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Fact Check: Malcolm Gladwell’s Mythic South

As I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers over the last few days, I’ve been accumulating a sense of hokum as Gladwell tells stories and spins out anecdotes. My B.S. detector finally hit the limit with this claim (p. 169):

The triumph of a culture of honor helps to explain why the pattern of criminality in the American South has always been so distinctive. Murder rates are higher there than in the rest of the country. But crimes of property and “stranger” crimes — like muggings — are lower.

This rings untrue to me, and I was disturbed that Gladwell cited no data sources to back up his claim. That’s especially galling because thanks to the Uniform Crime Reports there’s ample data available by which we can fact-check the claim. Outliers was written in 2008, so Gladwell would have been using crime data from 2007. Here are crime statistics from the 2007 Uniform Crime Reports by region:

2007 Property Crime rate per 100,000 population, United States total: 544.1
2007 Property Crime rate per 100,000 population, Southern states: 601.7

2007 Robbery rate per 100,000 population, United States total: 42.9
2007 Robbery rate per 100,000 population, Southern states: 44.2

Lest you think that I’m cherry-picking data from a certain year, let’s turn to the most recent year of data available, crime figures for 2012:

2012 Property Crime rate per 100,000 population, United States total: 2859.2
2012 Property Crime rate per 100,000 population, Southern states: 3,226.8

2012 Robbery rate per 100,000 population, United States total: 112.9
2012 Robbery rate per 100,000 population, Southern states: 112.5

At best, the robbery rate for the U.S. and Southern states are the same in 2012. In the other three comparisons, Malcolm Gladwell has it backwards, with higher rate in the South. The only fact Gladwell gets right is that yes, the murder rate is higher in the South as well.

I’ll be reading the rest of Outliers with an even more skeptical eye.

1 comment to Fact Check: Malcolm Gladwell’s Mythic South

  • J Clifford

    The people I work with praise Malcolm Gladwell because he “knows how to tell a story”. They don’t seem to care that his arguments are weakly supported. This problem makes David and Goliath a particularly frustrating book to read… unless you like to read non-fiction as if it’s a novel, and just go with it.

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