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Opportunities have to be perceived and are contingent on expected and unexpected events
This blog post is based on a heretical presentation of ideas that I gave in Calgary, Canada, at the conference of the International CPTED (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design) association (see: Sutton October 2015).
In both the now published CPTED presentation and in this blog post, I present arguments for why one of the most popular and often quoted explanations for crime is nothing but easily debunked nonsense on stilts. There - I said it. But why? Why take such heresy into the heart of the Internationational CPTED association, whose membership (quite a few of them at least) was known before my presentation of October 2015 to believe in the stilt- bourne nonsense that I am about to ridicule?
The Monty Python team have a thought-provoking line in one of their comedy sketches that 'no one expects the Spanish Inquisition'. The joke being that the 'fear and surprise' arrival of the Inquisition and all their devices of torture should be an expected contingency for anyone writing heresy at the time of the Inquisition.Yet heretics, writing and sharing heretical ideas, at that time, seemed not to expect the reasonably foreseeable arrival of the Roman Catholic Church's dreaded 'establishment' men. Otherwise, if they expected the Spanish Inquisition to respond to their heresy, why on Earth did they dare to write the heresy? They were either ludicrously brave or else stupid. Is there much difference?
For my part, I fully expect the arrival of the Administrative Criminological Inquisition. Perhaps they will arrive in white scientist coats rather than Pythonesque red cloaks - being self-proclaimed "Crime Scientists" and all?
Well, bring it on I say because I intend to first torture them and their pseudo-scientific ideas with logic and painfully disconfirming facts. I'm not sure whether that makes me brave or stupid. What I think is that my arguments are potentially capable of overcoming the guardianship of nonsense by those who promote so-called 'crime opportunity theory'. But it's never over until it's over. Perhaps my capabilities as a heretical offender against the orthodoxy of "Crime Opportunity Theory" are not as superior as I perceive them to be. And it is this very issue of perceived - as opposed to intrinsic superiority that I explore in this blog post.
A RAT Torture Kit, Comprising an Assortment of Painfully Disconfirming Facts, Analogous Explanatory Jokes and Real Crime Case Studies
An opportunity cannot exist for you unless you personally perceive it as the coming together of a set of fortunate or otherwise potentially beneficial circumstances/events upon which you can choose to act.
So the entire definition of a personal opportunity is based on the premise that benefits and a person's (or animals/plants) capabilities to secure them are in some way perceived by them. And perceived opportunities are always subject to expected or unexpected beneficial or detrimental contingencies.
Where opportunities for criminal acts are concerned, there are no forgone conclusions, at least not outside the pages of the Routine Activities Theory literature on the topic.
Where crime is concerned, a potential offender can have a pre-crime accident, get injured or otherwise thwarted during a criminal attempt. The capabilities of any guardian can never be fixed (known) in advance of a crime happening. Even the Little Piggy in the house made of sticks might have leaped out of his demolished home at the very last minute and poked the Big Bad Wolf in the eye with a broken twig. Check out the hundreds of newspaper stories of have-a-go heroes if you doubt this. My criticism along these lines is included by my colleague Roger Hopkins Burke 2014 within the pages of his excellent best-selling text book "Explaining Criminological Theory" - pp.69-70). Similarly, Critical Criminologists Jeff Ferrell, Keith Haywood and Jock Young provide criminologists with my no punches pulled criticism of what's wrong with RATortunity (Ferrell, Hayward and Young 2015, pp 69-70) in the second edition of their excellent book Cultural Criminology: An Invitation. Furthermore, as yet another editorially peer-reviewed and in-print source for those looking for scholarly sources to cite these ideas, my original explanation for why the RAT notion of opportunity (Ratortunity) is a mere truism masquerading as causality is published in a peer-reviewed essay in the Springer Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice (here).
Felson's Routine Activity Theory's (RAT's) crime opportunity theorem - being no more than an accurate and elegant description of a successfully completed crime - is, in fact, nothing at all like a pre-crime opportunity, at least not in the physical world above spooky physics operating at the sub-atomic level where - weirdly- the future can influence the past.
Copyright Dr Mike Sutton Dyslogy.org 2012Used only with express written permission
The Classic RAT Crime Event as Used to Underpin Crime Opportunity Theory Notion Of the Elements in the Crime Opportunity
It is the claimed 'absence of a capable guardian' (Felson and Boba 2010, p. 47) that means the so-called 'likely offender', in any 'crime opportunity' situation described by Felson's Routine Activities Theory, must be considered by Felson, relative to guardianship capabilities in the 'opportunity' situation', to be known to exist intrinsically in the pre-crime 'opportunity' as a capable offender. Felson and Boba 2010, p. 47):
'...3. 'A criminal act has three elements almost always present: a likely offender, a suitable personal or property target, and the absence of a capable guardian against a crime.
