Beyond the Gloatfest

Paul Jacob

5/19/2013 12:00:22 AM - Paul Jacob

One of the more popular memes of our time has it that “the left” is “pro-science” while “the right” is hide-bound, troglodytically “anti-science.” You can imbibe the notion daily at The Huffington Post, The Daily Kos, and on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and pass the gospel on easily via Twitter and Facebook.

Argue about that as you may, or as we must, but one thing is clear: if criminology is a science, the gun-control-obsessed left is definitely anti, not pro.

Gun crime is going down, not up.

But you might not think this is the case, because today’s news stories are so dramatic, and we like stories . . . we live by stories. But the statistics regarding crime and violence in America are shockingly clear, and clearly at variance with the popular narrative of a rising tide of violence. Gun violence is half what it was 20 years ago; the murder rate is down generally. Only in pockets — chiefly, the inner cities, and almost exclusively amongst minority populations — does the culture of gun violence continue unabated.

Now, those subcultures (countercultures) of violence remain a huge problem. They demand some concerted response.

But widespread gun ownership is obviously not the problem per se. Millions of Americans own millions and millions of guns, and do not commit crimes. The gang warfare and drug-war related crimes of the inner cities likely have more to do with welfare state policies and the War on Drugs than they do “access to guns.”

Indeed, talk of gun control amounts to little more than wishing away the problem, with gun-confiscating governments serving as Fairy Godmothers who exist to do little else but grant liberal wishes. The thing is, just as Fairy Godmothers don’t exist, gun control won’t work. Government is not magic.

And there are no magic bullets.

The fanciful nature of lefty reliance upon The State And Its Awesome Power to “solve” the problem of violence was shown dramatically for even the most ideologically blinded to see, in early May, when Rasmussen Reports published its most recent survey results on American opinion about guns:

Most Americans recognize that there are more gun owners in the United States today than there were 20 years ago but don’t know that gun crime in the country has gone down in that same period. . . .

Emily Ekins, at Reason.com, summarized the poll findings, further:

64 percent of Americans who favor stricter gun control laws in the United States also have the misperception that gun crime has gone up in the past 20 years. A plurality (43 percent) of those who oppose stricter gun control say gun crime has decreased.
Interestingly, 54 percent of Democrats think gun crime has increased in the US over the past 20 years, compared to 29 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Independents.

And it is that 54 percent statistic that produced partisan gloating and big headlines at Breitbart.com and elsewhere. Those most politicized in favor of gun control are the most clueless about the dimensions of violence in America today. It’s all partisanship and lying, and the Left Is Wrong.

Which is, on this subject at least, true enough. But why it is true, and what this means beyond this single issue, is perhaps worth more than our gloating cheers and nyah-nyahs.

First, the basic use people make of “facts” in political debate deserves recognition. Not very many of us search out the facts and then concoct a political response. That’s not the way people normally work. We each have our general perspectives — our visions of life — and then accumulate factoids and statistics and chunks of science and dollops of scientism to back up these positions. We change our minds only occasionally, and even then only sometimes by sophisticated studies of fact.

It used to be said that a conservative was a liberal who’d been mugged — which brings up the highly personal way folks tend to appreciate facts. I don’t see a great deal of difference between left and right on this, and I don’t expect that to change. There’s a reason some of us devote a lot of time to argumentation and rhetoric as well as simple delivery of factual material. It takes persuasion to get most folks to consider some facts, especially — to borrow from Al Gore — if they’re “inconvenient.”

We bring a number of biases to the news, to our reading, to our debates public and private. And these biases are worth acknowledging up front. Here are a few:

The bizarreness effect: Startling or uncommon stories are easier to remember and process than everyday stories, and tend to inform our opinions more than everyday information. It’s no wonder why a few nasty massacres loom so large in the gun control debate.

Illusion-of-truth effect: We tend to judge something as true more readily if we’ve heard the idea before — so oft-repeated misinformation, or relentlessly promoted policies, seem “obvious” and “true” even if there’s little actual evidence for them.

The last shall be first effect: There are many cognitive biases that explain why we overestimate recent experience over earlier experience. Items near the end of a list are easiest to recall; a news story heard last week is easier to remember than the conclusions of a decades-encompassing study published a decade ago.

Cognitive biases have become a hot topic in psychology (especially social psychology) and in behavioral economics. But it would be a form of presentism itself to suggest that this topic is wholly new.

Nineteenth century sociologist Herbert Spencer, in his popular Study of Sociology, devoted the bulk of his book to the obstacles to understanding society — which he thought was surely the proper grounding of public policy — including objective and subjective “difficulties,” and a chapter list that serves as a handy guide to the biggest gorillas in the room of human prejudice:

And though nearly everybody today pretends not to be weighted down by these encumbrances, even cursory glances at today’s “red state”/“blue state” divide reveals prejudices of the above types, galore.

More to the point of the gun control debate, however, is a peculiar social mania noted by this same sociologist, late in his career:

Of the many ways in which common sense inferences about social affairs are flatly contradicted by events (as when measures taken to suppress a book cause increased circulation of it, or as when attempts to prevent usurious rates of interest make the terms harder for the borrower, or as when there is greater difficulty in getting things at the places of production than elsewhere) one of the most curious is the way in which the more things improve the louder become the exclamations about their badness.

Spencer gave copious examples of this, none of which I will regale you, here. But look no further. Gun violence is decreasing in America, and yet calls for the further suppression of gun ownership increase not only in number, but in fervor.

Has “common sense” fled the populace? Well, no. Many folks recognize (as earlier Rasmussen Reports indicate) that gun ownership has positive effects, that widespread gun ownership is even necessary for a free society. Others have become unhinged. The facts of decreasing violence don’t matter at all to their policy prescriptions. The one has nothing to do with the other.

Why? Perhaps because of bias against guns, but also because of an increasingly strong bias in favor of government. In many a “liberal” mind, the goals of peace and safety play second-fiddle. First fiddle is government — its power, its mythic role as savior.

And those stories are momentous and terrible indeed, usurping all reason, all common sense.      [further reading]