When we finally start talking about gun control, what should we say?

I love policy discussions, but the demands for policy discussion on gun control after the shootings in Newtown today are terribly wrong-headed.

The problem is that demanding a policy discussion is not the same thing as having a policy discussion. At this point, we’re just talking about talking about gun control. It’s all “mention” and no “use.” It’d be nice if folks would actually start proposing laws. Like: limits on magazine size. Ammo taxes. Closing the gun show loophole. Or even…

Prohibition.

I’d love to talk about gun prohibition. (Notice, this isn’t even the same policy debate as “gun control.”) Unfortunately, if we start talking about gun prohibition, then we will be forced to confront how badly prohibition is working in other markets. There are three hundred and ten million guns in the US. (Yes! 310,000,000!) What does prohibition look like under those circumstances?

Reflecting on that question, ask yourself this: how many people will be killed in no-knock police raids trying to root out the black market in guns? Will they be mostly white or mostly black? (Notice that gun control laws have tended to be stricter in majority black areas rather than majority white areas. Both DC and Chicago, the battleground states for the 2nd Amendment claims, are disproportionately black.) How many of those killed by police will be kids? How many kids’ deaths will be prevented?

On reflection, I suspect that many gun control regimes and all possible paths to gun prohibtion are more likely to increase the number of people hurt and killed by guns.  So when we do finally start talking about gun control and gun prohibition, let’s be very, very careful.

Something must be done.

Prohibition is something. 

∴ ????

Also, let’s remember that the violent crime rate, including gun crimes, is the lowest it’s been in 20 years. That doesn’t make what happened today any easier to handle, but perhaps it will allow us to focus on what happened, and the people it happened to, instead of replaying Jon Stewart’s Monday night monologue. Something terrible has happened. It didn’t happen to you or I, so we have the ability to ask whether it could have been prevented. We should ask whether it could have been prevented. But we should also ask: at what cost? Then we should follow that calculation of lives lost and lives saved wherever it leads.

Craig Whitney’s July New York Times Op-Ed on the Aurora shooting is still apropos here:

Liberals should accept that the only realistic way to control gun violence is not by keeping guns out of the hands of as many Americans as possible, but by keeping guns out of the hands of people we all agree should not have them.

Read the whole thing. Whitney is a liberal gun apologist–which means he has a good sense of what kinds of regulation would actually be constitutional under DC v. Heller, and what sorts might be effective.

What should we say when we talk about guns?

When we start talking about guns, some people will say that they’re unnecessary and dangerous. Others will say that they’re a tool for self-defense and self-sufficiency. That’s usually where the debate rests, except that the 2nd Amendment privileges the second group. If we want to make progress, we can offer better reasons, reasons that will be superior precisely because they are responsive to the reasons of our interlocutors. That means honestly trying to find the overlap in what appears to be an incommensurable set of assumptions.

Here’s Dan Braman and Dan Kahan, in an article on how to have a better gun debate:

For one segment of American society, guns symbolize honor, human mastery over nature, and individual self-sufficiency. By opposing gun control, individuals affirm the value of these meanings and the vision of the good society that they construct. For another segment of American society, however, guns connote something else: the perpetuation of illicit social hierarchies, the elevation of force over reason, and the expression of collective indifference to the well-being of strangers. These individuals instinctively support gun control as a means of repudiating these significations and of promoting an alternative vision of the good society that features equality, social solidarity, and civilized nonaggression.

As a result, Braman and Kahan propose a “big trade”: those who oppose guns should offer to recognize and respect the rights of gun ownership, effectively normalizing it, in exchange for universal registration. By emphasizing the responsibility and civic spiritedness of most gun owners, Braman and Kahan believe that we can better reach an agreement what that responsibility entails.

For Braman and Kahan, this is an extension of their cultural cognition work, but I’d put it a little differently, in terms of the interaction between esteem and social norms: rather than depicting gun owners as dangerous hicks, we give them esteem in exchange for esteem-worthy performances of self-abnegation and sacrifice, like giving up assault weapons and semi-automatics. Since less than 0.004% of all guns are used on other human beings in any given year, we should acknowledge that most people’s guns are not the problem.