4. The crime triangle illustrates the relationship amongst offender, target, place and time and mechanisms that can influence crime opportunities, handlers, guardians and managers.'
I imagine Marcus Felson sitting down and congratulating himself that his RATortunity (Routine Activities Theory - Crime Opportunity theorem) explanation for crime is always right, because even when an offender fails she has still committed the crime of attempt, and so proven that she was capable of the crime of attempt and that guardianship was absent because an intrinsically capable guardian was absent or else there was a person or thing present, besides the offender, that was intrinsically incapable of preventing the offence. Even champion cage fighters - proven on video to be capable of flooring and concussing two troublesome youths in a flash - are also proven incapable guardians against the young protagonist who punched one in the face first for being dressed like a woman (watch the video).The protagonist, along with one of his young friends, was sentenced to a four-month community order after being found guilty of affray. He was also electronically tagged under a curfew order. The cage fighter drag queens went on to enjoy their party with a 10-strong group of similarly - according to Felson's theorem of crime opportunity - "incapable guardian" cage fighters who were all out on the town together for a good time in fancy-dress.
So all encompassing and 'always right' is the Ratortunity description of a completed crime, it perfectly describes the essential components of a successful break-in by a burglar as well as the crime of undue force when the burglary victim householder (e.g. Tony Martin) - an "incapable guardian of his home against the burglar's forced entry" - turns the tables and criminally victimises the burglar by being capable of shooting him dead once he gained entry! Thus, Ratortunity describes in turn, the capable burglar's incapable guardianship of his life!
The point of using these real life case studies being, that the reason Ratortunity is always right, even when the offender tries but comes off worse, or fails altogether, is not because Felson's notion of a 'crime opportunity' is a wonderfully brilliant water-tight explanation; it being so incapable of being refuted. Not at all. Because, counterintuitively, the fact is that good explanations must be capable of being refuted. And if they cannot potentially be refuted then they are not explanations, they are merely accurate descriptions of what needs to be explained. The reason Felson's Ratortunity theorem is always right - one way or the other - is because it is merely an accurate and elegant, after the event, description of the essential components of any completed crime.
Descriptions of things, if they are accurate, cannot be refuted. Moreover, mere descriptions of things - no matter how correctly precise and elegant they might be - cannot explain the things they merely describe and they most certainly cannot predict them in advance of their coming into being.
Always expect the unexpected until the crime is completed
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Unexpected Contingent Event: Pig Eats Wolf!
Consider the possibility that the fairytale wolf coming down the chimney in the house made of bricks could have spotted the boiling water (turpentine in the Disney version) and braced his legs above it, bounded over it and ate the piggy. The 'house of bricks' Little Piggy's guardianship capabilities and the Big Bad Wolf's offender capabilities can never be known (fixed) in advance as the RAT crime opportunity model has it. This is so, because they do not exist in a fixed position, like a mountain or a home, until the crime is completed (including the crime of criminal attempt). Similarly, outside of the imaginary land of fairytales, criminal opportunities cannot exist unless perceived and are contingent on both the expected and unexpected. If you doubt this then just consider the numerous cases of burglars getting stuck down chimneys - or alternatively - thieves being lethally electrocuted trying to steal copper cable. The latter being a huge problem regarding loss of human life throughout the world after copper prices skyrocketed some years ago. .
(C) Dr Mike Sutton. Crimes Ink. Foxed Books. Used only with express written permission
Crime: You never quite know what will happen until its happened
Felson's paradigm of crime opportunity is a mere description of the data of a successfully completed crime or completed attempt. Descriptions can not explain themselves. For that, we need a testable hypothesis that is either right or wrong. Felson's theory is a mere truism masquerading as causality.
Just as even the most accurate elegant description of a fossilized dinosaur found in the geological strata cannot explain why it is there, neither can Felson's RAT model of opportunity explain successful crimes, failed criminal attempts and prevented crimes.
To explain dinosaurs we have Patrick Matthew's theory of macro organic evolution by natural selection (the one that it is heretical to reveal Darwin plagiarized - see Sutton 2014, and Sutton 2014a, and then lied about its readership Sutton 2015). To explain crimes in terms of opportunities, we need a similarly potentially refutable and - if refuted - hard to vary theory as Matthew's (1831) 'natural process of selection' .
