London is under attack. Last night’s scenes of violence and destruction are worse than anything I remember in my lifetime. What I think was most scary was that the police were simply overwhelmed, and did not have the resources to deal with the rampant criminality.
I got to see some of this first hand. I happened to be in Colliers Wood yesterday evening. One shop had been set on fire, and other shops had had windows smashed and were being looted. The police were present, but were not able to intervene in the looting. I saw police in riot gear guarding a petrol station. They had presumably taken the (no doubt very wise) decision that preventing a petrol station being set on fire was the most important use of their limited resources.
As a scientist, I want to be able to explain things. Here, I have to accept that my tools as a statistician are largely useless for doing so. Medical statistics is mostly about trying to draw generalisable conclusions from individual events. I’m pretty sure there are no generalisable conclusions that can be drawn from last night’s events. To explain last night’s events, we need the tools of social sciences.
I am by no means an expert in social sciences, although it is a subject that interests me, and I am currently studying part-time towards a “social sciences with economics” degree with the Open University. One thing I have learned already is that theories in social sciences are usually context-specific. In trying to understand what happened last night, it’s likely to be unwise to try to generalise. Last night’s violence was a collection of different pockets of violence, and even trying to explain what happened in Croydon in the same terms as explaining what happened in Ealing may well be over-generalising.
I don’t pretend to understand why such horrific violence erupted in London last night. Anybody who claims to be able to explain it at this stage is probably massively over-simplifying. But here are the sort of questions I hope social scientists will be able to answer when they have had a chance to reflect properly and gather some data:
- Clearly much of the criminal activity was based purely on personal greed, but were there other reasons as well? How common were those other reasons, and what were they?
- How many of those looting were habitual criminals who saw an opportunity, and how many were previously law-abiding people, drawn into criminality by the psychology of the mob?
- How does mob psychology manage to exert such a powerful influence in such situations?
- What factors in the way society is organised contribute to so many people turning to criminality?
- Were the reasons for the riots broadly similar in all areas of London, or were there important differences between the different areas where violence occurred?
- And most importantly, what societal measures could be taken to reduce the risk of this happening in the future?
This is a worrying time for London. My thoughts are with all the police officers who will have to put themselves in harm’s way this evening. I hope they remain safe.