Solving Real Crimes with TV Methods, It Had to Happen Sooner or Later!

Some time ago, I came across this story on GoogleReader. Apparently, medical students at the University of Alberta were doing intubations incorrectly, but exactly as they had seen them done on … wait for it … television, on ER to be exact. (FYI, ER finished a fantastically-successful and critically-acclaimed run, covering 15 years, a while back and has been off network television in the U.S. for some time.)

More recently, Scientific American published a story entitled, “Fighting Crime with Math” with the subtitle, “Scientists at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science presented a mathematical model to predict criminal behavior and police success.” In case you don’t recognize the TV tie-in, there is a current TV show–a show that I actually quite enjoy–that follows the exploits of an übergeek mathematician as he helps the FBI solve crimes with math. (Does anyone else hear Thomas Dolby playing in the background? Science!) The name of the show is NUMB3RS. Catchy, right? As I admitted, I watch the show regularly. I enjoy seeing geeks kick butt. The hero even has an equally-super-smart and beautiful girlfriend. Yahtzee! (Yes, I’m a recovering TV-holic and an unrepentant geek. Don’t judge me.)

Despite my soft-spot for math geeks, it absolutely shocks me that this approach gets serious discussion. The Scientific American article states:

A subcritical hot spot, like a large neighborhood drug market, can be effectively suppressed [by police action] according to the model. [This is] because this sort of hot spot requires complex organization and is not easily re-established even after police pressure is relaxed.

Anyone who understands that drugs, and almost any other flavor of contraband, freely flow into prisons and many other areas of “intense police presence” sees this assertion for the lunacy that it is. In fact, if it were true that complex organizations could be eradicated by intense police pressure, the war on (some) drugs should have been over long ago. The Mafia would be an urban legend. The Wire would never have made it to television!

The laws of supply and demand, interacting with self-interest, choice, and human action, determine what will and won’t happen, regardless of the intensity of police action. When people are engaged in an activity that is a vice–not a crime–and they know it, no amount mathematical modeling should be used to predict that more coercion will make them stop.


4:48 pm on February 22, 2010