Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Belief in the face of data

This past Sunday, the New York Times runs, for the first time, a page one editorial, End the Gun Epidemic in America.

At the same time, we are entering into the second week of global climate change negotiations in Paris.

What do these two things have in common?

Among other things, there is the fact that their underpinning assumptions are inconsistent with the data. The New York Times assumes that more guns equals more carnage. The United Nations IPCC assumes that more CO2 equals more climate warming. In both cases, the facts say otherwise.

In the US, repeated efforts to enact stringent gun control has only led to gun owners buying ever more guns. It is estimated that there are now 300 million guns in the hands of citizens. Quite an arsenal and something like a 15% increase over the beginning of the Obama administration. In 1950 there were something like 50 guns per 100 Americans (per the Washington Post). There are now 116 guns per 100 Americans. There has been a large increase in the number of guns in circulation and by the logic of the New York Times editorial board, the level of crime should have increased correspondingly. However, the reverse has happened. While there are more guns in circulation, the rate of violent crime has plummeted nearly fifty percent since its high point.

To be fair, we are dealing with complex, dynamic, multicausal systems here. It is not wrong to assume that more guns might lead to more violent crime. The only fault is to insist dogmatically that the relationship holds when the data indicates otherwise.

There is no epidemic of guns. Yes they are in greater and greater demand from the public. But crime keeps falling. The problem is that we are at a knowledge frontier - we don't know what drives the underlying rate of violent crime. There is a lot of speculation and research but there is no consensus, and indeed no robust explanation. We simply don't know.

Might guns play some role? Perhaps in some unanticipated way at the margin, but at the aggregate, there is no evidence to link the degree of gun ownership and the level of violent crime. Despite what the New York Times editorial board wishes to believe. They have a belief that they wish to affirm in the face of contradictory evidence and they wish to impose that belief on everyone else despite the absence of evidence.

Likewise in Paris. The core assumption is that more CO2 must lead to more climate warming. But for the past 18 years, with India and China pumping evermore CO2 into the air as they industrialize, and swamping the marginal declines in CO2 from developed nations (such as the US), the planet temperature has flatlined based on the most reliable readings - satellite measurement. Again, the core belief is confounded by the data.

Again, to be fair, climate modelling is still in its near infancy and we are dealing with a complex, dynamic, multicausal system. Every five years or so we discover whole new variables that have far greater influence on outcomes than we anticipated. The models are simply not up to the task of reliably forecasting. CO2 probably does play a role in climate determination along with a whole range of other variables but right now we do not understand the mechanisms that determine climate outcomes and therefore do not understand how CO2 affects climate nor the effect size.

I believe that both issues, violent crime and climate, are worth paying attention to, researching, and continue trying to understand what is happening and why.

The problem I see is that our political and policy elite subscribe to a faith-based religious belief that always dictates more money and power to the political elite against the interests of the public, regardless of what the issue is and what the data says. You cannot hope to efficiently solve a problem if you don't understand it and the incessant pleading and lobbying by the elite for more control is unseemly and disrespectful. The problems of violence and climate change won't be solved with anything that is being proposed right now because we don't understand how fluctuations in violence and temperature are caused. All the current proposals do is transfer more power and resources to those who are clearly dishonest.

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