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by Flickr user deepwarren

It’s tempting to stage a cultural showdown around guns, to line up a set of  statistics and international comparisons and arguments: i.e. that carrying a gun probably increases the likelihood that you will be shot and killed. Lots of resources already go into advertising this fact, along with others. From a public health perspective it makes perfect sense to discourage gun ownership, but so long as many Americans treat guns as a central part of their identities, such discouragement will only have limited impact. Research suggests that our prior beliefs on guns will have an significant impact on the way that we process new data on gun deaths. That’s more evident in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, where tragedy and group polarization rule, but very little cross-cutting bipartisan dialogue takes place.

In “More Statistics, Less Persuasion: A Cultural Theory of Gun-Risk Perceptions,” Braman and Kahan offer evidence that risk perceptions are derivative of social norms and cultural-loaded meanings:

The risks that we face in our daily lives are far too vast in number and diverse in nature to be comprehended in their totality. Of all the potential hazards that compete for our attention, the ones most likely to penetrate our consciousness are the ones that comport with our norm-pervaded moral evaluations: it is easy to believe that ignoble activities are also physically dangerous, and worthy ones benign. Thus, “moral concern guides not just response to the risk but the basic faculty of [risk] perception” as well.

What this means is that how we process school shootings or firearm-related suicides will be largely dictated by our prior views on the social importance of guns. That’s why our responses differ so drastically: it’s not that some of us are dumb and some smart, some indifferent to suffering and some caring, but that we can only understand tragedy within a cultural framework, and that framework partially dictates which elements of the tragedy pop out as salient.

In particular, those concerned primarily with hierarchical forms of status and authority will relate to gun crimes differently from those egalitarians who abhor social statification, while those who favor individual autonomy will take up a different yet a third approach to evaluating and prioritizing risks than those who favor collective action. What Braman and Kahan show is that the facts and statistics that seem salient to us depend largely on where we fall on both the hierarchy-egalitarian axis and the individualism-solidarism axis.

Here, then, is the problem: most of the prohibition-type solutions are only going to receive support from those of us who are both egalitarian and in favor of collective action. This creates the potential for a coalition of interests between those who favor guns as a traditional prerogative of American citizenship, and those who see them as a symbol self-sufficiency and of man’s mastery of nature. You can’t simply eliminate those value profiles and risk-assessments from the electorate, and it’s important to acknowledge that they do see some facts more clearly we do. Instead, we should seek solutions that are more widely satisfying to traditionalists. Politicians understood this long ago and captured it in the canard that gun safety regulations should respect the rights of “hunters and sportsmen.”

But what kinds of policies does this respect entail?

I’ve already linked to two kinds of suggestions for gun control that seem like reasonable accommodations with the many civic-minded gun owners in the country: the federal legislation recommendations from the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and the Op-Ed by Craig Whitney, “A Way Out of the Gun Stalemate.”

To this, let me add the state and local initiatives suggested by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which are in many ways more important, such as better mental health reporting and ammunition controls and licensing. Many of these are things that need not be resolved nationally to be effective: for instance, California single-handedly improved ballistics recognition by requiring guns sold in the state to “micro-stamp” their serial numbers onto shell casings. That program should be expanded to other states.

A lot of the pushback I received last week was tied to the fact that places like Japan and Great Britain have had reasonable success with prohibitions. Certainly this is true, but it seems to ignore both that those places started off with a very different gun culture, and that they are geographic anomalies, islands of dense populations with a lot of ethnic homogeneity. We have 310,000,000 of the damned things, and we’ve had many failures over the years trying to curb that numbers’ growth. We should try something different.

(Always a good reminder: Timur Kuran’s and Cass Sunstein’s “Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation.”)

Cultural Cognition is Not a Bias

Some recent posts by Dan Kahan on the subject of “cultural cognition” deserve attention:

(Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.)

There’s no remotely plausible account of human rationality—of our ability to accumulate genuine knowledge about how the world works—that doesn’t treat as central individuals’ amazing capacity to reliably identify and put themselves in intimate contact with others who can transmit to them what is known collectively as a result of science.

Indeed, as I said at the outset, it is not correct even to describe cultural cognition as a heuristic. A heuristic is a mental “shortcut”—an alternative to the use of a more effortful, and more intricate mental operation that might well exceed the time and capacity of most people to exercise in most circumstances.

