I find “the fallacy” of statistics interesting. For example, if we were discussing public health conditions in New York City and somebody quoted that there are 7 million rats living there, one might query as to how the rats had been counted. Now, this is a completely different discussion, rat-counting methods, versus the topic of “public health.”
This means that the discussion of statistics could be as relevant as anything.
The topic of “gun control” has this same potential for change of topic. Now, rather than discuss the topic itself, it might be helpful to appreciate the context of the discussion itself. Why? As a means to understanding ourselves better. Now, the topic is not “gun control,” but about, “what makes us tick.” And, how your opinions contribute to national safety, improvement, prosperity, etc.
My friend, Connie, referred me to this article published by Yale Law School on the topic of gun control as a broader issue of “gun-risk perceptions.” In this case, “guns themselves” fall under the subcategory of individual “risk assessment.” Like killing rats with poison could also have the potential to poison little children. One’s values may vary on the matter. Attitudes towards vaccinations likewise vary by opinion according to one’s broader values surrounding risk-assessment.
So, risk can be broken down into two different bases of analysis: 1) consequential and, 2) cultural orientation.
“Consequential” is basically how the gun control debate has been presented to the public currently through the media. This Yale paper suggests that public discourse has been impaired by the very methodology of the discussion itself. It would be like establishing a public health policy based upon the exact number of rats in New York City. In other words, the discussion itself requires analysis, that is, self-analysis. The question now is, Who is up for a little self-analysis?
I have cut and pasted from the article to present the author’s ideas and research slightly more succinct. What they are saying is that certain demographics play a huge statistical significance (more than the ones we usually consider). That is, how one forms their risk assessment within their own individual cultural context/perspective is relevant. These fall into four categories:
1) the egalitarian, 2) the solidarist, 3) the individualist, or 4) the hiearchist.
Which are you? It will likely determine your position on gun control. At the top, we are talking not about guns, but about our perceived risks of living in society. Arguing over empirical data which position is “certainly right” won’t get the job done. However, understanding each other’s positions, as just ideas about what makes for a better society, will at least forward the discussion (constructively).
So, this is an alternative discussion: How does society balance diverse risks? Where does my opinions fit with others (like me, not like me)? How would things improve if diversity of perspectives actually felt like a national strength? S.
YALE LAW SCHOOL
Public Law & Legal Theory (Working Paper Series)
by Donald Braman and Dan M. Kahan
This paper can be downloaded without charge from the
Social Science Research Network Paper Collection at
A Cultural Theory of Gun-Risk Perceptions
The issue is not whether to accept a particular risk, but rather which of two risks, that of firearm casualties in a world with insufficient gun control, or that of personal defenselessness in a world with excessive control, we should find the least acceptable. It is thus inaccurate to characterize women as “more concerned with risk” in the gun-control setting; rather they are more concerned with the risk that they will be victimized, but less concerned with the risk that they will be deprived of the power to repel a violent attack.
Individuals don’t have generic attitudes toward risky activities, but instead evaluate them according to context-specific norms that determine what risk-taking connotes about their values and attitudes. So a person may climb mountains on the weekends to demonstrate (to herself and to others) that she possesses courage and physical discipline, and invest her retirement funds in money-market certificates to demonstrate that she is prudent, responsible, and forward-looking.
Acceptance of the risks incident to nuclear power, for example, might signal confidence in governmental and scientific authority, man’s mastery over his environment, and the feasibility of unimpeded private commerce to one group of citizens, but collective hubris, disrespect for the sacredness of nature, and generational selfishness to another.
Using sophisticated survey instruments, Karl Dake has shown that the degree to which an individual’s cultural orientations tends toward hierarchical, egalitarian, or individualist worldviews does in fact strongly predict that person’s attitude toward a wide range of societal risks.
Confronted with competing factual claims and supporting empirical data that they are not in a position to verify for themselves, ordinary citizens naturally look to those whom they trust to tell them what to believe about the consequences of gun control laws. The people they trust, unsurprisingly, are the ones who share their cultural outlooks
There is little prospect of consequentialist arguments resolving the gun debate. Individuals will simply conform, and if that’s not feasible, subordinate, their perceptions of what guns do to their culturally grounded understandings of what guns mean.
Expected utility analysis cannot tell us whose vision — the egalitarian’s, the solidarist’s, the individualist’s, or the hiearchist’s — is better. “Instead of being distracted by dubious calculations,” then, we must attend openly to the question of what “kind of society we prefer to live in.”
While predictably failing to change anyone’s mind, empirical analyses do reinforce the conviction of those who already accept their conclusions that a rational and just assessment of the facts must support their position. The disagreement is then no longer seen as a reflection of differing visions of the good society, but an ethical battle over acceptance of an indisputable, objective truth. Instead of challenging one another’s worldviews, those who continue the debate simply challenge one another’s honesty and integrity.
Individuals who were relatively hierarchical in their outlooks were nearly twice as likely as those who were relatively egalitarian, and individuals who were relatively individualistic over four times as likely as individuals who were relatively solidaristic, to oppose gun control.
Whether one is hierarchical or egalitarian, individualistic or solidaristic, also matters more than whether one is Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal.
The first claim was descriptive: that individuals’ attitudes toward gun control are derivative of the type of social order they prize. Simply put, individuals who are inclined toward egalitarian and solidaristic worldviews are much more likely to support gun control than are individuals who are inclined toward hierarchic and individualistic worldviews.
Indeed, using the methods associated with the cultural theory of risk, we have attempted to show that cultural orientations so defined predict a person’s position on gun control more completely than does any other fact about her. In this respect, individuals’ perceptions of “gun risks” are of a piece with their perceptions of diverse other societal risks.
Impoverished by the influence of liberalism, our political discourse just doesn’t supply us with the resources we need for a productive and tolerant discussion about our cultural differences. Currently, our only options are silence — which is what the mainstream empirical debate amounts to — and scorn.
The second claim was normative: that those interested in resolving the gun debate should turn their attention away quantifying the consequences of gun control. Because individuals’ positions are derivative of their cultural orientations, consequentialist argument can’t settle the dispute between those who favor control and those who oppose it. The social norms that construct individuals’ cultural worldviews act as a cognitive filter, causing them to credit certain risks and supporting evidence and to dismiss others. As a result, those who generate empirical data on gun control will always be preaching to the choir.