January 17, 2008

Crime fears hijack science, make people sick

Crime calls forth so many emotions. Fascination. Horror. Anxiety. But probably most of all, fear.

Fear is a powerful emotion. In deft hands, it can drive public policy and create laws that engender more fear and more laws, in an escalating spiral.

In part due to this spiral, the crime-fighting industry has grown staggeringly. It's big business around the world. And that, of course, leads to - what else? - more fear of crime. The cult of crime dominates not only government, the news media and the entertainment industries but, increasingly, the fields of science and technology.

Indeed, one could argue that science and technology are being hijacked away from other, more productive ventures by the relentless focus on crime. Let's go to England for a couple examples of this.

"SmartWater" is a perfect example.

SmartWater a high-tech crime-fighting solution prominent in the UK. A special sprinkler sprays intruders with an invisible fluid containing a unique code connecting the crook to that specific location. At present, 15,000 homes and 117 schools in the town of Doncaster are armed with SmartWater. Think about the scientific resources that went into developing this tool.

Here's a fun fact: Three out of four criminals surveyed said they wouldn't break into a building if they saw the SmartWater logo on display.

I'm not kidding. This is from an actual study, done by a criminology researcher at the University of Leicester in England. How’s that for free advertising?

Microchip implants?

More controversial than SmartWater is the British plan to reduce prison overcrowding and keep track of sex offenders by injecting microchip tracking devices like those used on dogs, cats and cattle into the arms of offenders. One company plans deeper implants that could administer electroshock, broadcast messages, or even serve as microphones to transmit conversations.

Now, think about how society might benefit if -- instead of being diverted to high-tech crime-busting tools like these -- all of this money and scientific expertise was rechanneled to, say, innovative ways of combating heart disease.

Why heart disease?

Well, all roads leading back to Rome, it turns out that fear of crime may actually cause heart disease.

That's the finding from a study published last week in the Archives of General Psychiatry. The researchers found that people who worried most about terrorism in the wake of 9/11 were way more likely than the rest of us to develop cardiovascular illness.

No matter that their chance of dying at the hands of international terrorists is about the same as the risk of being struck by an asteroid or, heaven forbid, drowning in a toilet.

Click here to watch a video of the lead researcher in the terrorism study, Alison Holman of the University of California at Irvine, discussing the findings. John Tierney, a science writer for the New York Times, has more to say here about how the "terrorism industry" distorts risks. More links on fear of terrorism are here.

Photo credit: IZ, "Industry of Fear" (Creative Commons license)