Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Church Safety

I was extremely disappointed in Time magazine for its November 30, 2009 article about church safety and crime. This article was two pages long, which is two too many. It is just more media shock sensationalism, preying on people's irrational fears and lack of understanding of prevalence and probability to get attention. Here is some perspective and context for the numbers that the magazine so irresponsibly presented as "a flurry of violent crimes".

# of murders in churches since 2008 as reported: 5
# of murders in 2006 (most recent year for complete data, CDC): 18,573
# of violent crimes in churches in 2009 (10 months): 40
# of violent crimes in 2006 in USA (DoJ): 5,858,840

If the average church visit lasts about an hour and a half (~1/6000 of a year), we see that the murder rate is about average, and the violent crime rate in churches is minuscule. When you factor in that many people staff and visit church beyond the weekly services, the relative rates of violence are even smaller. When we further examine the murders that did happen, two were going to happen regardless of the church setting (spurning wife and abortion provider), and the church was just convenient. The situation with the stabbed priest is a mystery, but the other shootout was some ignorant redneck who wanted revenge on liberals for his unemployment and targeted a Unitarian Universalist church. Bizarrely, Time doesn't specify the type of church, and continues on to say that a conservative Christian group reacted with polls of church security measures. As I discuss elsewhere, conservatives tend to be overly fearful and less able to usefully evaluate information. "Security experts" go on to talk about churches' vulnerability, but they stand to make money off of scared congregations, so their biased comments should be taken cautiously.

The article includes an anecdotal church in Houston that experienced many burglaries. Far, far from being representative of all churches, this story probably serves more as a warning for churches that sit in bad neighborhoods. If you're in an area riddled with drug addicts, you're going to get robbed whether you're a church or not.

This pathetic fear-mongering is shameful. There is no crime epidemic among churches, and churches are not at high risk for violence. I expected better from Time.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Determinants of Good Parenting

There was a decent Time article in the November 30th, 2009 issue about how "helicopter parents" need to chill out. The first page talks about how irrational it is that parents have become so intrusive and safety-conscious over the last couple decades despite drastic decreases in injuries and violent crime. What the article fails to address is the possibility that injuries and violent crime decreases BECAUSE parents have been more intrusive and safety-conscious. There is no evidence presented in the article of causality in either direction, nor of possible confounds that could explain both correlated phenomena. This is terrible and misleading writing.

The rest of the article is great. It correctly points out that parents have been generally irrational when it comes to risk evaluation. It is vastly more dangerous to drive your kid to school than to let him walk to the store alone. It is worse to take your kids to visit family than to let them eat Halloween candy that hasn't been x-rayed. The sensationalistic media has thoroughly confused people who do not understand or seek out real information about event probabilities.

Finally, the article references the Freakonomics authors Dubner and Levitt, who say that three of the biggest determinants of well-raised kids are: parental education, spouse selection, and waiting to have kids. This is also misleading.

There are very clear factors that contribute to all three of these variables and child-raising. As I write about repeatedly, people are on a continuum of what psychologists call "executive function", the abilities of the frontal lobe: planning, inhibition, predicting consequences, problem-solving. People at the low end (due to complex interactions between genetics and early experiences) are more impulsive and have trouble understanding information. These people are more likely to get pregnant early, do poorly in school, have rocky relationships, be hostile, etc.... Of course their children are raised poorly and have the same genetic predispositions and vulnerabilities, perpetuating a cycle that cannot be interrupted by visits to museums or reading books. Change has to come from long-term exposure to positive relationships with other people that provide models for security, patience, reflection, and compassion. This rarely happens, even when social services are involved, because impulsive ignorant people are often oppositional to services. These people drive away good spouses with hostility, and are more likely to end up in bad relationships due to impulsivity and a lack of understanding of options and the effects of their own behavior. There is a lot of believed futility because they lack exposure to positive behaviors and the ability to accurately evaluate behavior and consequences in general. These people are more inconsistent due to impulsivity, and authoritarian because they can't handle complexity.

People at the higher end of the continuum are more thoughtful, understanding, planning, and calm. They have better relationships because they are in the habit of engaging in intentional goal-oriented behavior that weighs probably consequences. They can think about people's feelings, including their own, and take effective action instead of relying on maladaptive impulsive reactions. They do better in school, are better at delaying/planning parenthood, and are more likely to raise their kids with compassion and productive interactions. They are more consistent with their kids, and less authoritarian.

The saddest part is that the bad parents tend to blame all of their children's failures and problems on the children, and refuse to accept their own roles in their children's development. They often refuse to change because they believe they do everything right. They tell schools and therapists to fix their kids, then blame everyone but themselves for the inevitable failures.

Don't worry so much about museums and reading books and whatnot. Just be a calm, patient, compassionate, responsive, thoughtful, empathetic, planning person, and the rest will tend to fall into place.