Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Guns Are Often Not the Best Tool

I have made the point here before that I am neither a strict pacifist, nor do I believe that guns cannot be used for legitimate self-defense purposes (here and here). I believe that, on balance, guns are often not the best tool for self-defense; they are certainly not the panacea that some seem to want to claim. But I do not come at this issue as a fanatic, either pro-gun or anti-gun.

From that standpoint, the following story is an interesting one. It is told by a gun owner, about another gun owner who appears to be both responsible and thoughtful - not a "gun not", and not a proponent of openly carrying guns either for symbolism or for deterrence:
Man Attacked in Walmart Won't Open Carry Again
I appreciate this fellow's perspective, and the restraint which he showed in this situation. He is certainly correct that the best use of a gun for self-defense involves NOT pulling the trigger. I give him props for properly noting that situational awareness is the best defense. I think he's also probably right in his conclusion that openly carrying a weapon in this case made the defender a target - that had he not been carrying his weapon visibly, this fellow would not have attacked him at all. There's an irony there, but I'll leave that for others.

Those who have read my writings on this subject before know that I prefer unarmed means of self-defense where possible, and am a proponent of traditional martial arts in particular (though there are a great many "non-traditional" systems, including Russian Systema and Krav Maga, which can be highly effective as well). Interestingly, the story linked above actually helps make that point - this fellow would have been better off had he not been carrying at all, even if the other guy still attacked him, provided that he was ready to deal with such an attack.

The story itself is fairly simple: a stranger grabs a baseball bat from a rack in the aisle of a store and takes a swing at the protagonist's head with it. Here's the meat of the story:
The man picked up a bat from the bat rack, and without warning, drew back and swung it at Mr. Walker’s head with full force. 
Unlike most people who would have frozen due to the unexpected nature of the attack, or who would have reflexively recoiled away, Mr. Walker stepped forward into the swing and turned his shoulder into his attacker. His reaction both reduced the force of the blow, and kept his assailant from making a potentially deadly strike to his head. 
Mr Walker then stepped back to create distance and drew his open-carried Sig Sauer P226 in .357 Sig, racked the slide the chamber a round (he carries it on an empty chamber), and ordered his attacker to the ground.
Martial artists will recognize this scenario - the baseball bat attack is one of the most common "armed attacker vs. unarmed defender" scenarios we use in training. And this guy's first reaction - to step in rather than out - was a good start.

From there, however, the best next step would have been to control the attacker, taking away his option to continue the attack by immobilizing the arm, taking away the bat, or preferably both. There are dozens of ways to do this, and most reasonably experienced martial artists could think up two or three of them on the spot.

So while I applaud the defender in this story for his restraint in not firing his gun, the fact that he didn't is not because of his virtue or skill - it's because the attacker chose to comply rather than continue the attack. As many in the self-defense community will tell you, that's a weak reed on which to hang your fate.

By his own admission, the defender "stepped back to create distance" - let's assume six to eight feet at most, a quick couple of steps. That would take him out of immediate swing range, but not so far that the fellow with the bat couldn't try again. A determined, or crazed (or drugged-up) attacker could very well do so.

This is where watching movies and TV gets us in trouble. On screen, there is a certain narrative omniscience - we see that the good guy has a gun, and the bad guy sees it to. But what if, in this case, the bad guy didn't see the gun? Or what if his judgment was impaired, or he thought he could get the swing in before the gunman pulled the trigger? Any of these is possible in the real world, and experienced cops and prosecutors will tell you they all happen.

At that point, our gun-armed defender faces a terrible choice. An attacker with a baseball bat who has already swung at him once is 6-8 feet away and charging again. That attack is going to land in 0.5 seconds, tops. In that time, the defender must make a life-or-death choice: to fire or not. Both choices can lead to disaster. It's a terrible position to be in - shoot or don't shoot, either can ruin your life.

