Neurocriminology is a hot topic. From Isabella Bannerman, recently published in the Six Chix series:
From Peter Nichols, "Body of Evidence: Neurocriminologist Probes the Biology of Crime", recently published in Penn Arts & Sciences magazine:
In the mid-19th century, Italian physician Cesare Lombroso was doing an autopsy on Giuseppe Villella, a notorious brigand who’d spent years in the prisons of Pavia. Peering into the dead criminal’s skull case, Lombroso thought it resembled the crania of “inferior animals,” particularly rodents. “At the sight of that skull,” he wrote, “I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal.”
Often credited as the father of criminology, Lombroso hypothesized that violent behavior could be explained by cranial, skeletal or neurological deformities. Some people were just “born criminal,” he reasoned. Biological malformations—“stigmata” he called them — suggested that lawbreakers were throwbacks to an earlier, more brutish stage in human evolution.
“He was fascinated by the idea that there was a biological brain difference between criminals and the rest of us,” notes neurocriminologist Adrian Raine. From that day on, Lombroso took careful measurements of faces, jaws, heights, weights and other physical traits to gather data in support of what he called his “revelation.” […]
“Lombroso’s theories sound a bit ridiculous to us,” Raine comments, “but in a way he was right.” With the emergence of new and powerful imaging technologies, scientists can see detailed pictures of the brain and trace activity along its neural networks. “The brain was forgotten until neuroscience techniques evolved to a level where we could, for the first time, really look at brain structure and function,” he says. “And from then on, we found that there’s certainly a brain basis to crime—that the brains of violent criminals are physically and functionally different from the rest of us.”
We're a long way from thinking-of-parking tickets. But if it's really true that "the brains of violent criminals are physically and functionally different from the rest of us", it's logical to ask whether some sort of diagnosis and mandatory treatment is appropriate.
As I understand it, the American legal system doesn't in general permit us to directly criminalize a mere statistical disposition towards criminal behavior. However, there seem to be several cases where something very much like this has happened in matters of public health (like mandatory treatment of tuberculosis or the involuntary commitment of lepers) and in sentencing for certain types of crime (like "Megan's Law" registration and tracking of sex offenders).
I don't know much about this, and would appreciate historical, legal and philosophical instruction from those who do. But the topic of this blog is linguistics, not legal theory or moral philosophy, and so my point is a linguistic one. I propose a voluntary ban on the use of generic plurals to express statistical differences, especially in talking to the general public about scientific results in areas with public policy implications.
In other words, when we're looking at some property P of two groups X and Y, and a study shows that the distribution of P in X is different from the distribution of P in Y to an extent that is unlikely to be entirely the result of chance, we should avoid explaining this to the general public by saying "X's have more P than Y's", or "X's and Y's differ in P", or any other form of expression that uses generic plurals to describe a generic difference.
This would lead us to avoid statements like "men are happier than women", or "boys don't respond to sounds as rapidly as do girls", or "Asians have a more collectivist mentality than Europeans do" — or "the brains of violent criminals are physically and functionally different from the rest of us". At least, we should avoid this way of talking about the results of scientific investigations.
The reason? Most members of the general public don't understand statistical-distribution talk, and instead tend to interpret such statements as expressing general (and essential) properties of the groups involved. This is especially true when the statements express the conclusions of an apparently authoritative scientific study, rather than merely someone's personal opinion, which is easy to discount.
Now, there are obviously cases where group differences rise to the level where generic plurals are appropriate. Is one of those cases the distribution of anatomical and physiological differences in the brains of criminals? I invite you to read Adrian Raine, "The biological basis of crime" (in Wilson and Petersilia (Eds), Crime: Public Policies for Crime Control, 2002) and decide for yourself. I'll give you my opinion in another post.