alternate Views

Unconventional Wisdom

Don’t call Richard Moran a contrarian. Even though the sociology professor has a national reputation as a debunker of conventional wisdom, he "objects a little bit" to that label, insisting his aim isn’t contradiction or controversy, but clear thinking.

Moran, whose commentaries are regularly heard on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, is also a frequent contributor to the op-ed pages of newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe. Although he grapples with a wide range of contemporary social issues, Moran’s central focus in both his media appearances and his academic research is crime and punishment in America. As a recognized expert in this field (although he wears the title uncomfortably), he testified before Congress on the 1994 Crime Bill, has participated in the penalty phase of dozens of death penalty cases, and is much sought after for informed opinions by news reporters covering crime as a social issue.

Moran’s rhetorical method of choice is to examine a certain aspect of social policy and show that, although it may appeal to popular ways of thinking, it isn’t supported by the evidence. He has questioned, for example, the relationship between a city’s crime rate and the number of police on the street (there isn’t one, say the statistics) and the effectiveness of voluntary drug-treatment programs (Moran advocates mandatory treatment, enforced by incarceration if necessary, because "research shows that success is related to how long you stay in the program").

Moran’s credentials as a criminologist, as well as his interest in the field, derive partly from his upbringing "in a pretty rough neighborhood" in Chelsea, a down-at-the-heels city adjacent to Boston. Those mean streets bred their share of criminals and, Moran recalls, "I always had a feel for who they were and how they thought." Whereas some social scientists have tended to either romanticize criminals or demonize them, he says, "I realized criminals are more complex than either of those images."

Unlike many of the media’s "talking heads," Moran has no partisan ax to grind. He is alert to complexities and suspicious of easy answers. He also believes that in most matters of social policy, both "the liberals and the conservatives usually don’t know what they are talking about." On the issue of crime control, Moran finds that conservatives’ emphasis on family and community values lacks an understanding of the economic stresses in the inner cities that foster crime. Liberals, on the other hand, "have embraced cultural relativism, which is morally bankrupt." These incomplete visions, he says, produce two competing "theologies of crime control"-punishment and rehabilitation-neither of which is effective in itself.

Moran’s own ideology is strictly pragmatic. "Within the framework of some widely held democratic values, basically I’m for it if it works, I’m against it if it doesn’t work." For instance, he is opposed to capital punishment, not on philosophical or moral grounds but because the death penalty is inevitably influenced by the race, gender, and social status of the defendant as well as by the competence of legal counsel. Therefore, it cannot be imposed impartially. And, as Moran puts it, "There is no reliable evidence that killing those who kill deters crime."

Richard Moran Rethinks Crime and Punishment PHOTO BY WILLIAM MERCER

ABOVE: The fear of crime is going up as the crime rate is going down, says Richard Moran, a fact he attributes largely to distorted perceptions created by sensational television news reporting. "There is so much reporting on the atypical that it becomes seen as typical," he says.

Moran brings to the classroom the same skeptical realism he displays in his media commentaries. He cautions the students in his sociology classes to question the sources, definitions, and assumptions of polls and studies. A lot of "news" comes from advocacy groups that issue reports and cite statistics that are couched in terms favorable to their particular agenda, he says.

To illustrate the way partisan studies can misrepresent reality, he offers a personal statistic: "I’ve been driving a car for thirty years, and during that time I’ve been either killed or almost killed over one hundred times." The statement is statistically "true," but allows the inclusion of something that didn’t happen at all - he obviously wasn’t killed. By "almost killed," he means an accident or near-accident that could have proved fatal. He says he’s never been injured.

Moran calls advocates of particular policies or points of view "moral entrepreneurs ... fighting for shelf space" in the market of public opinion. "Our social problems are marketed ... much like the laundry detergent war." He urges his students to study partisan claims the way they would look at "the ingredients on a cereal box." Just as he was able to misrepresent his own driving record, saying nothing statistically false but wildly exaggerating the dangers, Moran says interest groups routinely distort the facts in their own interest.

His unorthodox perspective has made Moran a popular teacher, and, to his surprise, a generally uncontroversial one. Student evaluations often include terms like "open-minded," a perception he attributes at least partly to the novelty of his approach. "My students tell me that many professors are teaching them what to think rather than how to think. I guess that anybody who examines issues in this way is considered open-minded."

In keeping with this emphasis, Moran rarely offers solutions to the social problems he addresses in his campus lectures and public pronouncements. Instead, he points out the discrepancies between perceptions and actualities, then asks his audience to draw their own conclusions. You could call it contrariness-his friend and running partner, historian Joseph Ellis, calls it "enlightened perversity"-but to Richard Moran, it’s just common sense.

By Chris Rohmann

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