The martial artist does not face this same choice, having a range of tools at his disposal. In response to the initial attack, he can take away the bat and immobilize the attacker. He can strike in a way that injures, but does not kill. He can break the attacker's arm, rendering another swing impossible. He has a wealth of options, limited only by his training, his skill, and his imagination. Almost none of those options leave anybody dead.

Every attack is different. One problem in debates over self-defense is that they are anecdote-based: we present stories or make up scenarios and then argue that our preferred method would be the best way to deal with this situation. Rarely in life in there one answer to everything. But in self-defense, guns present for me too stark a choice: kill or be killed. I prefer to leave matters of life and death to others, and to try to fill my toolbox with skills and abilities to cover a scaleable range of possibilities. I applaud this gun owner for the outcome of this case. But he would have been better off with training and practice in place of the gun.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It's Not the Economy, Stupid: Politics is Fundamentally about Power

When Bill Clinton ran for President back in 1992, his campaign had a few simple phrases that they used internally to stay on message. The most famous of these became widely cited: "It's the economy, stupid." Clinton's success propelled that phrase to almost mythic status: elections are won or lost on economic or "pocketbook" issues.

This is relevant as we start the serious, above-board portion of the next Presidential election cycle (yes, it's still early in 2015 and we're talking about the 2016 campaign - so it goes these days). Candidates are emerging from the woodwork (few of them surprises) and already starting to argue about the agenda. Economic issues are featuring prominently already, and probably will throughout.

A lot has been written (including in this blog) about the growing level of inequality in America. The phrase "the 1%" now has a lasting and universally-understood meaning, which itself is an indication of how skewed things have become. I still believe that the question of economic distribution is one of the fundamental issues of our time, because it opens the door to the wider question of what kind of society we want to live in.

Unfortunately, the economic argument has become mired in our usual tribal politics and bumper-sticker sloganeering. And here I have to give props to the conservative side of the argument, because they have managed to fashion a couple of closely related trump cards. One is the argument that "Liberals care about equality of outcomes, conservatives care about equality of opportunities." The other is the nearly universal revulsion the conservative movement has instilled towards the notion of "economic redistribution". Robin Hood (taking from the rich and giving to the poor) no longer has much legitimacy in America.

Leaving aside the sincerity of either of these arguments (and I believe that many conservatives are sincere, especially about the opportunity vs. outcome side of things), this whole "debate" misses the point. Focusing on money and economic distribution is trying to treat the symptom instead of diagnosing the disease.

The real issue - indeed, the fundamental question of all governance no matter what kind of political system you have - is distribution of power. We talk a lot about money corrupting politics, and it clearly can and does - but that's a back-end reinforcement mechanism. Money follows power far more than it leads it. Take a look at folks who got rich outside the usual power structures - Bill Gates is a good example. Gates has more money than the Koch Brothers will ever have, but that doesn't make him more powerful. His wealth has had very little, if any, impact on American politics. Most people don't even know what his political views are.

So when we argue about whether our political system should be redistributing wealth, we are barking up the wrong tree. What we should be talking about is the redistribution of political power. We have forgotten that such redistribution is exactly what democracy is designed to do. Political power always and everywhere tends naturally to accumulate over time in the hands of a small elite - this has happened in every human society, everywhere, at every stage in history. The whole point of the American revolution, the Constitution (and before it, the Articles of Confederation), the Magna Carta, and all of what we regard as the best political experiments in history have had this one thing in common: the goal of intentionally taking power away from the few and spreading it out among the many.

In this, our current political system is failing spectacularly. I've cited before the study by Gilens and Page showing remarkable evidence of oligarchy stretching back decades. Other studies have been done, and other evidence collected, pointing in the same direction. The growing concentration of power in the United States isn't a debatable point - all the evidence we have points to the same conclusion.

