uncovered a link between impulsiveness and levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in a key brain region.

… Around 30 male university students had their levels of GABA measured using a specialised type of brain scan.

They were also asked to complete questionnaires that assessed different aspects of impulsiveness, a trait known to influence self-control.

Participants with more GABA in the pre-frontal brain region had lower scores for ‘urgency’ – the tendency to behave rashly in response to distress or strong emotions and urges.

There was no connection to rioting in the study. Any connection made in the article is being made by journalists – this article has no by-line, being published solely under the Daily Mail Reporter name, but I think it came from the Press Association originally – and it’s a tenuous connection. You see, The Mail is working completely backwards here – they’ve decided that since people who have less GABA tend to behave more rashly, people who they think behaved rashly must have less GABA. You might as well assume that since every MP is in London right now, everyone in London is an MP.

Besides, although the paper in question, “Dorso-lateral prefrontal gamma-amino butyric acid in men predicts individual differences in rash impulsivity” (in Biological Psychiatry not Biological Society, despite what The Mail claims) did find a connection between GABA and impulsiveness, it wasn’t as strong as The Mail claims:

Figure 1 from the paper

Figure 1 from the paper (highlights my own)

That’s a graph from the paper, showing the connection between the amount of GABA in one particular part of the brain (along the bottom axis) and how strong the individual’s feeling of urgency was (along the side axis) in two groups (cohorts). There does appear to be a correlation (the R number is a measure of how strong this correlation is; R = -0.7 is a reasonable correlation) but look at the two I’ve highlighted with red dots in cohort 2. These two people have the same amount of GABA in their brains, but one of them was incredibly impulsive while the other was one of the calmest people in the study. Likewise, in cohort 1, while there was a definite tendency for people with more GABA to be less impulsive, just look at that cluster of dots – there are impulsive people with lots of GABA, and cautious people without it.

The best you could possibly say about this article is that maybe on average a rioter* has less GABA than normal, assuming these riots are entirely impulsive and there is nothing at all planned or premeditated about them. But then, why does this study need to be connected to riots at all? The paper came out in July before the riots, it’s not about riots – or any kind of violence at all – and none of the scientists quoted mention them, and to be honest, blaming the riots entirely on brain chemistry leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. As Mindhacks has pointed out, The Daily Mail seems to be going to great lengths to avoid exploring any of the context behind the riots, and this kind of story helps bolster the Mail‘s line that there is no deeper cause of these riots than “criminality pure and simple”.

Wales Online originally ran this story too (here’s the Google cache, and if that stops working, here’s a screenshot), but they’ve since realised there’s nothing in this proving anything about the brains of rioters and have replaced the story with an altogether more reasonable report on the research. Will The Mail follow suit? Let’s see.

* Male rioters at least – the study only looked at men, so there’s no guarantee this correlation is true in women too.

Edit: The researchers behind the study have published a scathing rebuttal in The Guardian, saying “Let us be absolutely clear. Our research has almost nothing to say about rioting, and certainly can’t be used to justify or excuse any type of behaviour.” Despite complaints from the scientists, The Mail‘s article is still online.

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Not-so-searching journalism

(Hat tip to Press Not Sorry and Trans Media Watch)

Not wanting to be left out by recent events in the papers, The Sun has a leak of its own (and by a leak, I mean a document that’s been freely available online since mid-October): prison search guidelines. The rules cover everything from whether or not to search religious clothing, to the proper use of metal detectors, to when it’s appropriate to search a baby’s nappy; there’re any number of angles The Sun could have taken with its coverage. What does it go for?

STRIP SEARCH AXED FOR SEX SWAP LAGS*

The underlying message of The Sun‘s article (and its hastily churned-out sibling in the Daily Mail) is clear: transgender people are supposedly getting special treatment and smuggling weapons/drugs into prison.

The Sun says:

PRISON bosses have been told not to order intimate strip searches on sex swap lags, it was revealed last night.

The new rule has been drawn up by officials working for Justice Secretary Ken Clarke – who has already been slammed for going soft on sentences.