But there is no substitute for relying on the authority of those who know what they are talking about as a means of building and transmitting collective knowledge. Cultural cognition is no shortcut; it is an integral component in the machinery of human rationality.

Unsurprisingly, the faculties that we use in exercising this feature of our rationality can be compromised by influences that undermine its reliability. One of those influences is the binding of antagonistic cultural meanings to risk and other policy-relevant facts. But it makes about as much sense to treat the disorienting impact of antagonistic meanings as evidence that cultural cognition is a bias as it does to describe the toxicity of lead paint as evidence that human intelligence is a “bias.”

Look: people aren’t stupid. They know they can’t resolve difficult empirical issues (on climate change, on HPV-vaccine risks, on nuclear power, on gun control, etc.) on their own, so they do the smart thing: they seek out the views of experts whom they trust to help them figure out what the evidence is. But the experts they are most likely to trust, not surprisingly, are the ones who share their values.

What makes me feel bleak about the prospects of reason isn’t anything we find in our studies; it is how often risk communicators fail to recruit culturally diverse messengers when they are trying to communicate sound science.

The number of scientific insights that make our lives better and that don’t culturally polarize us is orders of magnitude greater than the ones that do. There’s not a “culture war” over going to doctors when we are sick and following their advice to take antibiotics when they figure out we have infections. Individualists aren’t throttling egalitarians over whether it makes sense to pasteurize milk or whether high-voltage power lines are causing children to die of leukemia.

People (the vast majority of them) form the right beliefs on these and countless issues, moreover, not because they “understand the science” involved but because they are enmeshed in networks of trust and authority that certify whom to believe about what.

For sure, people with different cultural identities don’t rely on the same certification networks. But in the vast run of cases, those distinct cultural certifiers do converge on the best available information. Cultural communities that didn’t possess mechanisms for enabling their members to recognize the best information—ones that consistently made them distrust those who do know something about how the world works and trust those who don’t—just wouldn’t last very long: their adherents would end up dead.

Rational democratic deliberations about policy-relevant science, then, doesn’t require that people become experts on risk. It requires only that our society take the steps necessary to protect its science communication environment from a distinctive pathology that enfeebles ordinary citizens from using their (ordinarily) reliable ability to discern what it is that experts know.

Chesterton’s Fence

I try to defend conservatism sometimes. I also like Chesterton. Here’s one reason why:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

— G.K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I Am A Catholic

Foucault on Education and Human Capital

From Foucault’s Collège de France lecture on March 14th, 1979 (in what the publisher has misnamed The Birth of Biopolitics despite the fact that that year’s lectures basically spelled the end of Foucault’s work on biopolitics and focused on the limitation of state control over the market):

What does it mean to form human capital, and so to form these kinds of abilities-machines which will produce income, which will be remunerated by income? It means, of course, making what are called educational investments. In truth, we have not had to wait for the neo-liberals to measure some of the effects of these educational investments, whether this involves school instruction strictly speaking, or professional training, and so on, But the neo-liberals lay stress on the fact that what should be called educational investment is much broader than simple schooling or professional training and that many more elements than these enter into the formation of human capital? What constitutes this investment that forms an abilities-machine? Experimentally, on the basis of observations, we know it is constituted by, for example, the time parents devote to their children outside of simple educational activities strictly speaking. We know that the number of hours a mother spends with her child, even when it is still in the cradle, will be very important for the formation of an abilities-machine, or for the formation of a human capital, and that the child will be much more adaptive if in fact its parents or its mother spend more rather than less time with him or her. This means that it must be possible to analyze the simple time parents spend feeding their children, or giving them affection as investment which can form human capital. Time spent, care given, as well as the parents’ education because we know quite precisely that for an equal time spent with their children, more educated parents will form a higher human capital than parents with less education-in short, the set of cultural stimuli received by the child, will all contribute to the formation of those elements that can make up a human capital.

The echos of Heidegger on standing-reserve are quite strong here, but I also think we see one problem with my attempt to resolve the teleological paradox in education yesterday.