This will sound to some like a partisan argument, and in a certain sense it is. The Republican Party, from its policy positions to its core ideology to its funding sources, seems to have aligned itself some time ago with the existing dominant bases of power in the United States. A message that rejects wealth redistribution is a message in defense of the status quo - that is, the current distribution of power in the country. So far as I can tell, the Republican Party on most fronts seems content with the existing concentration of power.

But mine is not necessarily an argument in favor of the Democratic Party in general, or Hillary Clinton (the presumptive nominee at this point) in particular. Clinton is very much a part of the existing power structure (as are nearly all of the other potential Democratic candidates), and has never shown a great deal of fervor for the mission of redistributing power back out, though she does adopt some of the lingo. The Democratic Party in general, going back probably the late 1960s and the Chicago debacle, has largely accommodated itself to the existing power system as a means of remaining relevant.

Recently some friends of mine on the left have been cheering as wealthy private individuals (Warren Buffet, George Soros) with more left-leaning views have begun talking about jumping into the political fray to push back against the power of conservative money. And while such a struggle would appear to make the system more "balanced", in reality it simply turns American politics into an argument among rich white guys. The famous Swahili proverb seems to fit: "When the elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled."

Some have turned to the growing Libertarian movement as an antidote, and on its face it would seem that Libertarianism - with its message of shrinking the power of government and pushing decisions back to the local level - is consistent with the notion of redistributing power. But in this, Libertarians are terribly naive. They focus entirely on official government power and ignore the significant power in the hands of private players (the Koch Brothers, Buffet, or otherwise). A weak central government is an extremely fertile ground for an oligarchy - look at Russia in the 1990s under Yeltsin, when the oligarchs ran roughshod over the country and gobbled up nearly everything of value. Believing that you can shrink the power of government and wind up with a freer and more democratic outcome - or even a place that people like living in - flies in the face of the evidence.

So where to turn? As usual, I don't have any good solutions - if the answer were obvious somebody else would have found it already. But I do argue - as I always have - that asking the right questions and focusing on the right issues is far more important that having the answers. Right now our political system is largely asking all the wrong questions. We have for the most part abandoned the central mission of democracy in favor of some of its trappings. If we start asking the right questions, I don't know what will happen - but I think the outcome is likely to be better than the path we are on.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why Does College Cost So Much? Beating the Same Dead Horses

Frankly, I almost hate to write this. I've written plenty of pieces before about the rising cost of higher education and the increase in administration within universities. There are too many to link them all here; try this one for starters, it points back to several of the others.

So why rehash this subject again? Because Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, somehow managed to get an op-ed published in the New York Times - in the Sunday Review section, no less - that beats this dead horse one more time with a bizarre series of not-quite-comparable almost-statistics that sound vaguely like an argument. You can find lots of writing picking his article apart piece by piece, from his misuse of analogies to his simple misstatement of facts. I'll assume that ground has been crossed already and so won't go over it again here.

Unfortunately, the visibility of Campos' piece has given new life to an argument that ought to have been disposed of a long time ago - that the rising tuition cost of college if really a function of evil, greedy, grasping, ever-multiplying administrators. Perhaps Mr. Campos pictures us sitting around in our office twirling our mustaches and petting white fluffy cats. But because he got his nonsense published in the NYT, we have to go over this again.

Are there more "administrators" on campuses? Yes, absolutely - although the first challenge you confront when you try to verify that is defining the line is between "administrator" and "staff". A lot of the "administrators" that Mr. Campos points to as the source of the problem are people who do things. Many of these things, as I have pointed out many times before, were things that universities were not expected to do two generations ago (he seems fond of comparisons to 1960) but are today.

In many if not most instances, universities did not choose these things for themselves - both society and government have thrust a great many mandates onto universities and colleges in that intervening 55 years. Faculty can't both be faculty and also do all of these other things (Title IX compliance; online education authorizations; demonstrating a bewildering array of accreditation standards; outcomes assessment; workforce development; student success for a vastly more diverse student body; etc, etc, etc). One of the few things to get bipartisan agreement among some members of Congress recently is the assertion that regulation of higher education has gone a bit too far in many areas. On this point, Republicans have been standing on solid ground for years: regulation has costs. Mr. Campos apparently doesn't want to talk about that.

