Data in Everyday Life – The Curious Case of Correlation, Causation, and Crime: Part 1

– by Kaetlyn Phillips

Recently, I was on vacation where I listened to the excellent podcast “If Books Could Kill,” specifically their episode on the book The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. The book, published in 2011, explores why violence has decreased worldwide over time and posits reasons for why the decline has occurred. The book suggests that violence decreased as humans (although his work focuses primarily on Western Europe and western/colonial worldview in North America) became more empathetic through exposure to education, democracy, wealth, and social norms. The podcast discusses valid critiques of the book and most importantly discusses why it is difficult to discuss how and why societies change. It’s worth a listen.

Looking beyond the book, what stuck with me is the general messiness of trying to determine historical cause and effect. In short, explaining past historical change is incredibly difficult because we cannot clearly explain causation, as there are often multiple factors and variables that influence the change. As well, there are also numerous correlations and it’s difficult to determine how much influence the correlation had on the historical change.

A quick review. When we consider causation, we are looking at the relationship between cause and effect and trying to identify how variables influence outcomes. Through experimentation, we can determine causation by isolating a specific variable and measuring the effect on another variable. If we have too many variables, we can’t determine causation because we don’t know which variable is causing the outcome and the strength of the variable. So, instead we have correlations, which measure the relationships between two variables. We can’t determine cause and effect, but we can determine the strength of the relationship between the two variables. There’s a lot of experimentation and data analysis required to determine causation and there’s specific formulas to measure correlations.

But, here’s the thing, humans are hardwired to identify patterns, are superstitious, have loads of biases and worldviews influencing our thoughts, and generally like simple explanations for complex issues, so it’s easy for us to think two variables are in a causal relationship when they are, in fact, a correlation. The other issue is properly studying a large cultural trend often requires time and distance from the trend to properly get the scope of factors. As more time goes by there’s potential data loss, we need to consider the data collection methods (the eternal question of “Who is being counted and why?”), and determine potential biases.

So with that in mind, let’s look at one of the example from recent history: the Crime Drop of the 1990s. The U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand all reported large drops in violent crimes throughout the 1990s. I’m going to cherry pick my three favourite theories for the Crime Drop and in Part 2 of this post, we’ll look at why these theories are an appealing explanation, but also why they don’t work as stand alone theories. If you’d like detailed resources on all the theories, check out these articles (these are focused primarily on the American crime drop):

Theories to be discussed in Part 2:

  1. The Lead Reduction Theory – Starting in the 1970s, more efforts were made to reduce the amount of lead in gasoline, paint, and water pipes. Lead exposure is pretty dangerous to humans (here’s a great video from YouTuber Veritasium on the dangers of lead exposure) and is known to cause cognitive decline and increase aggressive behaviour. The reduction of lead exposure in children born after 1975 (said children hitting the peak age for criminal behaviour in the 1990s) would mean they had better cognitive function wouldn’t have wanted to commit crimes.
  2. The Abortion Theory – In 2004, Steven D. Levitt (author of Freakonomics) proposed that access to legal abortions in the 1970s in the US meant that less unwanted children were born and less children were exposed to neglect, abuse, or poor environments; therefore, less children would be exposed to environments and conditions that correlate with criminality.
  3. The Technology is Keeping Us Inside Theory – New technologies including televisions, gaming consoles, cell phones, and the internet mean more people are staying inside for entertainment purposes; therefore, creating less potential victims and offenders on the street.

    Blind Date With a Book Contest Winners

    Congratulations to the 2024 “Blind Date with a Book” Contest winners: Maitri Shah, Irene Zadnik and (pictured here) Jessica Singh.

    A total of 83 individuals borrowed 123 “Blind Dates.” Contest participants rated their date for a chance to win the prize pack donated by the University of Regina Press and the poetry book “Earth Skin” by Peace Akintade.

    Thank you Peace Akintade for sharing the power of your poetry!

    Black History Month Author Talk

    Last Thursday, February 22nd, the African-Canadian poet, public speaker and playwright Peace Akintade-Oluwagbeye presented an author talk at the Archer Library. She read from her book Earth Skin, a poetry collection about the joys and woes of human connection, as well as spoke with Archer Library Librarian Mary Chipanshi.

    Akintade’s talk was presented as part of Black History Month 2024.

    Cyanotype Photography Display

    Students in Risa Horowitz’s cyanotype photography course are displaying their artworks in two cabinets at the Dr. John Archer Library and Archives main floor computer commons. It is a living installation and will be added to and changed throughout the semester.

