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Mike Sutton
Mike Sutton
Dr Mike Sutton is the author of 'Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret'.
Posted in Politics / Peace & Security

The Switching Point

Jan. 15, 2012 6:00 pm
Categories: Counterknowledge

I am glad to hear the good news today that the British Government is cracking down on the teaching of pseudoscientific creationist dogma. But, in order to be fair and consistent in its policy making, it really should clean up the embarrassing teaching, publication and other official dissemination of dogma worship and official recommendation that others ignore its own blind belief in logically fallacious claims and pseudoscience in the equally important fields of crime reduction and policing.

Pseudo Scientific Claims Underpin the Crime as Opportunity Premise Upon which a Great Deal of Current Government Crime Reduction Policy Making is Based.

The eminent philosopher of science, Karl Popper, insisted that real science must make predictions that are capable of being falsified. And yet those who claim that Crime Science is a real science base their knowledge on the Routine Activity Theory (RAT) premise of crime as opportunity. This premise is merely a truism, however, because its adherents weirdly insist that their notion of crime as opportunity incorporates Routine Activity Theory's (RAT's) three classic core components of the crime act, which are in turn peculiarly inseparable in the literature from RAT's notion of crime as opportunity (Felson 1986; Clarke 1984), which means the actual opportunity can only be known after the crime has been successfully carried out by (1) capable offenders – in the absence of (2) capable guardians to attain a (3) suitable target. It is a truism because any successful offender can only be known to be capable once they have succeeded, at which time guardianship can only be known to be incapable. How else could a crime have been successfully completed anyway?

Given that the weird criminological notion of opportunity (the coming together in time and place of suitable targets in the presence of capable and motivated offenders and the absence of capable guardianship) does not place any measurable and discoverable criteria on capability or guardianship it cannot be known in advance, which means it (as opposed to non-expert common sense intuitive guesswork) cannot be used to make falsifiable predictions.

The Crime as Opportunity - Opportunity Makes the Thief - Notion is a Logical Fallacy, Which Means it is Holding Back Knowledge Progression

According to Popper’s test of the difference between real science and pseudoscience Routine Activities Theory (RAT), Situational Crime Prevention Theory (SCP) and Crime Science (CS) are all based on pseudoscience, because they are all based on the illogical premise of the weird post-hoc criminological notion of opportunity as the most important cause of crime. Taken to its logical conclusion, the 'opportunity is a cause of crime' claim is in effect that every crime is the cause of itself, because all this weird notion of opportunity actually does is describe the essential elements that can only later be known to have been present at any successful contact-crime in commission. This makes the claim palpable nonsense, of course.

The logical fallacy of opportunity as a cause of crime can be seen in this papragraph written by Felson (1986). Note: the first and second sentence is proof that the opportunity and the successful crime act are treated as one and the same thing in RAT theory:

'To understand criminal opportunity, we need to know not only some of the decisions made by offenders, human targets, guardians, and handlers, but also the situations of their physical convergence as a result of these decisions, regardless of whether the decision makers know what we, as analysts, know. And we have to know the outcome. Was the offender wrong, missing a golden opportunity or committing a silly blunder? Did the getaway car stall or did the selected target trap him? Did the victim succeed by going through the day safe from crime, regardless of whether he or she thought about it? What choices on the part of a citizen produce an unplanned victimization and impair or assist guardianship of targets and handling of offenders? Indeed, a criminal situation is made possible by various decisions by those who set the stage for the convergence of the four minimal elements, however inadvertently. Any set of decisions that assembles a handled offender and a suitable target, in the absence of a capable guardian and intimate handler, will tend to be criminogenic. Conversely, any decision that prevents this convergence will impair criminal acts. Even though an offender may prefer to violate the law, his or her preference can be thwarted by the structure of decisions made by others, regardless of whether they know they are preventing a crime from occurring. In short, we cannot understand the rational structure of criminal behavior by considering the reasoning of only one actor in the system.'

Consider this also from Tilley and Laycock (2002) where successful completion of the crime is integral to their peculiar definition of 'opportunity':

"The most significant, and universal cause is, however, opportunity. If there were no opportunities there would be no crimes; the same cannot be said for any of the other contributory causes. In so far as opportunity creates criminality by rewarding those with low motivation with success in easily chosen and completed crime, it thus comprises a root cause - as one recent paper puts it, ‘Opportunity makes the thief‘ (Felson and Clarke, 1998)."

The US Government’s Department of Justice promotes this RAT, SCP and CS pseudoscience. As does the British Home Office.Unfortunately, this appears to have escaped the attention of motivated and capable critics. I am one motivated critic who hopes to be capable of having this embarrassing situation remedied soon. Two more detailed essays on this issue can be found on my Dysology website where I suggest that the rational way forward is to try to predict, and then try to falsify, what I call the crime switching point.

The switching point is a theoretical social and economic intersection where demand for something (e.g. scrap copper) interacts with current, or predictably potential, offender motivation and capabilities to the extent that previously capable guardianship becomes predictably incapable. Identifying the switching point would enable us for the first time to explain, predict and seek to prevent crime waves before they happen, rather than merely describing them after it is too late.

Last week, on the 13th of January 2012, a British ITN news journalist emailed me to ask whether I thought it was peculiarly risky that the multi-story car park being built for Nottingham's railway station in England is being clad in huge decorative copper panels given that thieves are already going to great lengths and have now started taking risks stealing live copper cables - particularly from railways. My answer was that even as a foremost expert on stolen goods markets I have no idea what the real risk is that the panels will be stolen in six months time or 16 months time. To my embarrassment, I explained, I have no idea what increased risk there might possibly be if the panels were made of solid gold. This is because current criminological knowledge only allows us to hazard no more than an intuitive common sense guess of what the qualitative extent of the risk might be. Shameless pontificating guesswork by so called crime experts would actually be no more expertly informed by real knowledge than a guess that anyone else might come up with. Whilst expert criminologists and crime scientists can be wise after the event and explain why copper panels were stolen, they cannot tell you what the predictive likelihood is that they will be stolen. I would like to be able to answer the journalist’s question one day with real expert knowledge that has been tested in the field. To have a chance of doing that we need to discover what the switching point is.


If the criminological notion of opportunity as a cause of crime was true then armed with it we would have been able to predict several years ago that thieves would today be getting electrocuted by stealing live copper wire that they had previously chosen to leave well alone (even though it has always been a valuable scrap metal). But no Crime Scientist or any other administrative criminologist (myself included) is currently (no pun intended) able to do so.

As I see it, therefore, the RAT trinity crime as opportunity theory has merely shone a spotlight on a truism and dressed it up with unnecessary complexity to fool us all into thinking that it is a causal explanation, that, logically, it cannot be, as our own failure to use it to predict any kind of crime wave establishes.


Felson, M (1986) Linking Criminal Choices, Routine Activities, Informal Control, and Criminal Outcomes (P 119-128, In Cornish, D. B. and Clarke, R.V. (eds). The Reasoning Criminal. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Clarke, R. V. (1984) Opportunity-Based Crime Rates: The Difficulties of Further Refinement. Brtish Journal of Criminology. Vol. 24. No1. pp. 74-83

Tilley, N. and Laycock, G. (2002). Working out what to do: Evidence based crime reduction. Crime Reduction Series Paper 11. London Home Office

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