There's also a gratuitous reference in Mr. Campos' piece to "seven-figure salaries for high-ranking university administrators". I will freely concede the point that such salaries are ethically and economically indefensible. But to suggest, as he apparently wants to do, that these have any measurable impact on the cost of tuition is absurd. The vast majority of universities (my current employer included) have nobody earning anywhere near that amount. Schools with those salaries are mostly restricted to the handful of top-tier research & NCAA Div I/BCS institutions, and even at those places only a small handful of people are making a million dollars or more. Slashing their salaries in half would make only the tiniest dent in those institutions' budgets. I don't think football and basketball coaches should get $3 million a year either, but pointing to that as the cause of the tuition problem simply makes Mr. Campos look like he can't do math.

The reality, as always, is more complicated and would require a more complex conversation to really deal with. Mr. Campos' assertions aside, we DO invest less as a society in higher education than we used to. For a while (in particular, in the 1960s and 1970s) spending did rise as the number of students going to college rose as well. The cuts (measurable on a per-student basis, something Mr. Campos doesn't want to engage with) have come about in the last 20 or so years. It is also true during that time that tuition has gone up for a variety of reasons - some having to do with more student aid being available (a phenomenon which doesn't surprise economists, price inflation is a natural consequence of flooding a system with more money), some having to do with the increased cost of doing business for universities and the rising societal and governmental demands on those institutions, some having to do with cost-shifting based on a reimagining of higher education as a private good as opposed to a public good.

All of these things matter, and all of them have a hand in creating a problem that is in fact very real. As a parent of a college student who looked at both private and public university options, I agree that the affordability of tuition has gone wildly out of control just between my generation and my daughter's. I wonder sometimes how some of these smaller, less well-known private institutions manage to stay in business (the announced closing of Sweet Briar came as little surprise on that front). Even public institutions are less affordable than they once were.

So I agree with Mr. Campos on one point: we have a real college affordability problem. At a time when having a college degree is increasingly becoming THE path to a middle-class life, it is becoming harder and harder even for middle-class kids to get one. We should think seriously about this as a society, and together come up with changes that will help move us closer to the kind of country we want. But flogging dead horses and pinning everything on overly-simplistic, monocausal theories doesn't get us anywhere - even when you do it in the New York Times.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Where's the Truth? The Challenge of Scientific 'Controversies'

I wrote a little over a month ago about the use of the term "research" in public arguments over science. I argued at the time, and still maintain, that people often claim to have done "research" when what they really mean is that they have (very selectively) read other people's research. This is related, I think, to the erosion of respect for expertise, but that's a subject for another day.

At the time, a fairly robust Facebook discussion broke out among my friends about whether there isn't another reasonable form of the word "research" - what we might call "library research". Isn't it fair, some argued, for a layperson who is not expert in a given field to say that they are "researching" some issue by digging into the literature and reading what the experts have written? I will concede this point - though I would prefer the term "library research" to distinguish this from the sort of research that generates new knowledge, I think it's fair for non-experts to talk about "researching" a topic in the sense of informing themselves about the current state of what is known.

Of course, many of those who try to stir up "controversy" on scientific subjects (vaccines, climate change, etc.) aren't really doing this kind of "research" either. There's a difference between reading The Literature on a subject to try to find out what the experts think about something, and selectively reading that same research to bolster a predetermined conclusion that you've already arrived at (vaccines cause autism, climate change isn't real, the earth is 6000 years old - take your pick). Those people still aren't engaged in research, even of the "library research" variety, any more than a small child putting on his father's tie makes him an employed professional with a job. It's just window dressing, and usually pretty ill-fitting at that.

