Sunday, July 11, 2010

Full moon and crime


It is the very error of the moon;
She comes more near the earth than she was wont,
And makes men mad.

Othello, the Moor of Venice

Act V
Scene II
Line 133 to 135

"Full moon eclipsed as accessory to crime"


Dan Vergano

July 11th, 2010


There's a bad moon on the rise? Werewolves, lunatics and criminals, we all know, famously respond to the light of the full moon.

But Creedence Clearwater Revival lyrics aside, an upcoming crime study reinforces findings that the full moon's malign influence is, well, moonshine.

"Western lore has long suggested a relationship between the phases of the moon and various forms of aberrant, antisocial, deviant, and criminal human conduct," begins the Journal of Criminal Justicestudy led by criminologist Joseph Schafer of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. "Policing, crime, and criminal justice have not been immune from speculation concerning the lunar-crime relationship."

Cops frequently have complained about crime's rising during a full moon, the study authors note. So have scholars, such as in a 1972 American Journal of Psychiatry report that found murders peaked around Miami over a 15-year period during the full moon. The same report looked at 13 years of murders in an Ohio county, finding no lunar effect.

So it has gone for full moon malice, with a few studies finding a mixed effect on crimes. Overall in the last four decades, most found no lunar link to suicides and homicides, as well as "prison escapes," "hospital admissions for dog bite injuries," and "aggression among ice hockey players," according to the study.

Still, "research has shown that belief in lunar effects continued to be strong, including among police officers and tended to be associated with beliefs in other paranormal phenomena," write Schafer and colleagues. Many of the past studies finding weak or no effects suffered from defects ranging from limited data, weak statistics and even disagreement on lunar phases, raising the possibility the cops are just more observant than criminologists give them credit for. "Officers have the benefit of directly observing the aftermath of criminal incidents; their experiences may provide them with unique insights into lunar effects," says the study, "or police culture may simply perpetuate false beliefs about lunar effects."

So, to find out, the study team looked at San Antonio, Tex., from 2001 to 2005, a city of more than a million people for which exhaustive crime data is available. The team crunched nightly crime data, noting rain, daylight, indoor vs. outdoor locations and other environmental effects unaccounted for in past efforts. Murder happens too rarely in San Antonio to give a statistical signal, so the team looked at assaults, burglary, theft, drugs and vice crimes, traffic crimes, and "other disturbances," totaling about 130,000 incidents a year.

"Substantive lunar effects on crime were not found in the data analyzed here," say the report. "Although popular culture, folk lore, and even certain occupational lore suggested the 'freaks' come out during full moons, this phenomenon was not reflected in San Antonio police data as used here."

Instead, weekends and warm weather were linked to crime, as you might expect. Winter and rain decreased crimes, except in the city's Riverwalk entertainment district, home to bars, hotels, convention facilities, shops, and theaters, where the level of crime was the same regardless of conditions. The only slight effects of a full moon were a small increase in burglaries citywide, and a drop in vice arrests in the Riverwalk center, at the same time. Neither was statistically convincing.

But while the crime data don't show any lunar effects, that doesn't mean people aren't weirder during a full moon, the study authors acknowledge, something unlikely to come across in the dry language of a police report.

After all, the belief that the moon affects human behavior is "deeply entrenched in popular belief," write Robert Bartholomew and Hilary Evans in the "Lunar Influences" entry of Outbreak, the Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior. The Roman physician Galen, one of the "fathers of medicine," claimed that epileptic fits were trigged by the moon in the 2nd Century. Disturbed patients in London were flogged during the full moon in the 18th century to halt their expected violence.

"Whether or not the lunar effect has any biological basis, the belief in it may be associated with popular practices," concludes the encyclopedia. "The Moon's phases could thus be a contributing or enabling factor in extraordinary social behavior, whether directly, by affecting people en masse, or indirectly, by affecting especially susceptible individuals."

No comments: