Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fun with Numbers

In 1981 a report, commissioned by President Carter to assess gun violence, was published in several
volumes titled, strangely, "Under the Gun" which concluded that there was no connection between
gun control laws and gun crime. The landmark federal Gun Control Act of 1968, banning most
interstate gun  sales, had no discernible impact on the criminal acquisition of guns from other states,
Detroit’s law providing mandatory sentences for felonies committed with a gun was found to have no
effect on gun-crime patterns, and Washington, D.C.’s 1977 ban on the ownership of handguns
(except those already registered in the District) was not linked to reduction in gun crime in the
nation’s capital.

In 2004, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released its assessment of over 400 journal articles, books government publications and some original research. The conclusion was there was no evidence that any gun control reduced violent crime, suicide, or gun accidents.
The results of a 2003 study by the Center for Disease Control was the same.
So now comes Mr. Obama with his 23 "executive actions" which include: “Issue a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.” This new study will do what? Break new ground? Turn over new rocks? Reassess old ones? Perhaps avoid uncomfortable real conclusions?
This is a metaphor for the culture. We have an undeniable problem. The factors involved are not clear. Some of the popular and obvious factors have been shown not to be significant. But we allow our prejudice--a word meaning "pre-judge"--to trump our need for accuracy and we follow our prejudgment to some conclusion. This allows us to feel righteous and accomplished. It also allows us to diminish those who prefer more accuracy.
Years ago I sat in a serious business meeting with some serious analysts looking at the question of information and input. Debate raged over the significance of our gathering method when the chair of the meeting stopped the debate. He shouted, "Bad data is better than no data at all!" He then adopted the disputed data. The table fell silent and remained so. Everybody in the room knew the chairman, who eventually became president of the corporation, was either over his head or insincere.

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