But in the midst of that Facebook conversation, one of my friends raised a very good question: if you are a non-expert faced with a controversial subject, how do you go about trying to research that topic to figure out, as best you can, what the truth is? This is actually harder than it might seem, in part because experts often don't do a very good job of communicating with the public and in part because those who are trying to create "controversy" as a way of arguing for extremely unorthodox (often demonstrably false) ideas like to muddy the water as much as they can. In the midst of that kind of free-for-all, what's a reasonable non-expert person to do?

There are a few fairly easy rules of thumb that will take you a little ways down the road. Just as the corollary to Godwin's Law states that whoever mentions Nazis first in an argument automatically loses, the adoption of any argument predicated on a vast conspiracy of silence on the part of thousands of otherwise-autonomous (if not competitive) individuals is a guaranteed loser. Efforts, therefore, to dismiss "climate science" as a cooked-up conspiracy fail on their face since such a theory would require the complicit cooperation of thousands of individual scientists around the world who all know better but have been convinced to lie to the rest of us. Ditto for arguments that the CDC  and NIH are somehow engaged in a conspiracy of silence - anybody who watches government agencies for any length of time knows that most of them leak like sieves and can't be trusted to keep much of anything secret. So if one side of a "debate" is relying on this kind of argument, it's safe to say they're probably wrong.

Beyond that, however, the waters get pretty muddy. Many folks involved in these controversies make claims to certain kinds of authority, while denying the authority claims of the other side. Take, for example, the work of Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She has given a number of public talks recently claiming that modern chemical agriculture, and Monsanto's RoundUp product in particular, are going to make 1/2 of all American children develop Autism by the year 2025. This has been widely reported in a number of fringe science websites, often with headlines line this:
MIT States That Half of All Children May Be Autistic By 2025 Due to Monsanto
On the face of it, this is absurd. "MIT" states no such thing - in fact, the university itself does not endorse the work of any of its researchers. Moreover, Dr. Seneff is a highly controversial figure at best - an electrical engineer and expert in computational algorithms for understanding human language who has wandered into matters of public health, biochemistry, and epidemiology that are pretty far afield from her established expertise. Beyond presentations and talks, much of the work she has published in this area has been in the journal Entropy, itself a highly controversial publication whose parent organization, MDPI, has been accused of shady scientific practices. All of this gets into the realm of claim and counter-claim which can be VERY difficult for non-experts to sort through.

Folks that like to cite impressive institutions (MIT, Harvard, Johns Hopkins) on behalf of their claims are often quick to dismiss other equally-impressive institutions when scientists disagree with the argument they're trying to advance. This is another good indication that you may be dealing with a questionable argument - a persistent habit of attacking people rather than ideas (similar to the reliance on conspiracy theory, above). It's legitimate to question someone's credentials, because that's germane to whether they are a reliable source of information. Questioning motives, on the other hand, is generally out of bounds. Inconsistency doesn't look good either; note this article's introduction of its purported expert as a "Johns Hopkins University graduate" even though nearly every other graduate of that same institution engaged in research in the field of vaccines disagrees with him.

In the end, if you REALLY want to know what the state of knowledge is on a given subject, you first have to become conversant in the basics of the scientific method and you have to be willing to wade through an awful lot of material, some of which may be deliberately obfuscatory or misleading. That's a tall order for most folks, but if it matters to you to be right then that's what you have to do. This is one reason why scientific literacy is so important - more people need the tools to do this right. But equally important, people need the mental discipline to not "reason backwards", picking the answer they want based on their social tribe and then cherry-picking evidence to support it. That's probably the hardest barrier of all, and it's what separates actual scientists from wannabes with agendas.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

When You're Losing, Change the Subject: Vaccines and the "Freedom" Agenda

I have blogged recently about the misuse of the term "research" by various movements seeking to argue with mainstream scientific consensus around a range of topics. People opposed to vaccines (led in particular by those who believe that vaccination causes autism and other maladies) have been in the news much lately, although the same arguments have been active around issues of climate change, evolutionary biology, and other issues. National Geographic recently published a cover story on this, provocatively titled (in the print version) "The War on Science".