What happens to care and affection when they are analyzed in terms of their human capital-formative effects? This is the other reason that humanities advocates decry the instrumentalism of education: the fear that things like art and history which have previously stood as pure teloi [telê?] will subsequently become mere means to an end. We have to be very careful if we are to keep the instrumentally-reflective stage from infecting or polluting the genuineness of the commitments and relationships that we learn on reflection are best-suited to achieving our guiding or ultimate ends.

And perhaps, too, being “very careful” will not prevent instrumentality from colonizing the life-world. The “helicopter parent” has simply taken the neo-liberal realization about care-as-investment to heart, and is “saving up” for the future.

Academically Adrift’s Methodological Shipwreck

On Tuesday we had a university-wide faculty meeting on revising the general education requirements at Morgan State, and predictably President Wilson held up a copy of Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift and made some comments about how we had to do better while horribly mangling the actual findings of the book. Though there’s a lot going on in the text, which the group blog In Socrates Wake took up early last year, there are also serious methodological issues to consider before using it as a guide.

Let me start with the good news. Arum and Roksa’s conclusions are a triumph for the liberal arts: the only classes that guarantee an increase in “critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communication” are classes that have at least forty pages of weekly reading, twenty pages of writing per semester, and high expectations from the professor. As a result, students with majors outside of the traditional liberal arts and sciences did not appear to be developing these skills. It also helps a lot for a student to start with high abilities in those areas, which is perhaps a problem when you’re dealing with poorly prepared students like 65% of Morgan’s first-year class.

As much as I love the conclusions of this text, there are a number of important methodological concerns that academics and administrators ought to consider before adopting policies on the basis of the book. Alexander Astin explains the statistical problem in his Chronicle piece “In ‘Academically Adrift,’ Data Don’t Back Up Sweeping Claim” and there are many other critical reviews in this pdf from the journal College Composition and Communication. Let me see if I can summarize the issues.

Arum and Roksa depended on a voluntary standardized test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which they administered in the first and fourth semesters of undergraduates’ education.  Right off the bat, then, we know that this is not a test of a full college education, but rather of the general education supplied during the first two years.

But even then, the methodological problems are threeefold. First, the authors use a 95% confidence interval, which allows us to say that there is only a 5% chance that the students identified as increasing in ability didn’t actually do so. But by controlling for “false positives” so stringently, we’ve left the door open to “false negatives.”In other words, the data analysis does not justify the “Adrift” claim that students who fall outside of that group haven’t increased in ability. We can be sure that reading and writing intensive courses work; we can’t be sure that other things don’t work.  This is simply a flaw in the way that the authors present their findings.

Second, and perhaps more dangerously, this test is not very reliable for testing the increased performance (i.e. the difference between two tests taken years apart) of individual students. As researchers for the CLA’s maker, the Council for Aid to Education, themselves note:

The CLA focuses on the institution (rather than the student) as the unit of analysis. Its goal is to provide a summative assessment of the value added by the school’s instructional and other programs (taken as a whole) with respect to certain important learning outcomes. […C]orrelations are about 0.35 higher (and explain three times as much variance) when the college rather than the student is used as the unit of analysis. This huge increase stems from the much higher reliability of the school level scores.

This raises substantial questions about the value of data that takes the student as the unit of analysis, and thus uses the weakest data available. Sometimes we have to admit that we do not have the data to say anything at all with certainty, even when we wish we could and even when our own experience suggests a tempting explanation.

Third, Arum and Roksa ran more than a thousand different statistical tests looking for correlations, but “with a confidence level of .05, for every 1,000 tests run odds are that 50 are false positives.” That means that even my cherished findings in favor of the liberal arts could simply be a mistake.

It’s one thing to say that their results are overly demanding, but another entirely to suggest that the very solid foundation they offer could equally well be based on statistical happenstance, overly keen researchers desperate to find any fit at all, and an over-reliance on faulty data.

We have to be honest with ourselves about the limits of certainty within educational assessements. I still believe that high expectations, high reading loads, and a lot of writing are the key to teaching students to become critical and complex reasoners. But I have to admit that the evidence for my position thus far is not as reliable as I wish it were: the practice of critical thinking and complex reasoning depends on just such acknowledgments.