Felson's theorem will not do as a causal explanation for crimes, because it is not refutable. It's impossible to refute because it's a mere truism in the form of a mere description.
In terms of the potential of a real theory - e.g. natural selection - to be refuted, we need find only one case of (for example) a human in the strata below a dinosaur. That means the idea of Natural Selection has an intrinsically bold ability to be easily refuted. That potential vulnerability to facts is what makes it such a powerful theory and (so far) good explanation for all life on Earth. The fact Felson's theorem cannot be empirically tested and refuted by disconfirming facts is what makes it of so little use as an explanation for crime. In fact, that is exactly what makes it pseudo-scientific according to Popper's (1963 reformulation of his original 1919) thinking.
- It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory — if we look for confirmations.
- Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory — an event which would have refuted the theory.
- Every "good" scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.
- A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.
- Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.
- Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of "corroborating evidence.")
- Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers — for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status. (I later described such a rescuing operation as a "conventionalist twist" or a "conventionalist stratagem.")
In addition to the fact that it is pseudo-scholarly by nature of being intrinsically incapable of being refuted with disconfirming evidence for it, the fact that Felson's Ratortunity theorem is not actually an opportunity at all is what makes calling it one all the more completely absurd.
The fact that it is pseudo-scientific, arguably, makes those who argue that Ratortunity is a causal explanation for crime weird believers in such an absurdity having value in predicting and reducing crime problems (e.g Tilley and Laycock 2002).
A barrier to more effective crime reduction knowledge progression has been thrown up by two immensely popular criminology theories/approaches: Situational Crime Prevention (SCP) and Routine Activities Theory (RAT). The problem is caused by the policy-oriented popularity of SCP and RAT that is likely due in no small part to their simplistic and easily comprehendible, compelling, yet ultimately illogical weird focus upon describing the data of crime in ever more complex ways so that simple truisms about the scenes of successfully completed crimes and failed attempts (crimes of attempting to commit a crime) are placed in the spotlight and presented as a root cause of crime. Felson's simplistic notion of opportunity is, in fact, merely the very data that a true, testable, theory of causation could explain.
Click here to read my longer online article that explains why.
Crimes Ink and Co. Foxed Books. Dysology.com (C) All rights reserved.Used only with express written permission
Expect the Unexpected and it Becomes the Expected Unexpectancy
if opportunity knocks and you don't hear it then it's not an opportunity for you. Meanwhile, above the quantum level - where the future cannot affect the past through spooky wave-particle physics, Ratortunity neither predicts nor explains anything. Instead, it simply describes the essential qualities present and absent in completed crime events.
As I said in the introduction, this blog post is based on a presentation I gave to the International CPTED association in Calgary, Canada, this month (Sutton 2015). In that presentation, as in this blog post, I use jokes about quantum physics, the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs and Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition sketches to make some analogous arguments. Apparently, that's not such a bad thing, because Ludwig Wittgenstein once told Norman Malcolm that "A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes" (Malcolm 2001 pp.27-28). I think it might serve the world well to try that for several cases where orthodox knowledge is based entirely on punctured myths.
When your current paradigm rests solely on a punctured myth don't you then know that it's surely time for a new one?
From the responses that I've received from some already, I'm sure that quite a few other so-called and self-styled 'crime scientists' and other adherents of the RAT notion of crime opportunity being a causal explanation for different crimes will consider it an act of heresy for me to write this peer-to-peer blog post. So be it. Because, I'm opposed to completely biased and blind-belief-guru-worshipping members of pseudo-scholarly cults dressing up their work as sound scholarship. Instead, I try to abide by the ancient motto of the Royal Society: 'Nullius in Verba', which means 'on the word alone of no one'.
I wish to make the world a better place by ensuring that explanations for either human behavior or natural phenomena, and the history of the discovery and influence of ideas, are not based upon fallacies, punctured myths and absurdities. Consequently, I boldly conclude that if 'opportunity knocks' then 'Ratortunity sucks' as a causal explanation for any crimes. Logic, knowledge about good and bad explanations in science and criminal case studies all suggest Felson's 'Ratortunity' is nonsense on stilts. Accordingly, I hereby invite any who disagree to explain why they think I am wrong.
The comments section is below and it awaits such debate.
Copyright Dr Mike Sutton 2012Used only with express written permission