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OSD 189: Gun ownership is applied philosophy
Reason posted a video on Friday about the modern history of guns-as-public-health-question:
This is a popular subject around here.
In a worldview where you’re weighing pros and cons, you’d … well, weigh pros and cons. But from this Sanctity/Degradation frame, the very presence of a gun is a profanation of the city. There’s nothing to weigh, because it’s not about who has the gun or why. The gun itself is haram.
And in “OSD 163: Preference laundering”:
… you can’t (well, shouldn’t) go on the news or go to a cocktail party and state your opinion as fact. What you can do — and in fact looks quite smart when you do it! — is to say, “Did you know that studies show <result that happens to align with my preexisting preference>?”
This creates heavy selective pressure towards studies that reinforce that preference, and away from those that disconfirm it. That pressure can be so strong that it turns an entire field from a scientific enterprise into an emergent preference laundering machine. Preexisting preferences and grant money go in one end, peer-reviewed studies with ≤0.05 p-values come out the other end. Crucially, this doesn’t require any ill intentions among the individuals in the field. They can all be working earnestly on well-designed studies. It’s simple publication bias: the ones who luck into the “right” results will get published, and the ones who don’t won’t.
The power of preference laundering is that it turns a group of people’s personal preference into the “official” answer for what smart people are supposed to think.
This time let’s talk about the core issue with the public health lens.
It’s easy to hand-wave away the whole idea of studying guns through epidemiology. But that’s a mistake. There’s interesting data there, and it’s reasonable to think that if you’re interested in reducing negative outcomes related to shootings (deliberate or accidental, suicidal or homicidal), that data is useful.
The issue isn’t that people take a public health lens. The issue is that they stop there. Guns are simple tools, which makes them seem reducible to measurements and statistics. But their purpose is to both represent and protect the philosophical idea that people own their own bodies. Most tools don’t have that weight to them. No country writes screwdrivers into the constitution.
So it’s reductive to study this kind of applied philosophy through public health surveys and think you’ve captured the full picture. That would be like describing your favorite book by saying how many copies it sold and how many pages it has. You’d communicate something about the book, but to stop there is to miss the whole idea of literature.
The problem with the public health lens isn’t quite the story it tells (although that certainly has its own issues), it’s the story it doesn’t tell — or rather, isn’t even aware of. If your only interest in, say, the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure was running study after study to determine how many criminals went uncaught because of it, you’d wind up without any real understanding of the right you’re studying. And worse, you’d think you understand it deeply. Deep in the forest of unknown-unknowns.
The good news is that you can use that to appeal to people’s desire to be right. People don’t respond well to being accused of being wrong or ill-intentioned. But they do respond well to, “Hey I know you study this stuff, here’s some info you might not have that will help you understand it even more deeply.” If we adapt our approach to whatever lens someone is looking at this stuff through, we’ll get further than using a lens that they haven’t bought into. That’s not foolproof — in some cases the better someone is with numbers, the more they can use that to shore up motivated reasoning — but it’s a lot more productive than the alternatives.
This week’s links
Cool visualization. Tldr don’t shoot in the air.
Detailed reporting in The Reload. We discussed the original filing of the lawsuit last year in “OSD 129: The lawsuit accusing gun makers of complying with the law“.
The ban states’ responses to Bruen have really been taking the piss.
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