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By Tom Cushing

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About this blog: The Raucous Caucus shares the southpaw perspectives of this Boomer on the state of the nation, the world, and, sometimes, other stuff. I enjoy crafting it to keep current, and occasionally to rant on some issue I care about deeply...  (More)

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Stats or Stories?

Uploaded: Feb 5, 2013
"Human beings," a famous paleontologist once said, "are the primates who tell stories." Indeed, as we learn more about tool use and moral behavior as practiced by other species thebark.com/content/wild-justice-moral-lives-animals, our stories and our thumbs may be our best refuge against the conclusion that we're not so special, after all. Our fond early memories include bedtime stories that transport, fascinate and inform us, in rituals as old as language. Who can resist images of wizened elders passing-on tribal legends at twilight, or the anticipation of Breaking Bad's final season, for that matter?

Statistics, on the other hand, are an acquired taste. They have a cold rationality about them, and we learn their rudiments in the means, medians, and, if we're advanced, standard deviations of dreaded math class. Paradoxically, stats also smack of dark arts -- such as conjuring conclusions about 300 million Americans from studying samples of a thousand-or-so respondents. We are immediately, innately skeptical -- who's trying to sell me on this, why, and what if that particular sample consisted of all outliers? (statistically unlikely, I know -- but I.don't.care.)

There is a reason for the saying: "figures don't lie -- but liars figure." And it's no wonder that candidates may retreat to the comfort of observational metrics like "crowd enthusiasm" in gauging their chances. Nor should it be surprising that casino magnates have hundreds of millions to lavish on their preferred candidates; we can't figure the (poor) odds, but we've all heard stories about folks who hit the jackpot.

By contrast, when we go to the movies or watch a play, we give ourselves over to the plot -- "willingly suspending our disbelief," and identifying with one character or another. I can still tear-up recalling when I screamed at the TV not to shoot Old Yeller. A tale well-spun excites the imagination and makes us participants, as well as voyeurs, and calls upon our histories and our pre-conceptions, as well as our actual observations to draw conclusions. There's nothing like a good mystery or cliff-hanger to get us firing on all synapses.

Commercials know this, and the best ones suck us in (but sorry, GoDaddy, 'Walter' was a nudje-too-far). Billy Beane and Paul dePodesta, the Grand Poobahs of applied statistics in the national pastime, knew it, too, when they recently regaled the Lesher Lecture Series audience with war stories that illustrated their inspirations and impacts on The Game. And you can bet the phenomenon will be on display in a few days when our President punctuates his State of the Union address with the story of a real, live American prominently seated in The Gallery (kindly hold the scorn -- All Presidents use that device).

So, what's wrong with this phenomenon? Nothing, really -- it even acts as an important reminder to those of us who may be tempted to self-identify as the Very Soul of Sweet Reason. You're not, and I'm not (quite). We forget, at our great peril, that we are really just swirling masses of emotion. But if we succumb to stories uncritically, we may mis-use their power and make policy mistakes. It's what psychologists call "availability bias." We over-estimate the probability of an occurrence because we can see ourselves in it.

We've all heard the satisfying story of the young Oklahoma mother with her baby and her Remington, on the phone to 911 as intruders tried to break down her door. This "good-gal-with-a-gun" fired away -- killing one bad guy and scaring-off the other. About half the population, Mama-Grizzlies all, can directly identify with that heroine -- the rest of us breathe a sigh of relief. But what does it mean for policy -- shall we arm all mothers with side-by-sides -- or assault rifles, because, as one of the more militant Mamas I know opined: what if the intruder had one? (Now, THAT's the availability bias I'm talkin' 'bout!)

The cold, old world of statistics, though, tells are remarkably, tragically different story. As reported in the nation's newspaper-of-record,

"...The cost-benefit balance of having a gun in the home is especially negative for women, according to a 2011 review by David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Far from making women safer, a gun in the home is "a particularly strong risk factor" for female homicides and the intimidation of women.

In domestic violence situations, the risk of homicide for women increased EIGHTfold when the abuser had access to firearms, according to a study published in The American Journal of Public Health in 2003 ....Another 2003 study found that females living with a gun in the home were 2.7 times more likely to be murdered than females with no gun at home."

And more generally, a three-city study in the 1990s looked at injuries involving guns kept in homes. They found that "for every instance in which a gun in the home was shot in self-defense, there were SEVEN criminal assaults or homicides, FOUR accidental shootings, and ELEVEN attempted or successful suicides." [emphases all mine

Those are terrible odds, but the thing we want to remember is Ado Annie and her shotgun. As the nation's conversation on the gun culture continues, we need to make space in our heads for actual data; the pay-outs in this casino are denominated in lives.

To paraphrase a great old TV story-line: "The stats, Ma'am, just the stats."

Comments

 +  Like this comment
Posted by C. R. Mudgeon, a resident of Danville,
on Feb 7, 2013 at 10:04 am

Very interesting article. It is indeed better, at least usually, to be guided by the facts and statistics, rather than emotions, in making decisions for yourself. And I would urge anyone and everyone to use facts and statistics in deciding for themselves whether gun ownership makes sense for their situation.

But notice that I said "making decisions for yourself", and "deciding for themselves whether gun ownership makes sense for their situation". Because it is my right to make that decision for myself, and our right to make that decision for ourselves.

So the real issue here isn't whether people make decisions based on statistics or emotions. It's the far more basic and serious issue of who gets to make the decision. I trust myself to make the decision for myself, far more than I trust someone else to make the decision for me, and far more than I trust a governmental body to make the decision for me.

Up to this point in time, I have decided that the benefits of gun ownership (for reasons both logical and emotional) have not been sufficiently compelling for me to decide to purchase a gun. But I am starting to look very seriously at doing so. In part because more and more people seem determined to take that choice or decision away from me....


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Huh?, a resident of Danville,
on Feb 7, 2013 at 10:19 am

C.R., the problem is that you're not just making that decision "for yourself." You're making it for everyone around you. Your freedom to swing your arms ends at the next guy's nose. A gun has long arms.

And to be blunt, a guy who decides he will do something that he's previously analyzed as being a bad choice simply because he perceives that other people may want to take away his right to do that thing isn't the first guy I'd choose to hand a device which makes it easy to kill people.

Just sayin'.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Dashford, a resident of Alamo,
on Feb 8, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Mr. Curmudgeon, if you believe that government should not restrict personal actions based on safety statistics, I assume that you feel that how fast you can safely drive your car on public roads should be your personal decision. Perhaps YOUR decision would be a good one. But you are exceptional. And in claiming that it should be your personal decision whether to buy a military style assault rifle with high capacity magazine you are also claiming that right for everyone who is far less sensible and wise than you are.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville,
on Feb 8, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Remember when President Obama said that "the mistake" of the early years of his presidency was his failure to be a better storyteller?

He said, "The nature of this office is to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times."

How about this for a story: Imagine a country that didn't start wars, didn't torture, didn't detain U.S. citizens indefinitely, without trial, without allowing them to see a lawyer or even loved ones, didn't KILL it's own citizens without trial, didn't kill 176 children with drone strikes.

This was the American fantasy I grew up with. I want to be able to tell my kids it's a true story.

Mr. President, gun violence beings at the top. No more stories. Just please stop killing us.



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