Public discourse about crime is saturated with metaphor. Increases in the prevalence of crime are described as crime waves, surges or sprees. A spreading crime problem is a crime epidemic, plaguing a city or infecting a community. Crimes themselves are attacks in which criminals prey on unsuspecting victims. And criminal investigations are hunts where criminals are tracked and caught. Such metaphorical language pervades not only discourse about crime, but nearly all talk about the abstract and complex [4]–[5]. Are such metaphors just fancy ways of talking, or do they have real consequences for how people reason about complex social problems like crime?

“Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning” by Thibodeau PH, Boroditsky L, PLoS ONE, vol. 6, no.2, 2011, PDF (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016782)

I found this article while reading a recent post by Alexis Madrigal over at The Atlantic: “Why Are Spy Researchers Building a ‘Metaphor Program’?” (May 25, 2011). The Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity (IARPA) is funding an important research program aimed at understanding what people think by studying how they use metaphors. Here’s the official synopsis for what is called the “Metaphor Program”:

The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture. In the first phase of the two-phase program, performers will develop automated tools and techniques for recognizing, defining and categorizing linguistic metaphors associated with target concepts and found in large amounts of native-language text. The resulting conceptual metaphors will be validated using empirical social science methods. In the second phase, the program will characterize differing cultural perspectives associated with case studies of the types of interest to the Intelligence Community. Performers will apply the methodology established in the first phase and will identify the conceptual metaphors used by the various protagonists, organizing and structuring them to reveal the contrastive stances. (read more)

But why exactly should metaphors be studied? What’s the interest for the “Intelligence Community”? Alexis Madrigal:

But what IARPA’s project calls for is the deployment of spy resources against an entire language. Where you or I might parse a sentence, this project wants to parse, say, all the pages in Farsi on the Internet looking for hidden levers into the consciousness of a people.

“The study of language offers a strategic opportunity for improved counterterrorist intelligence, in that it enables the possibility of understanding of the Other’s perceptions and motivations, be he friend or foe,” the two authors of Computational Methods for Counterterrorism wrote. “As we have seen, linguistic expressions have levels of meaning beyond the literal, which it is critical to address. This is true especially when dealing with texts from a high-context traditionalist culture such as those of Islamic terrorists and insurgents.”

It reminded me of coded messages broadcast by Radio Londres to the French Resistance during World War Two: “Les sanglots longs / Des violons / De l’automne / Blessent mon cœur / D’une langueur / Monotone.” (from a poem by Paul Verlaine). I wonder what a computer could do with that. See Wikipedia: “Radio Londres”.
IARPA is a “United States research agency under the Director of National Intelligence’s responsibility” (see Wikipedia)

• • •

Speaking of “crime epidemic”, some criminologists are having a hard time explaining new statistics recently released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation: the Bureau registered an average decrease in the number of violent crimes reported:

According to the FBI’s Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report released today, the nation experienced a 5.5 percent decrease in the number of violent crimes and a 2.8 percent decline in the number of property crimes in 2010 when compared with data from 2009. The report is based on information the FBI gathered from 13,007 law enforcement agencies that submitted six to 12 comparable months of data for both 2009 and 2010. (FBI National Press Office: “FBI Releases Preliminary Annual Crime Statistics for 2010”)

Apparently, some crime expert were expecting an increase due the financial crisis which shook the country recently:

The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years, a development that was considered puzzling partly because it ran counter to the prevailing expectation that crime would increase during a recession. (The New York Times: “Steady Decline in Major Crime Baffles Experts” by Richard A. Oppel, May 23, 2011)

[UPDATE – May 31, 2011] See also The Wall Street Journal: “Hard Times, Fewer Crimes” by James Q. Wilson, May 28, 2011. Excerpt:

When the FBI announced last week that violent crime in the U.S. had reached a 40-year low in 2010, many criminologists were perplexed. It had been a dismal year economically, and the standard view in the field, echoed for decades by the media, is that unemployment and poverty are strongly linked to crime. The argument is straightforward: When less legal work is available, more illegal “work” takes place.
The economist Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, a Nobel laureate, gave the standard view its classic formulation in the 1960s. He argued that crime is a rational act, committed when the criminal’s “expected utility” exceeds that of using his time and other resources in pursuit of alternative activities, such as leisure or legitimate work. Observation may appear to bear this theory out. After all, neighborhoods with elevated crime rates tend to be those where poverty and unemployment are high as well.
But there have long been difficulties with the notion that unemployment causes crime. For one thing, the 1960s, a period of rising crime, had essentially the same unemployment rate as the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period when crime fell. And during the Great Depression, when unemployment hit 25%, the crime rate in many cities went down.

Previously on Aphelis: Metaphors


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