The anti-vaccine movement has taken a lot of flak and pushback recently, both from the medical & public health community concerned that dropping rates of vaccination will undo progress from the last 100 years and from concerned parents afraid that the drop in herd immunity will expose their children to diseases long since removed from the population at large. It has been, from a social and political point of view, a fascinating and rare example of a loud minority being countered by a much larger majority. On a number of other issues vocal minorities hold sway simply because the larger population doesn't care enough. Apparently, public health is not one of those issues.

Given this pushback, it's unsurprising that the anti-vaccine movement is trying to change the terms of debate. Whenever somebody is losing an argument in the US, they try to turn it into an argument about Freedom, because Freedom is the one trump card that people think always wins the argument. This meme, now circulating on the internet, is emblematic of this approach:


I'm surprised that they didn't throw mom, the flag, and apple pie in there, but you get the picture. I mean, how can anybody possibly be against any of these wonderful things?

The organization sponsoring this particular argument, an outfit in California called Your Family, Your Choice, is trying to fight legislation that will take away the philosophical exemption to childhood vaccination currently allowed under California law. Many of the folks who oppose vaccination are indeed also opposed to science and research, at least as these things are understood by the medical research community. Such folks often want their own science, want to reach (or have already reached) their own conclusions, and are not kind (and often not very civil) to those who disagree with them.

But all of that is neither here nor there - what really interests me is the "I am pro-freedom" part of the argument. This is indeed the "go-to" for folks on the losing end of a public debate. Recently we've seen certain segments of our society opposed to gay marriage making the same claim on behalf of small businesses that don't want to serve gays - just as two generations ago, similar folks claimed "freedom" as a justification to turn away interracial couples. "Freedom" was the cry of George Wallace on the steps of the Alabama schoolhouse when he railed against "the oppression of the rights, privilege, and sovereignty" of his state in the face of integrationist pressure.

The fact is that we all give up a measure of freedom as the price of living in a civilized, advanced society. We agree not to drive through a red light. We agree to wear our seat belts - 49 out of 50 states in the US have some form of mandatory seat belt laws on the books. We agree to file certain kinds of information with the government at various levels. We agree to pay our taxes. We agree not to discriminate against fellow citizens when engaging in public commerce or service. Failure to do these things comes with the penalty of government sanction.

We suffer these infringements on our freedom because there are some collective goods that cannot be had otherwise. Because of our traffic laws - actually quite draconian by the standards of much of the world - we enjoy some of the safest highways and streets in the world, vastly safer than they were 80 or 100 years ago. Because of our attention to civil rights, populations once voiceless and enslaved are now freer and much better off and we are closer to realizing our ideals as a republic of equals.

Those who hold up the "pro-freedom" banner are trying to escape this reality. They want to free-ride on the rest of society, to deny that there are some things we can only have if we all contribute. Herd immunity from disease is one of those things, however much some folks may want to deny it.

So I find this latest adaptation by a political movement interesting, even entirely predictable. But I also suspect that it may be a last gasp of an effort that may soon collapse. The argument against vaccination is too weak, and the consequences too severe, for these folks to win. I have no doubt that we will see a great deal more shouting and gnashing of teeth in certain corners, and likely many more interesting internet memes. But as Richard Feynman reminded us a generation ago, for every successful technology "reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

Monday, March 9, 2015

You Can't Infer Motives From Behavior

I occasionally comment on memes and other internet oddities that catch my eye. Usually these are political and/or tribal in nature and strike me as saying something the maker or distributor didn't intend to say. So it was that the following came across by FB feed this past weekend:


Now, this is a pretty typical piece of ideological tribalism. In fact, all it really is is a quote from one of Thomas Sowell's columns - which I'm sure are readily available elsewhere on the internet for his devoted readers - gussied up with some pictures of Democrats. As memes go, it's pretty unremarkable, although it does provide a FB- and twitter-ready way to spread around a sound byte that others might not see if they don't go track down Mr. Sowell's work and read it in its entirety.

