Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | May 5, 2014

What Gun Extremists and Anti-vaxers Have in Common

What kind of a masochist am I? Sticking my head back into the lion’s den snake pit and taking on the gun nuts again. Not the responsible gun owners, though. It turns out there really are such people, and apparently they actually outnumber their more vociferous crazy-heads compatriots. Nevertheless…

In medicine, we try to use scientific research whenever we can. Research is more than just someone saying something is so because they believe it to be so (see: Acupuncture). There are objective rules and standards by which people other than those doing the research can feel confident of the accuracy of the findings.

Every now and then, someone comes up with a research result significantly different from previous studies. (See: Galileo) Often this kind of result appears to make no sense at all, as it may be the complete opposite of the currently understood state of the issue. What to we do with this kind of confounding information?

First off, we try to replicate it. If the new findings are in fact true (that is to say, scientifically accurate) then properly done studies will have similar results. We call this “confirmation.”

What happens when studies fail to replicate the odd finding? The next step is to figure out (if possible) where the aberrant result came from. Were the researcher’s statistics flawed? Did he draw incorrect conclusions from his data? Might he just have made shit up? Did he have something to gain, financially or otherwise, from the unusual result?

Much of the opposition to vaccines, MMR in particular, stems from the work of Andrew Wakefield, whose Lancet article of 1998 purported to show that the MMR vaccine caused autism. It doesn’t. Many people tried very hard to replicate Wakefield’s results, without success, in the process pretty much proving the safety of vaccination, as much as a negative can be proven. Eventually the Lancet retracted the paper, Wakefield’s license to practice medicine was suspended, and the entire MMR-autism hypothesis was definitively refuted.

Except to an increasing number of hard-core antivaxers, who contend to this day that Wakefield was railroaded and that his findings were legitimate. Somehow they cling to the discredited results from a single researcher, denying the findings from numerous other sources that say they are wrong.

What does this have to do with guns?

Guns are dangerous. They have their uses, but only in the proper hands, with proper training, and with proper safeguards. Legitimate research has borne this out over and over again. (See Harvard Injury Control Research Center) And yet in any discussion when true gun extremists are called upon to cite evidence for their position that more people with more guns is a good thing, they always quote the same source: a book called More Guns, Less Crime (not linked; easily found) by a man named John Lott.

Turns out that the findings of this book (and this researcher) have been debunked over and over and over again. Furthermore, when confronted with inconsistencies in his research, Lott changes his story. This has gone on long enough that serious researchers in this field no longer consider his contributions credible.

Just like the anti-vaxers, this doesn’t stop gun extremists from clinging to the findings of a discredited academic as they go on insisting that the dangerous notion of “more guns means less crime” be used to guide policy. As dangerous as vaccine-refusal is, I daresay more people have died in this country from gun violence than from vaccine-preventable diseases.

There is something called Scopie’s law, which states:

In any discussion involving science or medicine, citing [a known source of anti-scientific nonsense] as a credible source loses you the argument immediately …and gets you laughed out of the room.

I hereby propose Dino’s Gun Corollary to Skopie’s law:

In any discussion involving guns or firearms policy, citing More Guns, Less Crime or any other writings by John Lott as a credible source loses you the argument immediately.

I wouldn’t laugh at them, though. There’s nothing funny about guns.




  1. Amen and brava again! I have several gun crazies in my family who promote that way of thinking and have (almost) threatened me for daring to speak up or in any way contradict them. I try to stay out of their way now!

  2. Most people don’t have the background to judge the statistics behind Lott (or Kellerman), or whether detractors are accurate. I don’t consider Harvard as a guarantee of unbiased accuracy, and if I remember right the details of the studies are hard to get to. If you don’t accept an appeal to authority how would a layperson pick a side?

    One method is to look at past predictions and see which side is more accurate. Most of the anti-gun side make dire predictions of violence and blood in the streets if we relax restrictions on guns…most of the pro gun side say “violent crime will go down a bit”. We’ve been relaxing restrictions for the last few decades, ownership is up, crime is down considerably. Other factors are more responsible for the drop in crime than guns… but I’d expect a different result if relaxed gun laws or more legal guns increased crime.

    Another method is to do your own simplified correlation study using existing data. Try FBI violent crime data by state, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence scores or rankings of gun laws (I’m assuming there’s no pro-gun bias with the Brady Campaign) and any online site that lets you input data for correlation analysis. Simple, should take about 15 minutes. Not controlled for other factors, but not cherry picked either–and the result I got was a correlation far below statistical significance. (I was expecting a slight negative correlation)

    You could also look carefully at the claims–maybe you can’t easily examine the underlying data, but you can see oddly complicated claims (Kellerman only counting justified death of a complete stranger as proper self defense, or to be fair some of Lott’s county by county breakdowns) or improperly mixing criminally possessed guns in with law abiding owners.

    The anti-vaxxers free speech is harmful, but the constitution is more important–I cannot find any interpretation of the bill of rights that would allow the government to stop anti-vaxxer speech. I can’t figure out an interpretation of the second amendment that allows some of what we already have–if the Common Sense laws in The District of Columbia can add almost $500 in fees, 3 days off work, tests and a trip out of state for training to the purchase of any handgun, what is actually protected?

  3. *sigh* Still not getting it.

    I’m not actually talking about the Constitution. I’m talking about two groups of people clinging to the findings of discredited academics to support their erroneous (albeit First amendment protected) positions.

    You like what Lott has to say, and you therefore discount (with great intellectual convolutions) anything anyone says against it. You may be surprised to know that when I first heard of Lott and his conclusions, although my first reaction was, “That doesn’t sound right,” I did not immediately dismiss them out of hand. Intending to keep an open mind, I did go do my own research. Which was how I came to the conclusion that he’s full of shit.

    Even though the best response to dangerous free speech is usually more speech, you seem to be under the impression that the one who speaks the most wins the argument. You don’t.

  4. Well said, Dino!

  5. I like to debate, to exchange ideas with people who disagree with me. It’s hard to find a debate on guns–most people who bring up “we need more gun laws” aren’t actually willing to discuss it, the few that appear like they might sometimes get overwhelmed. So on that note, unless specifically invited I’ll leave you alone on the subject from now on.

  6. “Debate.” Another word that doesn’t mean what you think it means.

    You’re not interested in “debating” guns any more than a creationist is interested in “debating” evolution or a germ denialist wants to “debate” vaccines. Everyone is entitled to an opinion (even though not all opinions are created equal), but you are not entitled to your own facts. The fact is that more people are killed by guns in this country every day than by vaccine-preventable diseases. What to do about it? That can be debated. But not with those hellbent on denying that guns are a problem.

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