And the “squat” search ban does not only apply to prisoners who’ve had a sex change. Officials have ruled that gender swappers are now exempt even if they haven’t yet had any surgery. Angry prison officers say the naked searches are the only way jails can detect drugs or weapons that prisoners have hidden inside their bodies.

(The Mail’s article is essentially identical – imagine the above put through a de-slanging translator)

Note that they don’t quote any of these “angry prison officers” and that “intimate strip searches” quickly gets replaced by one specific type of search.

The Sun never actually quotes from the “leaked” document, so you just have to take their word that that’s what the guidelines say. Or you would, if prison search guidelines weren’t already freely available online (.doc). The actual advice they give is a little more prosaic:

Where it is suspected that an item has been hidden in or around the anus, a male prisoner must be asked to bend/squat as part of a full search, to enable the officer to visually examine the area more closely.  Female prisoners must not be asked to squat.  The basic principle here is that anyone who is legally a female (from birth or acquired via a GRC) must not be asked to bend or squat neither should anyone who has a vagina (regardless of legal gender).

In fact, search rules for trans people work more or less exactly the same to how they work for cis people. Admittedly, there is an exception – presumably for medical reasons – of trans men who haven’t had GC surgery, but this is an exception for anyone with a vagina, trans or cis; it would be impossible to abuse this to smuggle anything into a prison.

The other rule that The Sun finds “bizarre”?

Male lags who want a sex change can demand to be given a nude search by a woman – while women awaiting a sex swap can demand a male officer. Governors must draw up a “voluntary contract” with all transsexuals before they can carry out a “rub down” or full body search.

And the rules add: “Procedures must be sensitive both to the needs of prisoners and staff and they must remain lawful in order to avoid potential litigation.”

Searches must be lawful? Outrageous!

Anyway, ignoring The Sun‘s mix-up of male and female here, once again all the guidelines actually do is clarify that someone who is legally a woman should be treated like, well, a woman. Since for reasons that should be reasonably obvious, male officers can’t strip search female prisoners, all women must be searched by female officers. It’s not something they “can demand” but a statutory requirement (which means the guidelines go into detail about what effect gender recognition certificates have).

More importantly though, what the guidelines make clear is that it’s important that the prison guards and the prisoner agree if possible, and that the search is carried out with reasonable sensitivity – exactly the same as how a cisgender prisoner should be treated. In other words, trans prisoners receive (at least in theory) the same treatment as everyone else. The Sun and The Mail apparently have a big problem with this.

* “Sex swap”, incidentally, is one of Trans Media Watch’s inappropriate or offensive words to avoid.

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All or nothing

Metro and The Daily Express today reheat a Telegraph article from a few days ago on latest sentencing statistics, which reveal that in 2008 the maximum sentence for burglary was not used. For some reason, the papers consider this a major news story, and some sort of damning sign of a weak justice system.

The maximum sentence for burglary is 14 years – no matter how you look at it, 14 years of someone’s life is an incredibly long time – and is set aside for only the most extreme cases. After all, if most burglars were being given the maximum sentence, what do you give the even more extreme ones?

The Express goes further, with the headline “10,000 burglars get light sentences”, which quite plainly isn’t true. The 10,000 figure is the total number of burglaries committed last year, so that would mean every single burglar got a light sentence. The CPS recommends a bare minimum of 9 months – and even then, only for first time offenders who didn’t use force and stole from an empty building – and while 9 months isn’t incredibly severe, even that’s barely “light”. A repeat offender or someone who targets the elderly will get in excess of 4 years, and case law recommends 8.

There are a long list of aggravating factors given by the CPS – targeting vulnerable people, vandalism, professional planning, racial motivation, the use of force, injury caused to the victim, and so on. It seems unlikely that most burglaries will involve all or most of these, which is presumably why maximum sentences are rare. Since I’m not a lawyer, I can’t say for certain whether perhaps someone should have been given the maximum sentence last year, but from a statistical point of view, it’s perfectly reasonable that no-one would get a full 14 year sentence.

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