After Another Mass Shooting, Fear of Data Threatens Us All
In the aftermath of the massacre of 26 people in a small-town Texas church, you might have seen that the killer used a gun called an AR-15. It’s a popular weapon—relatively easy to use, endlessly customizable, military in appearance. How popular? It’s the same gun that a killer used in the massacre of 58 people at a Las Vegas concert last month, and by the killer who murdered 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando, and the one at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. And the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. And the party in San Bernardino, California.
Oh but wait: It’s also the gun, apparently, that someone in Texas used to shoot back at the killer at First Baptist Church, accurately enough to pinpoint places his tactical vest didn’t protect. “We keep hearing that AR’s are useless for self-defense, that they’re simply ‘weapons of war,’ useful only for mass killing. This is simply not true,” writes David French at The National Review. He didn’t save lives inside the church, French goes on to say, but this straight-from-the-gun-advocate-storybook good guy with a gun “did stop the shooter and prevented him from harming anyone else. He did so with exactly the kind of weapon that the gun control lobby would like to deny to law-abiding Americans.”
Well, OK. Good question, then. Is it possible that the AR-15 isn’t just an overpowered long gun beloved by the National Rifle Association but a necessary component of civilian defense in the absence of armed authorities? Somebody should figure this out, right?
Except you can’t. The government doesn’t keep track of how many AR-15s are out there or who owns them. Only through painstaking excavation of crime reports could anyone even begin to figure out which crimes involved AR-15s or when AR-15s stopped crimes—much less where those ARs came from, how they were stored, or how they were modified.
That data is either off-limits or simply doesn’t exist. “If we had easy access to the kind of data we have on motor vehicle crashes for firearm violence, we would be able to answer much more clearly a whole host of questions about gun policy—about which state laws are working, which storage practices work, which guns are riskier than others, what ammunition sizes and magazines matters. I could go on and on,” says Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “We’re already in a world where science is questioned, in particular the role of science in policymaking. No one who’s realistic thinks science is sufficient for good policymaking. But it’s clearly necessary.”
You see that lack—or rather don’t see it, I guess—with guns. It comes up with every mass shooting and more rarely when people talk about the epidemic of suicides and accidental gun deaths in the United States. But that data void is growing like the ozone hole in the 1980s, an encroaching Big Nothing. Washington Post politics reporter Philip Bump has been updating a list of things President Trump has undone in office, and an eye-popping number are numbers: oil and gas company payments to foreign governments, corporate salaries organized by race and gender, employer records of workplace injuries, government contractor labor law violations, health effects of mountaintop-removal mining, safety issues at chemical plants, visitors to the White House. Did you want to know any of those things? You cannot.
Would you like detailed information about arrests, homicides, and gang murders in 2016? Well, the FBI isn’t giving it to you anymore. How about melting Arctic ice? Nope, Congress is dismantling a satellite that was supposed to update the aging monitor network. Climate change? Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, doesn’t think human beings cause it and, more importantly, doesn’t really think you can measure anything to find out. The weather? Forget it; the National Weather Service is coming apart at the seams. How many people live in the United States, data critical to determining political representation and funding priorities? Yeah, no—the 2020 Census is shaping up to be an epic disaster.
It’s hard to imagine a good argument for knowing less—about anything, really, but especially about difficult problems with profound policy implications. The government is supposed to base policy on the best data possible, along with political concerns, budget concerns, social priorities…the usual warp and weft of running a country.
Yet the Trump administration is running in the other direction. Any data that has even the faintest whiff of potential contradiction goes right out the window. Of course, these folks aren’t the first people in power to succumb to a fear of data. They do, however, seem to have found a profound expertise in the practice of eliminating it. Dataphobia chills them to the bone, I suspect because they hope to undermine not only some truths but all truth. David Roberts at Vox has written about what he calls an epistemic crisis in America, the idea that certain rulers and rich people hope to take away the basic idea of knowledge. If nobody can know anything, why bother to try to regulate anything? It’s government-by-ignorance—a shrugocracy.
Assaults on data have come before. “It’s the same reason an oil company doesn’t want research on climate change or a tobacco company doesn’t want research on the relationship between tobacco and cancer,” Vernick says. “Maybe they argue those researchers have an agenda, and that’ll allow them to cook the books, but that’s an absurd argument. The worst thing you can do is cook the books. That is the way to guarantee the science is not used as part of policymaking.”
