Monday, June 22, 2020

The Atmospheric Theory of Crime

Hurricane Isabel, 2003, from the International Space Station
- photo courtesy of NASA

…and now for a short distraction from the awful news of late...

by Greg Saville & Gerard Cleveland

Once upon a time, crime plagued the nation. Violence flared, year after year, like a wildfire of human suffering that cities could not extinguish. Cops did their thing, and then some. Prisons were filled. Downtown blight grew and fear split the nation into racial and economic camps like never before. And nothing seemed to work.

Then the crime wave changed direction. No one knew why. Nothing was different to account for the turnabout. Criminologists went to work to explain why and one tiny group came up with an answer, an answer so simple and elegant that the theory quickly became the talk of the theoretical end of town.

The geniuses who created the concept call it the Atmospheric Theory of Crime and they described it as follows:

There are three necessary elements for crime to occur: air, water, and land. When those three elements converge, crime chances increase. Remove one of them, and you prevent crime.

Air - the first principle of Atmospheric Theory

Let us begin with air! People cannot breathe without air. If you remove air from a room, burglars have no chance of stealing anything. If you freeze air to 100 degrees below zero, like at the South Pole, murderers are unlikely to find a victim outside. Sure enough, if you need proof, South Pole crime rates are almost zero. In fact, as lung tissue freezes, offenders themselves will perish. Even a dullard can see that burglary and murder rates in airless places are almost zero. We say almost because the dastardly cur Jacques Yves Cousteau figured out how to travel through underwater airless environments.

And in doing that the scoundrel Cousteau invented his scuba gear as a modus operandi for coral reef graffiti and underwater arson. True, those are rare. But still...

Then there is water.

Water - the second principle of Atmospheric Theory

Setting aside for a moment submerged arsonists, water blankets the planet and we see it every day in clouds, rain, rivers and lakes. But our clever environmental theorists noticed that if we increase the quantity of water to a certain percentage, eventually we pass the threshold when crime becomes impossible. Our statisticians can even measure the amount of water it takes to prevent crime.

Take for example a hurricane. Granted, plenty of looting occurs AFTER a hurricane, but just try stealing a car during the torrential 150-mile an hour winds, lashing rains, and the 10-foot storm surges. Even if you can get in the car to steal it, just try to drive it through flooded roads. Same problem in a Tsunami. How many muggers ever successfully mugged a victim on a beach as they and their victim were pummeled by a 100-mile-an-hour, 30-foot high wave. Our research shows us that you will not find a safer environment from muggers than on an empty beach as the Tsunami shows up.

That leaves land as the final pillar in our trifecta of crime-busting. You must have land to have crime. People live, walk, work, and play on it. If no land exists to walk upon or to build our homes on, we immediately eliminate domestic violence. Of course, DV may occur in the air or underwater but those statistical anomalies remain quite rare in our beta tests. Earth is the equalizer and without it, crime has no chance to worm its way into our communities. Mother Earth – that lovely Gaia preventer of crime!


There you have it – the Atmospheric Theory of crime. Remove any one of those factors – air, water, or land – and crime everywhere falls quickly onto the scrap heap of abandoned human behaviors.

So now we need to spread the Atmospheric Theory of Crime far and wide. We need to create all kinds of sophisticated criminological tests for the theory while spending plenty of conference, journal, and research time arguing for the genius of A-TOC! (We must not forget the appeal of cool abbreviations for marketing purposes.)

In the future, we can wonder, “Gosh, why didn’t we think of A-TOC earlier?” Think of all the crime we could have prevented and misery and loss we could have avoided. Remove the air from robbery locations? “Geeze,” we can retort, “great crime prevention idea!” Flood cities and high crime areas with 30 feet of water! “Ha!” we will exclaim with glee, “now, let those arsonists just try…”

Land - the third principle of Atmospheric Theory

The hue and cry from within the orthodox criminology schools would howl their displeasure and shower disdain upon the upstart A-TOCs. False equivalency charlatans! – imagine claiming that crime and nature are interchangeable?  Or they may take a lawyerly approach and decry the environmental school of crime as reductio ad absurdum wherein the contention of those A-TOC types reduces serious and complex issues of human criminal behavior to mere na├»ve states of weather. We can already hear the chorus of complaint in the inevitable defense of modern criminological theory and the tried and true explanations for the true reasons for crime.

Pretty silly, huh!


