Monday, January 20, 2014

On Guns and the Misuse of Science

Part 1 of 2, on Science and Gun Control
Part 2 of 2 will focus on more on the logic (or lack thereof) behind many gun control arguments.

Guns are one of the the most emotional topics in the United States today.  They mean such different things to different people.  In a sense, it's nearly useless to use science in the debate, because rather like abortion and civil rights it's not a scientific debate in the first place.  That said, it's deeply annoying when science (or more specifically, statistics) are used to justify any proposed gun policy.  I'm going to focus more on the gun-control side here, because the pro-gun-rights side really ignores the science anyway to cite moral arguments which are futile to argue against- how do you fight with someone's claimed right to defend themselves against others/their government?  And really, it is the pro-gun control advocates who are most guilty of misusing science and really abandoning all logic in their misguided crusade.

Perhaps the first "scientific" article to come out in favor of gun control was one by Kellermann in the august New England Journal of Medicine in 1986.  It is from this paper that the oft-cited statistic that owning a gun is 4.6 (frequently stated as 3) times more likely to kill the owner than it is to be used in self defense.  The problems in the study are manifold.  Among other things, there was no attempt to determine the legal status of ownership- meaning drug dealers who had illegal guns on their person or in their home were treated as part of the "people killed because they owned a gun" group.  Not to mention, the study looked at 1980s Seattle, at the height of the crack cocaine wars.  I could go on, and on, but in short- the paper was very, very bad science.  Since then, a whole host of papers were published.  I could go through them all, but I will merely cite the Institute of Medicine- an organization designed to ensure healthcare quality by looking at all the available research on a topic and coming up with a guideline.  In response to President Obama's executive order demanding such a summary, their basic position is that existing research is terrible and very little can be concluded.  For those who are lazy, the highlights are available in this very good Slate summary.  Granted, there's a good deal of self-interest here: a finding of "we need more research" is likely to lead to more funding for said research.

But this really goes to the heart of what science is.  Let's go back to middle school or high school, when we were first taught the scientific method.  Do you remember what it is?  Let's break it down: you do an experiment, in which you change only one thing, and see how it affects something else.  You release an apple from your hand, and watch it fall.  And then, you do it again, and other people do it again.  Any apple, released from any hand, anywhere in the world, will fall at roughly the same (increasing) rate.  Thus, we conclude from this experiment that something called gravity exists and it pulls things down.  This is a simplified version, but this is what lies at the heart of science.  Do otherwise and you get observational crap like Aristotle's dictum that 4 elements (earth, air, water, and fire or something like that) supposedly made up everything in the world.

What part of this applies to gun control?  How can we use "science" in the debate?  The answer would be that we pick 1000 people, give 500 of them guns, keep them from the other half, and see what happens- how many die, how many commit suicide, etc.  For obvious ethical and practical reasons, this has never been done.

And even this wouldn't really be accurate: what if we happened to measure a particularly bad year?  What if violence just happened to go up, or the economy crashed (the economy has been strongly linked with crime, though that link is rather complex).  Or what if we just picked a weird sample?  (The last problem is why "statistical science" like this is notoriously unreliable in the first place).

And really, even this experiment wouldn't really be informative- the actual question should be this: would banning guns lead to increases or decreases in gun violence?  The US has a much higher rate of gun violence than many other developed countries, true- per that IOM report above.  But, we also have a much higher child poverty rate than any other developed, western country.  Anyone here want to argue that poverty does not contribute to gun violence?  Furthermore, comparisons to countries like the UK and Australia that have implemented gun control are ridiculous: they are vastly different countries (really, islands) with vastly different demographics, cultures, and histories.  And there exist countries with high rates of gun ownership and low rates of gun violence (Switzerland, Israel) and countries which have banned guns to a large degree but have a high rate of gun violence regardless (Honduras, Mexico).  What does it come down to?  There is no clear trend in favor of gun control as reducing gun violence, and even if such a trend existed it's not clear that it is a causative relationship.

Fundamentally, science can not and really should not be used in the gun control debate- to do so diminishes the credibility of science.