Good Data, Safe Streets?
An email conversation about the news of the day.
April 15 2002 11:00 AM

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Dear Natalie,

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What a pleasure to be perusing the news this morning with you, whom I've read avidly for years but never imagined actually getting to quiz myself. (What are you working on for this week? But I know you'll never tell.)

This has to be an all too brief start. Patient on the table. Problems cropping up too early this morning to think much at all. Nonetheless, at least one matter in the news today that seems worth considering: This strange and wonderful and puzzling continued drop in crime in New York. Murders down another third so far this year from last, which was already below London levels. And there are drops in assaults, robberies, larcenies (but not rape?). In Boston murders were up from 39 to 66 in all. They were up in Los Angeles and Chicago, too, apparently. What gives? Interestingly, the papers this morning point to the simple matter of data. The New York police computers, the reporters say, track trends and patterns in crime block-by-block, day-by-day—while elsewhere, and until recently in NYC too, crime data came at best monthly. Do you buy this idea? I myself don't know what to think. But I can tell you that in medicine getting data to doctors—on how many complications you have, on what kinds of results you're getting—is enough to drive surprising and unexpected improvements.

Then, in the news, there's that Illinois death penalty panel that proposed sweeping changes after looking at all the data about how capital punishment works. And I don't even know where to start thinking about the dismal spiral in the Middle East. We'll have much to talk about from the papers. And yet, with a New York Times reporter on the other end of this e-mail, I can't help but wonder what you know about how all this news gets put together.

There is, for example, almost no typical science news in the papers today. And that always seems to be the case Why is that? It's seems like all the news comes out on Thursdays when the journals all come out. And then there are those Tuesday sections, but they really don't have breaking science news. Surely, new and brilliant things in science are popping up every day. Do the journals and their embargoes really have such a stranglehold on when and how news about science comes out?

Atul

Atul Gawande, a surgical resident in Boston, is a staff writer on medicine for The New Yorker and author of the new book Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science.

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