Chad Perrin: SOB

12 January 2011

Jon Stewart: Voice of Reason

Filed under: Metalog — apotheon @ 12:26

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot at a public event in Arizona on Saturday, 8 January 2011. Several others were shot as well, and some died. The person who did the shooting was subdued by bystanders. After his arrest, he was described by police as “disturbed”. He has not commented on the reason for the shooting, as of the last time I checked the news.

Despite his lack of elaboration on his reasons, despite the fact he has been identified as someone whose actions are necessarily irrational, despite the fact Giffords was one of the survivors, commentators have blamed his action on political rhetoric from a number of sources, including Sarah Palin — based solely on the fact that his most famous victim at the scene was Giffords. Political commentators waste no opportunity to fold, spindle, and mutilate every tragedy, to force each of them into a shape that supports the conclusions they’ve chosen before ever examining the evidence. The perpetrator has been simultaneously identified by different pundits as a Marxist, a Nazi, and a Tea Partier, among other political affiliations. Those are three mutually incompatible political positions, which highlights the absurdity of this exercise.

I have personally gotten to experience some of the knee-jerk political response to this event. I do not know why (I could probably find out — I just haven’t bothered looking at site logs yet), but Statistics 101: US Gun Crime vs. UK Knife Crime has seen a minor resurgence of comment traffic since 5 January. It has been getting off-and-on comment traffic since it was first posted; this is just the most recent such surge. It feels a bit more fast-paced this time, especially since Saturday. Maybe there’s a connection.

I know there is a connection between Saturday’s tragic events and at least one comment, though, that tries to blame the entire event on US gun laws. This facile rhetorical posturing follows exactly the same pattern as the majority of comments on Statistics 101:

  1. Someone skims the original entry, and maybe some of the discussion that follows it.

  2. That person ignores the point of the entry — the prohibitive complexity of the complete, largely unidentified factors involved in producing the “gun crime” statistics people try to use to prop up one side or the other of an argument.

  3. That person makes some insipid statements about how drawing a straight line between two cherry-picked points among millions “proves” a causal relationship between those two points.

This one comment to which I refer tries to use the Tucson shooting as “proof” in and of itself of the evils of guns. My point all along has been that:

  1. I find the evidence unconvincing, given that there is contrary evidence as well and there are logical reasons to believe popular accessibility of firearms may actually make the world safer for good people.

  2. There’s no evidence that convincingly proves either side of the debate — which is why I don’t so much argue what I believe in such discussions as I argue against the overly simplistic declarations of people whose arguments are little more than demonstrations of confirmation bias.

There’s cockamamie nonsense on both sides. People start with a bias, then set out to confirm it, and they interpret everything from the perspective of that bias such that they become blind to the facts staring them in the face. The only thing I can truly prove is that when it comes to a gun, I would rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it. The only thing someone who wants to outlaw all guns can truly prove is that they hate the thought of people having guns. Everything else is speculation and imagination — and, occasionally, a little bit of logical reasoning that has yet to be properly supported by an analysis of isolated variables.

You cannot convince someone who possesses the power of objective reasoning with facts that prove your side of the argument, because if you truly believe the available facts satisfy the requirements of proof you simply do not understand the facts available to us.

In the midst of all this, people are using their confirmation bias to cast the shooting in Tucson, Arizona as “proof” of their points. People’s lives and deaths are being perverted to serve the purpose of counterfeit proof in their self-centered campaigns to be “right”, regardless of the consequences. It’s frankly disgusting.

There are cases where someone dies — or someone lives — and we can draw simple conclusions. In 2009, a couple in Tennessee had to leave a gun in their car because of a state law that made it illegal to carry in the restaurant; a man who had been stalking the woman killed her husband between the restaurant and their car. We can reasonably assume, based on this event, that the state law was bad for the husband’s survival chances in this one instance. We cannot draw a reasonable conclusion from this one incident that repealing that restriction on carrying firearms would result in fewer deaths overall. In fact, even in this one incident, the death toll may have been identical: one dead, but the assailant instead of the would-be victim. It is perfectly reasonable to draw conclusions that are supported by the evidence at hand. It is perfectly unreasonable to draw conclusions based on gross generalizations and willful ignorance of the myriad factors you find inconvenient for supporting your preconceived notions.

It goes beyond reasonability, and into the realm of unconscionable barbarism and opportunistic dishonesty, to use gross generalizations and willful ignorance to confirm your preconceived notions with the victims of a tragic massacre as game pieces in your pathetically childish game of checkers.

