Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sensationalism vs Statistics

High profile events, such as the shooting that occurred in Aurora Colorado always open up a flood gate of urgent proposals. While sensationalism offers the initial benefit of sparking debate, it very rarely leads to the implementation of effective policy. To start off, it distracts us from statistically significant patterns, causing us to instead focus on statistical outliers. While the death of 12 individuals in Colorado was a terrible tragedy, shootings involving crazed gunmen comprise only a very small percentage of overall violence. The majority of gun violence involves conflicts between gangs over drug territory, which in the case of Chicago has risen by 38% this year. In a six month period in 2012, 250 people were murdered in Chicago. In one week in August of 2012, 15 individuals were killed in a series of violent altercations, which in contrast to the single Colorado shooting, prompted very little public debate, precisely because it was accepted as a statistical norm.

Clearly, to base violence reduction strategies on statistical outliers (crazed gunmen), is inherently less effective than strategies focused on drug violence. For example, the shooting in Colorado prompted calls for stricter gun control measures, which may be a good idea, however, it will do little to deter violence in cities like Chicago and Washington DC in which the vast majority of gun violence involve illegally obtained firearms. Given this fact, concerted efforts by law enforcement agencies to crack down on the black market channels that supply weapons to criminals, would be vastly more effective. Another policy proposal was to focus more resources on keeping guns from people with mentally illnesses, which may be a good idea, but given that statistics do NOT support the commonly held nation that the mentally ill are more prone to violence, this will do little or nothing to lower the aggregate rate of violence.

One of the most positive aspects of American Culture, is our aversion to fatalism, our belief that we can and must control our circumstances. But, the downside of this impulse is that it prevents us from accepting that random tragedies and statistical outliers will occur, that are beyond our control. It drives us to seek to legislate away all possible danger, especially after a tragic event. The greatest hazard of this approach is that it further restricts social and economic life, while doing little to make us safer. The shoe bomber incident was certainly a frightening event, but the government's response, to mandate that all prospective passengers remove their shoes is a perfect example of this regulatory hubris. Given the adaptive nature of terrorists, this was the first and certainly the last instance in which they will pursue this means of attack, yet for the foreseeable future, all travelers will be needlessly inconvenienced. Why? Because to do nothing would force politicians and regulators to admit that so much is beyond their control and their usefulness is quite overstated. The wisest course of action is to reject the cult of fear and sensationalism and let dry statistics and cool reason help us determine what we can and should control.

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