About that commandment…

I recently learned that, by at least one measure, New Hampshire, where I grew up, is the least religious state in the country (actually, it’s tied with Massachusetts, its neighbor to the south), and also has the lowest murder rate. A coincidence? A glance at the following table I created after reading a post on my favorite blog for heathens suggests not.

All six states in which at least 7 out of 10 people say that religion is very important in their lives are among the top 13 states in per capita murders.

Among the dozen least religious states, the only one that cracks the top 30 in murder rate is Alaska, which is 12th. Alaska and Utah are outliers here, but in opposite ways, with Utah ranking 12th in religiosity and 41st in murder rate. Perhaps Mormons and Baptists have different ways of settling interpersonal scores.

I realize that it would be facile to claim that religiosity, in particular conservative Protestantism, breeds violence. But it’s clearly far more complicated than that. For one thing, we can’t say that the people doing the killing are the ones also doing  most of the praying. One could just as easily hypothesize that in places where people are more likely to be killed by other people, they turn to faith out of fear. I don’t believe this either, but it’s not a ferociously out-to-lunch idea compared to some of the garbage floating around cyberspace.

About the only genuinely sound conclusion anyone can draw from these data is that religiosity, while probably not a cause of serious social ills, is certainly no salve for them. We’ve seen this in various other areas already — for example, states with a high proportion of believers consistently rank way up there in the rate of teen pregnancies, suggesting that the anti-contraception, sex-is-evil proselytizing popular in such states is, well, impotent.

(Sources: the Pew Research Center and the 2014 FBI Uniform Crime Report.)

State Murders/



State % Religious
1 Louisiana 10.3 Alabama 77 1
2 Mississippi 8.6 Mississippi 77 2
3 Missouri 6.6 Tennessee 73 3
4 South Carolina 6.4 Louisiana 71 4
5 Maryland 6.1 Arkansas 70 5
6 Nevada 6.0 South Carolina 70 6
7 Delaware 5.8 West Virginia 69 7
8 Florida 5.8 Oklahoma 66 8
9 Alabama 5.7 Georgia 66 9
10 Georgia 5.7 North Carolina 65 10
11 Tennessee 5.7 Texas 64 11
12 Alaska 5.6 Utah 64 12
13 Arkansas 5.6 Kentucky 63 13
14 Michigan 5.4 Virginia 61 14
15 Illinois 5.3 Missouri 60 15
16 North Carolina 5.1 South Dakota 59 16
17 Indiana 5.0 Ohio 58 17
18 New Mexico 4.8 New Mexico 57 18
19 Pennsylvania 4.8 Iowa 55 19
20 Arizona 4.7 Kansas 55 20
21 Oklahoma 4.5 New Jersey 55 21
22 California 4.4 Indiana 54 22
23 Texas 4.4 Wyoming 54 23
24 Virginia 4.1 Florida 54 24
25 Ohio 4.0 Maryland 54 25
26 West Virginia 4.0 Nebraska 54 26
27 New Jersey 3.9 Michigan 53 27
28 Kentucky 3.6 Pennsylvania 53 28
29 Montana 3.6 Arizona 53 29
30 Kansas 3.1 North Dakota 53 30
31 New York 3.1 Delaware 52 31
32 North Dakota 3.0 Illinois 51 32
33 Nebraska 2.9 Idaho 51 33
34 Wisconsin 2.9 California 49 34
35 Colorado 2.8 Nevada 49 35
36 Wyoming 2.7 Minnesota 49 36
37 Washington 2.5 Rhode Island 49 37
38 Connecticut 2.4 Montana 48 38
39 Rhode Island 2.4 Oregon 48 39
40 South Dakota 2.3 Hawaii 47 40
41 Utah 2.3 Colorado 47 41
42 Idaho 2.0 New York 46 42
43 Massachusetts 2.0 Washington 45 43
44 Oregon 2.0 Alaska 45 44
45 Iowa 1.9 Wisconsin 45 45
46 Hawaii 1.8 Connecticut 43 46
47 Maine 1.6 Maine 34 47
48 Minnesota 1.6 Vermont 34 48
49 Vermont 1.6 New Hampshire 33 49
50 New Hampshire 0.9 Massachusetts 33 50


Correlation, Causation, Violent Crime and Guns

Perhaps you’ve come across this argument recently: The UK has a higher violent crime rate than the USA. And you know what else they have? Gun control! The argument hinges on a simple pair of coincident facts and a not-too-keen “connection” between them. Basically, the idea is that the violent crime rate is higher in the UK than in the USA because, in the UK, people don’t have guns to protect themselves. Further, a criminal in the USA doesn’t know whether or not a potential victim is carrying a firearm, and subsequently, is more cautious about attacking. In other words, the argument is you’re safer if there are no laws prohibiting or limiting gun ownership or where said guns may be carried.