Throw in the way the automotive industry resisted safety regulations and the sugar industry in the 1960s shifted blame for health problems onto fats instead of sweets, ensorcelling nutrition research for half a century, and you have a pretty good accounting of the ways business interests have twisted, biased, and otherwise hammered science into behaving like a corporate drone instead of a defender of truth.
When it comes to guns, the data dearth goes back decades. In the mid-1990s, the National Rifle Association persuaded congress to prohibit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding firearm violence research. That chilled the entire federal science funding structure. The agency that regulates firearms now doesn’t even share with researchers all its data on what guns are traced to what crimes. “While there were interests that were committed to obfuscating the situation or making it more difficult to conduct the work, the magnitude of the effect probably is unique to firearm violence,” says Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis. “There’s no doubt in my mind that there are hundreds of thousands of dead people who would now be alive had the work been allowed to proceed.”
Now, though, even more stands at risk. This isn’t just about undermining data anymore. It’s about abandoning its collection. “I’ve called it an undercurrent, and I’m not even sure it’s an undercurrent anymore. There’s clearly an assault on science that worries me quite a bit. It’s climate denialism when we’ve suffered three catastrophic hurricanes, one that put my city underwater. In my state of Texas, more than 50,000 kids are not getting vaccinated for totally phony reasons,” says Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “It’s starting to affect our quality of life, and important policy decisions that are being made that need to be made correctly.”
I might disagree with Hotez, though—because he’s not going far enough. The attack is on the idea of science, on the notion that science is a good way to know stuff. You observe the world around you, formulate an idea for why the world might be that way, develop a test that isolates that one factor and tests it, and then operate on the data you collect to figure out if it bears out your original idea. And then you pummel that idea with all the ways it might be wrong. If it survives, hey, awesome, you misunderstand the universe slightly less egregiously than you did before all that work. The night is a little less dark.
Abdicating on the collection of data cuts that method off at the knees. It plants ignorance where there might have been knowledge, and worse makes science look weak through induced failure—as if, like some propagandists say of the press, it’s irredeemably biased by leftist researchers and can’t be trusted. Not only does the night stay dark, but people stop believing in daylight, and anyone who suggests it’s real must have a daylight-based agenda.
That’s the epistemological crisis. Since the Enlightenment people have relied on science to be, in some senses, the referee to help make difficult calls. That was especially true in America—one of the preeminent scientists of his time, Benjamin Franklin, was literally in the room for the creation of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And now that’s changing. Undermine that science, and things don’t just seem unknown but unknowable.
Science in Danger
According to the information warfare expert Molly McKew, the Russian government is practicing something called the Gerasimov Doctrine, threading chaotic, contradictory, often false, always divisive information throughout the global media—mainstream, alt, social, whatever. The point isn’t to make any one person believe any one thing. It’s to make all the people believe none of the things. As Roberts wrote in Vox, policymaking becomes nothing more than a contest of raw power— “tribal epistemology,” as he calls it.
Here, then, is the real danger. As a practice, science (and, I’ll add out of a perhaps naive romanticism, journalism) are supposed to be the arenas to which a non-practitioner can turn for knowledge and clarity. Confronted with its own crisis—in the reproducibility of its findings—the institutions of science turned in part to data hygiene, making complete datasets public, as is the practice at the journal Hotez edits.
If the president and his corporate allies choke the life out of data, the shrugocracy turns into a shrugpocalypse. “From the point of view of people attempting to obstruct the acquisition of knowledge, making the substrate from which knowledge is acquired unavailable, hard to get, or of lower quality yields many benefits,” Wintemute says. “There are adverse effects to the rest of us, but benefits to the people who are doing the obstruction.”
That might be most vexing to the scientists themselves, the ones best trained in acquiring knowledge in the field and with the most faith in their methods and justifications . “I see patients in the emergency department, and because I took an oath—and for much deeper reasons—I believe strongly in using my life to help relieve suffering,” Wintemute says. “I will make use of whatever tools are available or whatever tools I can fashion on my own, but that is the work I will continue to do. It’s frustrating. I could do more with better tools. But that fact is no argument against doing what I can with what I have.” Knowledge will always be power, and no one ever gives up power willingly. Sometimes you have to take it.
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