What struck me about this otherwise ordinary bit of internet flotsam was the claim that it makes up front: the author claims to know what the real motives of a vaguely-defined group of people are, separate from what they themselves say about their motives. Leaving aside the question of whether a large group ("liberals") can all have the same set of motives, this claim violates one of the first rules I learned in graduate school: you can't infer motives from behavior.

The problem of motive has vexed political and social scientists for generations. All of us make inferences of motive all the time. We believe that the person who cut us off in traffic is a jerk who likes to push other people out of the way. We claim that the other political party has a hidden agenda not revealed in their public explanations of their policy preferences. We argue that Iran is building nuclear weapons so that it can annihilate Israel. And so on up and down the line.

The problem in every one of these cases is that there is always another explanation. The car in traffic may be driven by a desperate mother rushing her toddler to the ER. The folks writing that political party platform may genuinely believe that their policy prescriptions will lead to better outcomes for the welfare of the country. And Iran might be pursuing weapons capabilities for deterrence purposes in an effort not to change the status quo but to maintain it against what it perceives are aggressive outside forces.

The answers to the motives question obviously matter. As Robert Jervis pointed out more than a generation ago in Perception and Misperception in International Politics, there is no "safe bet" - misinterpreting aggressive motives as defensive ones is just as bad as seeing a defensive actor where there is in reality an aggressive one. There is no "play it safe" - all miscalculations can lead to ruin.

Unfortunately, the only thing we can see - the other actors' behavior - doesn't tell us what their motives are, because different motivations can lead to the same behaviors. Moreover, as Jervis and many others have pointed out, we tend to be very selective about which behaviors we see and how we interpret them. We tend to ascribe the motives to the other side that we want to. Our judgments are filled with wishful thinking.

This is actually what Mr. Sowell is engaged in. He would very much like what he says to be true, because it strengthens his own group identity and sense of superiority. It also makes him a great deal of money to say these kinds of things, which is motive enough for many kinds of behavior. This is not to say that he doesn't believe what he says - he may very well be sincere. But it does cast doubt on whether his claim should be taken seriously.

Indeed, nearly all claims about "the motives of the enemy" should be taken with a bag or two of salt. Sussing out motivations is a difficult and time-consuming task undertaken only with extensive data and rigorous analysis as removed as possible from wishful thinking and other biases - a task that requires extensive training and practice. And even then, practitioners of this art are sometimes wrong. Until we invent the machine that reads minds (and maybe even not then), this is the best we can get.

So what's the average layman to do? Political science can't teach people to make better judgments about motive, not unless people are prepared to undertake both a lot of study and a significant amount of personal introspection to control their own biases. But there is a much shorter punchline that everyone can reach quickly. If you care about actually being right about politics, ignore any and every statement that starts with "the real motives of X are..." Stop and consider the full range of possible motives, not just the ones that confirm your biases. It's a small step, and not an easy one. But if you care about the toxicity of political discourse, it's a necessary step for all of us.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Guns on Campus: An Administrator's View

Last week I blogged about the politics surrounding the intersection of gun rights and the "campus rape crisis", with particular note taken of an Assemblywoman in Nevada making some (what seem to me) silly claims about the effectiveness of guns in women's self-defense. That post ended up being a lot about the tactical self-defense assumptions behind the "more guns on campus" prescription, and the unexamined values underlying that argument.

In this post I want to put on my other hat as university administrator and look at this question from more of an institutional point of view. University administrators have been universal in their rejection of proposals to put more guns on campus, whether that involves arming faculty or allowing students to carry weapons. While it would be easy for those in the gun rights camp to dismiss this resistance as knee-jerk academic liberalism, some of those university presidents are themselves gun owners from across the political spectrum. What they all share is a responsibility for campus safety that leads them to the conclusion that guns on campus will make things less safe, not more.