Now, take the Atmospheric Theory of Crime and replace it with an actual criminological theory – the Routine Activity Theory of crime (RAT) – and you have the same theory. In the case of Routine Activity Theory, air is an ‘absence of a capable guardian’, water is a ‘motivated offender’, and land is a ‘suitable target’ like a victim. Remove any of the three RAT principles and you – according to RAT – reduce the opportunity for crime.

But compare RAT to A-TOC in actual criminology journals and they would be filled with comments like this: "It might sound a bit like A-TOC but any such comparison to RAT only serves to highlight….blah, blah, blah."

As we have blogged before, RAT assumes a steady supply of motivated offenders, just like Atmospheric theory assumes a steady supply of air and water. RAT predicts that crime opportunities wane when you remove motivated offenders and Atmospheric Theory predicts crime vanishes when you remove land.

RAT does not try to explain the historical or societal contexts of “why” offender motivation occurs or “how” you might reduce those motivations, regardless of the number of potential victims. It simply takes a short cut and says figuring out the fundamental “why” factor becomes an unnecessary consideration once we remove the opportunity, offender, or victim. Others, too, have raised alarms about RAT as a pseudo-scientific truism, for example Professor Mike Sutton's article on the Mindless Chemistry Meme.

The same argument holds true with Atmospheric Theory – it does not try to explain why Tsunamis or hurricanes deter criminals, but rather posits through common, observable evidence that they do. And – in spite of William of Ockham’s philosophy that simple, not complex, usually explains the truth of things – the world of crime gives rise to social issues pregnant with complexity and uncertainty. Crime and simple rarely share the same space!

So, your takeaway for which criminal theory to apply in your city becomes a choice of which fantasy to support. The only difference between Atmospheric Theory and RAT is that the former is a fantasy made-up just now.


Clearly, Atmospheric Theory takes logical leaps of absurdity to the point of comedy and requires nothing more than blind faith to believe its truth. Similarly, RAT – a contemporary theory and the subject of many studies – lacks any root-cause-of-anything explanation, unless you consider crime opportunity itself a “root cause” (the bizarre cart-before-the-horse logic that RAT proponents now suggest). Yet, the best criminology journals continue to proselytize on behalf of the holy trinity of guardians, offenders, and targets in spite of it explaining everything, and nothing, at the same time.

And so, we end our Atmospheric Theory of Crime story by remembering that wonderful science fiction fantasy Battlestar Galactica. During a key funeral scene, the actors all join in unison and declare solemnly that they will follow the orthodoxy of the times with faith, purpose and commitment. In closing, we mouth their choral sentiments of blind faith with the hopeful chant, “So say we all”.

4 Replies so far - Add your comment

Dysology said...

A good blog post.

The RAT triangle, like many things (including the secret of architecture noted by the Ancient Greeks) is appealing to humans because it contains the so attractive "magic" of 3.

Fairy-tails are another case in point. Three little pigs, Three bears, three Billy Goats Gruf, etc. The notion that every crime caused itself to happen is the logical conclusion of the Routine Activity Theory (even its acronym RAT has three letters) is clearly a ludicrous fairy-tail, told and believed in by pseudoscholars lacking the intellectual ability to understand the difference between causation and truisms.

The Monty Python show provides us with the lecture provided by Miss Anne Elk as a perfect example of such ludicrous stupidity. As thought describing what you see - like a child would - is the scientific explanation for its very existence. See

GSaville said...

Yes, agreed. Science needs more than RAT truisms. It needs evidence and replicable prediction. It's like the difference between a camera and binoculars. The former shows you a picture of what was - no matter how many pics you have they are always in the past. Binoculars let you see where you want to go and, as you collect other information during your trip, you have some idea of how to navigate forward.

Dysology said...

This is the best interview with Professor Anne Elk, explaining how idiots (RAT worshippers) cannot tell when a mere description for a thing can masquerade in their pseudo-scholarly brains for a causal explanation for its existence.

GSaville said...

I'm not sure I'd call acolytes of pseudo-scientific theories idiots, but it does suggest Kuhn was right about how revolutionary, and difficult, it is for status quo scientists to accept a paradigm shift.

By the way, my favorite bit in the Monty Python "Miss Anne Elk" skit is this:

MISS ELK: "My new theory - All Brontosaurus are thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the other"
CHRIS: "That's it, is it?"
MISS ELK: "Spot on, Chris."
CHRIS: "Well, this theory seems to have hit the nail on the head!"