    For the first installation, students used specimens from the George F. Ledingham Herbarium. With the facilitation of Associate Dean Dr. Mel Hart, of the Faculty of Science, students were able to peruse through and borrow specimens not yet formally accessioned. The Herbarium was established in 1945 and has tens of thousands of specimens from Saskatchewan and beyond. Dr. Hart also loaned students some marine invertebrate specimens, which are featured in some of the works on display.

    The cyanotypes in this installation are almost all cameraless photographs. The chemistry is applied to paper with a brush, and once dried, specimens are placed in direct contact with the paper and exposed under ultraviolet light. Flat specimens can be held in close contact using glass, giving sharp edges to the images. Dimensional specimens can not be flattened with glass, and the light bounces around the objects giving less sharp edges that appear like shadows or movement.

    Check out students’ individual blog posts to read more details about their specific works:

    Featuring the works of: Elizabeth Dow, Florence Duesterbeck, James Hall, Nico Inocalla, Johnathan Jones, Rose Molina, Jayden Thompson, Rhylynn Wahl​, Dr. Mel Hart and Professor Risa Horowitz.​ With special thanks to Dr. Hart, Michael Shires and Jason Cawood for their partnership and facilitation.

    Archer Book Club – February 2024

    The next Archer Book Club selection is E. M. Forster’s classic love story Maurice. Join us for an engaging discussion of this book on February 28th at 12 noon, hosted by the Archer Library’s Jennifer Hall.

    Zoom details and more info on this month’s selection can be found here:

    For those who are interested, the Archer Library also has the 1987 Merchant/Ivory film adaptation of the novel via the Criterion-On-Demand database. Just do a search for “Maurice” using our Quick Find search engine.

    White Feather: Intergenerational Stories Past, Present & Future

    For Indigenous people, storytelling is both a gift, and a very old custom, used to teach, entertain, and remember. Since 2004, the Library Services for Saskatchewan Aboriginal Peoples (LSSAP) Committee has coordinated Saskatchewan Aboriginal Storytelling Month. Through the month of February, storytelling events are held by libraries and their partners in communities throughout Saskatchewan. Find more information about LSSAP’s Aboriginal Storytelling Program here.

    Join Sundance Robson at the Shumiatcher Open Stage on February 15 at 6:30 pm for a captivating narrative and sound immersion experience. The event is titled White Feather: Intergenerational Stories Past, Present & Future and is free and open to the public. Sundance is a band member of Peguis First Nation and is a co-founder of Sacred Compass Journey in Regina SK and is a sacred sound facilitator. More information about the White Feather event is at

    Tales From The End Of The Earth

    You won’t want to miss Tales From The End of the Earth, a symposium on March 6th, 2024, at the Archer Library. This even will include a presentation of the 2002 book Antarctica by the photographers and publishers, Pat and Rosemarie Keough. They will share their experiences while visiting the continent over a two-year period which resulted in the stunning photographs found in their celebrated book.

    There will also be presentations about the polar regions from University of Regina faculty members Lindsey French, Dr. Risa Horowitz, Dr. Samantha Lawler & Dr. Karla McManus.

    Aboriginal Storytelling Month 2024

    February is Aboriginal Storytelling Month, and the Archer Library and Archives is pleased to be a co-presenter of White Feather: Intergenerational Stories Past, Present & Future, on Feb. 15th, 2024, featuring Sundance Robson. This year the event will be in the Shumiatcher Open Stage, Riddell Centre, University of Regina. Admission is free.\

    RCMP Quarterly Digitized Collection

    The Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN) and the Dr. John Archer Library and Archives are pleased to announce that approximately 200 issues of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Quarterly (RCMP Quarterly) dating from 1933 to 2000 have been added to the Canadiana collection. The collection was digitized and made available by CRKN from issues held at the Dr. John Archer Library and Archives, with permission from the RCMP Veterans Association.

    The journal, published by the RCMP since 1933, includes RCMP news, articles on the history and practices of the RCMP, accounts of social events and ceremonies, personal essays by RCMP members, and much more. The collection is a valuable resource for researchers interested in the history of the RCMP and policing in Canada, as well as those researching family members who served in the RCMP.

    This collection is the second digitization project CRKN has undertaken with the University of Regina, following the addition of a series of student publications added to Canadiana in 2023. It is also another significant addition of content from member libraries to Canadiana.

    Explore the digitized journal here:–+Canada+–+Periodicals%22

    For questions or comments about this collection, please contact Francesca Brzezicki, Heritage Engagement Officer: