The Democratic Party

of Hood County, Texas

Proba-ballistic Thinking

April 1, 2018


It is a well-established fact of human psychology that people are notoriously bad at thinking about statistics. Of course, we can all learn how to perform the relevant calculations, but few people ever really “feel” or intuit probabilities correctly. Here’s an example from my own life of this failure of intuition: I’m terrified of flying in airplanes, and yet airplanes are one of the safest forms of transportation. In fact, there are only 0.07 deaths per 1 billion passenger miles in airplanes. Compare this to cars (in which I typically feel very safe), the deaths in which are around 7.28 per 1 billion passenger miles. In other words, travelling in a car is about 100 times deadlier than travelling in a plane. So, my fears appear to be exactly backwards: I should fear cars much more than I fear planes. But then why do my fears stay stubbornly fixed as they are? Sadly, my knowledge of the statistics does little to erase the feelings of terror I feel about flying or to subvert the feelings of relative calm I feel about driving.

Now, this post isn’t really about cars and planes, but I bring them up to make a point: we not only fail in our thinking about probabilities, but this very failure sometimes causes us to choose more danger over less (as is the case when, for example, I choose to drive cross-country to visit my family because I hate flying). And nowhere has this failure been more apparent recently than in some Americans’ responses to mass shootings. A quick search on Google Scholar turns up a plethora of research papers that find a positive correlation between gun ownership and homicide rates. As others have said in summary of this research: it’s safer not to own a gun than to own one. Or, to be a bit more nuanced, the gun owner himself might be safer for owning the gun (though I’m not sure that the research bears out that conclusion), but certainly everyone else around him will be significantly less safe—everyone, not just criminals. In other words, the gun owner’s spouse will be less safe. His children will be less safe. His neighbors will be less safe. His coworkers will be less safe. And so on.

What we want—on both sides of the political aisle—is safety. Some conservative politicians may be puppets of the NRA, but the average conservative on the street probably genuinely believes that more guns will give him more safety. Unfortunately, the statistics simply do not support that belief. I don’t at all think that this means that the conservative is stupid; I think it means that he is driven by his irrational fears of being shot in exactly the same way that I’m driven by my irrational fears of dying in a plane crash. But, as we’ve already seen, our fears can frequently (and ironically) drive us to choose things that, on balance, are actually more dangerous for us; often, in trying to make choices that avoid danger, we make choices that actually bring us closer to danger. But if what we really care about is safety, then—according to the research—we must choose to have fewer guns, not more.

Even as those words leave my fingertips, I feel exasperation and exhaustion. This conversation is so difficult. Sometimes, I find it impossible to imagine how we might bridge the divide over this issue. And to add insult to injury, we are bitterly divided in America over more than just guns and other political issues: we’re struggling right now to find any kind of common factual ground. When one side presents research, the other side claims that it was rigged, or that it was paid for by wealthy extremists who have some idealistic axe to grind, or that it is simply “fake news.” But if we continue honestly, kindly, and firmly to relate the facts, we can only hope that people will begin to be swayed by them. So, I think that the first part of the solution is that we must continuously broadcast the facts. We’ve seen how education on issues like climate change has begun to turn the tide of public opinion (though it remains to be seen whether the tides will literally be turned), so we can only hope that constant endorsement of the research will eventually produce good results in the domain of gun control.

The second part of the solution—and one that should shape the first—is that we must reject the substitution of anecdotes for statistics. Anti-gun activists were quick to jump on the recent story of the teacher who accidentally shot a student during a lecture about gun safety. While I share a common goal with these activists, I disapprove of their method. Individual cases are no substitution for statistics because in individual cases, the probabilities collapse into binaries (in which either someone got shot or they didn’t). It’s also fallacious to elevate one story that supports your views above all of the stories that don’t support your view. In other words, there have probably been plenty of gun safety lectures around the country that didn’t result in the accidental shooting of a student, but we don’t hear people talking about those stories. As a analogous example, I know a girl who recently experienced really bad side effects (including partial paralysis) from a flu vaccination. That she should experience those effects is, of course, horrible. But I can’t let myself be swayed by that individual case into believing that I shouldn’t vaccinate my children, because the research still shows that vaccinating is far better than not vaccinating. Journalists frequently use stories of individuals to humanize or to reify issues that would otherwise remain bloodless numbers. I don’t have a problem with that; in fact, it’s probably a good use of anecdote. But we must guard against the temptation to think of anecdote as more truthful or more accurate than statistics.

And the third (but probably not final) part of the solution is that we must be honest and charitable. Deception and malevolence are the enemies of good research and good dialogue. We must be willing to change our minds because we want others to be willing to change their minds. We must admit when we’re wrong because we want others to admit when they’re wrong. We mustn’t engage in “ratcheting” (i.e., accepting evidence that supports our views and rejecting evidence that opposes our views) because we don’t want others to engage in it. It’s a gamble, of course: it’s twice as hard to win a game when you’re unwilling to cheat but your opponent shares no such scruples; and in the case of guns, the stakes are very, very high. But I doubt that the ends of safety can ever justify the means of dishonest, uncharitable research, reporting, or debate. So, we must engage in good-faith discussions with the other side on this issue by taking their views seriously, by listening carefully to their research, by admitting flaws in our own research, and by allowing nuance on points at which others might wish to paint with a broad brush—and we must do all of these things even if our opponents won’t do them.

In short, if we want to move the needle on this issue, we must move people past their intuitions and fears, we must help them to embrace the solutions recommended by research, and we must convince them through kindness and truthfulness that our goal isn’t to “grab the guns” or to grab power; our goal—a goal which they share—is to live safe, happy lives. We can help them to do these things by constantly teaching the results of research, by rejecting the substitution of anecdote for statistics, and by engaging in honest and charitable discussion.