I disagree with Jon Stewart on a lot of political subjects. He’s unapologetically left-leaning, and regularly uses the kind of shoddy reasoning I’ve decried when it is used in the analysis of the public safety effects of firearms laws, but for other subjects like socialized healthcare, economic regulation, and governmental privacy policy. In general I agree with him on privacy and free speech issues, but not on the other two subjects: I disagree with his methods of supporting his positions on those issues from time to time, whether he’s using them to support issues with which I agree or with which I disagree. Among political commentators, however, I respect him far above and beyond the vast majority, for one simple reason:

He draws the line at using the lives and deaths of other people in simplistic rhetorical games, dishonoring the memories of the victims of an event like the Tucson shooting by suggesting that, for instance, Sarah Palin made the lunatic in this case go on a shooting spree by using symbolism to illustrate her opposition to the political positions of people like Gabrielle Giffords.

Jon Stewart opened his Monday, 10 January 2011 broadcast of The Daily Show with a nine minute monologue addressing his disappointment in political pundits who do not stop at the line of common decency when spewing ever-more vitriolic rhetoric to push their agendas. He articulated his (correct) belief that the world is not nearly so simplistic and absurdly dichotomous across the left/right divide as others pretend. It was rambling at times, and clearly not the most eloquent commentary on the subject — but it was quite probably the most honest, reasonable, and intelligent. If your browser has the ability to display Flash video widgets, give it a viewing:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Arizona Shootings Reaction
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook


  1. Very well put. (So well said that I don’t have anything to add to the discussion other than noting my agreement)

    Comment by Mad Brew — 12 January 2011 @ 01:25

  2. Thumbs up.

    I sincerely believe that most people simply do not understand when they misuse facts to draw generalizations. They don’t even ask themselves basic questions like “is the sample size large enough to be significant?” never mind completely sailing over the distinction between correlation and causality.

    In the end, they choose a position based on their feelings, then look for data to support it. That’s the way it has always been, except for a very small minority. Not even scientists are immune in all cases.

    Comment by Sterling Camden — 12 January 2011 @ 03:47

  3. Mad Brew:

    Thank you for the compliments. Really, Jon Stewart did most of the work this time.


    They do not want to understand, unfortunately. If they did, they might pay a little more attention to people (like me) who point out the failings in their logic. Instead, in addition to completely sailing over the distinction between correlation and causation, they also completely sail over someone pointing out that distinction in plain English.

    If they wanted to understand their own arguments, they’d run the risk of having to revise their opinions. In order to avoid that danger, they maintain their willful ignorance with determination and resolve. When confronted with something that obviously, inescapably contradicts their beliefs, they simply pretend it didn’t happen.

    It kinda pisses me off, and helps to explain many of the problems in the world.

    Comment by apotheon — 12 January 2011 @ 04:03

  4. You’re starting to sound almost as cynical as I am.

    Comment by Sterling Camden — 12 January 2011 @ 04:36

  5. Meh. That’s always been my take on it.

    I just usually don’t talk about it this way, because it usually doesn’t annoy me this much.

    Comment by apotheon — 12 January 2011 @ 04:59

  6. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Comment by Joseph A Nagy Jr — 26 January 2011 @ 07:37

  7. As someone who lives minutes from the shooting, I was pleased to hear the tone of this video. The local papers are full of inspirational stories. The parents of the 9 year old girl killed have no animosity towards the woman who took their daughter to the shopping center. Restaurants are donating food to families involved. A 61 year old woman wrangles the magazine from the shooter as he was reloading. As Jon said, these are the quiet heroes that are overshadowed by the sensationalism of the crazies.

    Comment by Emmit Hollin — 8 February 2011 @ 01:41

  8. Bit of a gun supporter,eh? I am English. Using the last figures available (2008/9),there were 39 homicides in the UK involving guns. Now, if you times that figure by five due to population size differences,it is less than 200. The comparable figure for the US is nearly 9200 ie I am 46 times more likely to be shot in the US than here. Even if you take ALL homicides and use the same extrapolation, I am still 4 times more likely to be murdered in the US than here. Tends you blow your arguments out of the water somewhat,don’t you think? Consider this. It is really,really difficult to shoot someone if you ain’t got a gun. Handguns? Illegal. Only criminals and some police officers have them. Rifles? Police only. Semi automatics? Certainly not. Ps. The figure of 9200 does not include Florida homicides,which would make those figures look even worse for you.

    edited for trolling: You’re going in the spam bin, now.

    Comment by Neil Jones — 1 March 2011 @ 06:27

  9. Neil Jones:

    You sailed right over every salient point. Good job.

    If you troll again, I’ll simply prevent your commentary from sullying the discussion.

    edit: You trolled again. Why you couldn’t try being a reasonable human being, I do not know. The inevitable has happened; you’ve been banned. Have a nice day.

    edit: I’ve blocked comments altogether, because no comments apart from spam have been submitted for quite some time, which means everything just gets lined up in the spam queue, checked by me, then thrown out. It’s a waste of time.

    Comment by apotheon — 2 March 2011 @ 01:50

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License