To understand why administrators think this way it's important to understand the pressures and incentives they operate under. Many discussions about guns and self-defense are centered on the micro level: the attacker and the (potential) victim. Assemblywoman Fiore of Nevada talks exclusively in these terms, about the interaction between women (as potential victims) and possible attackers. But administrators know that the university itself is a key player, because whatever happens on campus tends to get blamed on the administration.

For proof of this see any of the dozens of marches, sit-ins, and other protests by students on campuses across the country in the last year or two. Regardless of the merits of the particular grievances, each of these protests has carried a common message: it is up to The Administration to prevent rape and sexual assault on campus. This is also the view of a large number of federal investigations currently underway, as well as a raft of civil lawsuits filed in recent years. Many arguments for the right to carry guns flow from a radically libertarian and individualist view of the world. Unfortunately, that's not the world that universities live in.

So administrators really do want to reduce the incidence of rape and sexual assault on their campuses, for a host of reasons. If they thought that a abundance of firearms would accomplish that task, I've no doubt that at least some of them would get on board with the idea. So why don't they?

The first point is that a university president or provost does not have the luxury of looking at one issue at a time. They have to consider the consequences of decisions across a host of different dimensions. The introduction of guns on campus is an excellent example. A concealed weapon is not only a self-defense tool in a potential rape situation. It may also be deployed in the course of an argument, it may be stolen and used elsewhere or for criminal activity on campus, or it may be accidentally discharged. There are plenty of examples of all of these things in the news, and all of them tend to make the people in the vicinity distinctly less safe. There is also, as many have pointed out, the dangerous mix of guns and alcohol - the latter substance something that many college campuses are awash with.

There are cost implications as well. If a university changes its policies (or they are changed by legislation) to allow guns on campus, a host of people will need to be trained on how to handle situations involving firearms: campus police, faculty, staff, and others. Training takes time and money. Campus police forces may likewise have to change protocols and tactics, and to reequip themselves (more body armor?) for those changes - which again has a price tag. Higher education officials in Texas have estimated that it would cost that state's universities $47 million over six years to implement proposed "campus carry" legislation. Given the size of that state and its university systems, I think that's a reasonable guess - and those costs will, of course, either be passed on to students in tuition hikes or be deducted from other things campuses are currently doing, like educating their students.

Finally, there are serious moral issues that nobody in the gun debate seems to want to grapple with. When a Boise State professor asked, "When may I shoot a student?", the question was taken to be satirical. But it's actually a very serious question for anybody carrying a firearm - when and under what circumstances are you prepared to take a life, and how do you practice thinking and action in such a way that, when crisis comes, you will respond the way you want to? As I've written before self-defense of any kind is a discipline, acquired only through study and ongoing practice. How do you know that, faced with a situation in which a gun is in your hand, you won't do something that in a calmer moment you would find morally horrific? Articles have been written about how PTSD in soldiers comes often not from the act of being shot at but from the act of killing. Fiore and her ilk are far too cavalier about the impact of actually shooting another human being, whatever the circumstances, on the person doing the shooting.

Introducing more guns to campus, even if they prevent a small number of rapes, begins to look like a very bad bargain. Others will be placed in danger, and some may be shot and killed. The university will bear significant costs up front, and the potential for massive liability down the road, if anything goes wrong. Many people will be frightened and confused by the proliferation of guns around them. The chances of someone dying on campus - from an administrator's point of view, one of the very worst things that can happen - will go up exponentially.

Given all of this is it any wonder that university presidents, however much they may be pro-gun in their personal lives, are loathe to want more weapons on campus? The current debate and arguments made by the more-guns side of the argument will not succeed, because the people making those arguments are too focused on a narrow (and, in my view, misguided) view of self-defense. One of the cardinal rules of argumentation: know your audience. It's clear that so far, those outside academia who are trying to push more guns onto campuses didn't learn this in school.