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OnWords: The Ferguson Effect


The term “the Ferguson effect” developed in order to explain the rise in the murder rate in a few major cities following the massive protests against police violence that originated in Ferguson, Missouri.

The idea behind the Ferguson effect is that police are reluctant to pursue the kind of aggressive policing that, its supporters claim, lowers the murder rate because cops know their actions are being recorded by onlookers’ smart phones.  

Before I get into the rhetorical phenomenon at work here, logic would ask us to look at the simplest explanation for the rise in the murder rate, which would be that the same forces that have historically led to rises in murder are at work here as well: gang violence, poverty, easy access to guns.

But “the Ferguson effect” is a great example of how a compelling term can circumvent critical thinking and popularize a pretty sketchy idea.

Once you’ve named something, it takes on an imaginary life of its own, and so “Ferguson effect” bounces from CNN to the BBC, gets debated by experts, is thrown heedlessly into political rhetoric, and is never deeply critiqued on its own merits.

Once equipped with a convenient handle, terms like “the Ferguson effect” create debates about the term and hide the poor reasoning that gave them being.

Thus language can lead us astray, refocusing our attention on small bits of eloquence rather than a thicker and thornier set of explanations that convey what’s really going on.