Yes, it is true that the UK has gun prohibitions that the USA doesn’t. Does that explain the violent crime rate difference? What other correlations exist between the two countries? Well, the UK does have national health care and the USA doesn’t. Also, they love soccer and rugby instead of American football and baseball. Maybe that’s it. No wait, maybe the correlation is the number of non-white heads of state. (Sound of exploding conservative brains.)

The thing is, far from being an argument against gun control, this factoid is a very strong argument in favor of it. Consider two societies that are similar in many respects: a common language, a shared history, the same economic system, similar political systems, similar distribution and consumption of books, films, video games, etc., yet one country appears to have higher violent crime rates. The interesting rub is that this is not an across-the-board rate. While a rough estimate puts the overall violent crime rate in the UK at twice that of the USA, gun related homicides are roughly 50 times greater in the USA than in the UK. All other factors being equal, one would expect the gun-related homicide rate to echo the overall rate but this is not what we see. Clearly, though, all other factors are not equal. And what’s the most unequal factor? Why, the fact that it is very difficult for individuals in the UK to get their hands on firearms as compared to individuals in the USA. In other words, even if you have a desire to commit a violent crime with a gun, if you can’t get your hands on one, it becomes extremely difficult to pull that off. In other words, it’s an effective deterrent to said crime.

While it is true that some places in the USA have strict gun laws, the USA has never had sweeping country-wide laws regulating gun sales and gun ownership at anything beyond a token level and/or for relatively short spans of time. It is hardly “gun control” if, for example, a city bans handguns outright but with a short 10 minute drive to a neighboring state you can purchase firearms of a vast quantity and variety. This sort of patchwork is not the situation in the UK.

So it seems to me that an (admittedly imperfect) experiment has been performed. We have two similar societies. One has strict gun laws while the other does not. The one with the gun laws has a gun-related homicide rate that is 2% of the country without. This is not rocket science.


Today’s Thought on Kinda Big Numbers

If you look up at the sky on a clear night away from obstructions and light sources, you will see a beautiful wash of stars. An awful lot of them, right? It has been estimated that a typical human can see a few thousand stars under such conditions with the unaided eye. This is out of the 100 billion or more stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. So, what’s the comparison?

Imagine that for every star you see, there is an entire night sky worth of stars. Now imagine that for every star in your new super-crowded night sky, there’s an entire night sky worth of stars again.

Chances are, you’d still be a little short.

And don’t forget that the Milky Way is just one of over 100 billion galaxies.

A Lot of Money

Like many scientists and engineers I deal with very large and very small numbers daily. Sometimes, though, it is easy to lose perspective. Whenever I want to get a more visceral grasp on the relative size of something I make a similar ratio using stuff from the everyday world.

Consider money.  You can map quantities of currency onto scalar distance to get a feel for just what constitutes a lot of money. Suppose one US dollar is equivalent to half of an inch. That’s a little less than the diameter of a dime or about the diameter of a AA battery. So $1000 would be 500 inches or a little over 40 feet (nearly 13 meters).

What’s a lot of money for most folks? How about one million dollars? It’s about 20 times the median annual household income in the US and noticeably larger than the “nest egg” most people hope to retire on. Well, a million dollars equates to roughly eight miles in this scheme. A dime versus eight miles. Pretty big, right?

Contrast this to a billion dollars. A billion dollars is roughly the diameter of the Earth. So, think of how wide a dime is and then think of how wide the Earth is. That’s a billion to one ratio. Now there are people on this planet Earth who are billionaires. For example, the Koch brothers and several members of the Walton (Walmart) family are each worth in the neighborhood of 20 billion dollars. That’s 20 or more Earths lined up side-by-side. In comparison, if you have $100,000 in the bank, that’s equivalent to about 1400 yards.

At this point it is worth noting that the Supreme Court has pretty much said that money equates to free speech. So how loud do you think your voice is now?