Saturday, February 21, 2015

Guns and the Campus Rape Problem: A Political Hijacking

This past week two topics I have blogged a lot about came together: the use of guns as self defense and higher education. With all of the attention being paid to issues of rape and sexual assault on college campuses, it was perhaps inevitable that somebody would try to hijack that conversation to advance their own ideas. For at least one Nevada legislator, this seems to be exactly what is happening: using the crisis over campus sexual assault to push for students to be allowed to carry guns.

To get a peek inside this interesting political maneuver, I commend to the reader this interview of Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore published by the Chronicle. The thrust of Fiore's argument is clear: if women are allowed to concealed-carry guns, there will be fewer campus rapes in part because women will be able to repel their attackers and in part because men considering attacking women will be deterred by the possibility of being shot.

There are a host of problems here, of course, many of which the Chronicle interviewer tries to engage Assemblywoman Fiore on. It is well established that most (not all, but the large majority) of campus sexual assaults are committed by friends or acquaintances in trusted circumstances (i.e. bedrooms), not by strangers lurking in parking garages or dark alleys. Fiore is using one particular case of a woman who was attacked in a parking garage by a stranger to try to generalize across the problem - a clear mischaracterization. Still, I'm willing to grant the point that even if aggressive stranger rape is only a small subset of all cases, it's a subset worth addressing.

Reading through the interview in its entirety also reveals a politician in full Duck-and-Weave mode. Comparing her answers to the questions asked, she fails to answer pretty much every single one of them, instead inserting the talking points she wants to make rather than engaging in an actual dialogue. If gun rights advocates want to have a real conversation with people who are not already convinced by their point of view, this is a classic case of how not to do that. Indeed, it may well be that Fiore is incapable of talking to anybody who doesn't already agree with her. But that's not unusual for politicians either.

What really strikes me about the interview is the fantasy world that Fiore is living in with regard to the actual, practical problem: how can a woman prevent a rape attempt by a stranger? For this purpose, concealed-carry guns are an absolutely terrible choice that will almost certainly make women less, not more, safe.

Why do I say this? For two reasons - one tactical, the other psychological. Tactically, a gun in a concealed-carry holster is not a good way to defend yourself against a sudden attack at close range. In order to properly bring a gun to bear (let's assume the potential victim is fully aware and well-trained not only in firing but in drawing and wielding the weapon), the attacker must reveal himself as a threat at a fairly substantial range - most experts would suggest 15 feet or more. For a rapist lurking in a parking garage, this is not going to happen - attackers like parking garages precisely because, in addition to often being isolated from crowds, they offer plenty of concealment from which to attack a victim at extremely close range. The woman being held up as the poster child by Fiore was, by her own testimony, grabbed from behind. She never saw her attacker coming.

In such a tactical situation - in which, it should be pointed out in this particular case, the attacker already had a gun out and in his hand - having a gun in a concealed holster would not help much. It is possible, if not likely, that the attacker would have discovered it during the process of the rape itself, at which point he would have taken it from her. Assuming he did not discover it, how likely is it that she could draw a weapon from a place of concealment and fire a disabling shot while being raped and while the attacker held a pistol to her head? It seems likelier that, had she made the attempt, she would have been shot herself as soon as the attacker recognized a threat to his own life.

I certainly feel for this woman - nobody deserves to go through what she went through, and we should work as hard as possible to prevent such attacks. But even though she testified that having a weapon on her person would have helped, it is almost impossible to imagine how. The particular (and thankfully rare) circumstances she found herself in are nearly impossible to defend against unless she had seen her attacker coming from a much greater range - in which case, she still had plenty of other options, almost all of them better than getting into a gun battle.

The second reason why CCW possession may make things worse rather than better has to do with psychology. Every self-defense book and instructor starts with the same point: the number one weapon is awareness. If someone carrying a gun is convinced that doing so provides protection, that awareness is almost certainly going to be taken down a notch. Women who think, "I'm packing heat - I can take care of myself", are almost certainly going to be more vulnerable. Gavin de Becker has pointed out that fear is a gift that helps protect us. False confidence makes us demonstrably less safe.

So why is Assemblywoman Fiore pushing the guns-as-rape-defense line? The interview in the Chronicle is actually very instructive to this point. Consider the following exchanges (emphasis added):
Q. What kind of weapon do you normally carry? Just curious.   A. I have several.
Q. How about today?   A. Today I just have my Kahr [9-millimeter pistol]. It’s a cute, skinny … it’s a hot little gun.
Q. That’s a good way to put it.   A. It’s a hot, sleek, sexy 9-millimeter gun. Actually, what’s great is it fits between your thighs in a thigh holster.
Q. Enlighten me because my mind keeps coming back to this situation where there’s an assault playing out, and a man who’s preying on a woman might simply overpower her, even if the woman had a gun. Is it more of a mental thing, like the idea that he might be harmed?   A. No. I can tell just by talking to you that you are totally not a gun guy.
Q. Well, I’m trying to understand.   A. Well, the only way you’re going to understand is to fly yourself down here to Nevada, I’ll take you to a gun range for two days and get you trained, and you’ll have a whole different view on guns.
This appears to be the argument in a nutshell. Guns are "sexy" and "hot" and the only way to really understand is to have the experience of firing one on a firing range. Now, while I am willing to accept that having that experience almost certainly gives you a feeling of power, because guns are powerful things. firing a gun at a stationary target is about as useful for understanding self defense as a martial artist spending all of his time doing nothing but striking a makiwara board. Yes, you can hit hard, but how do you receive/block/counter/evade/adapt to your attacker? What about everything that leads up to the punch/shot?

The entire interview with Assemblywoman Fiore reinforces a point I've made before: this is not an argument based on reason, it's based on emotion. It's the feeling that "gun guys" (to borrow Fiore's phrase - woman are obviously included here as well) have that possessing a gun is a talisman that grants power to ward off evil. It's a "gut" thing.

And this is precisely why gun advocacy faces such political hurdles. It's very difficult to expand beyond your own tribe if you can't seriously engage with points of view outside your own, or with facts and realities that run counter to your preferred solutions. Telling one gripping but problematic story isn't going to convince anybody who isn't already convinced. And people who are most interested in the realities of self-defense will continue to dismiss emotional gun fetishes as what they are - dangerous ideas that will make people less safe.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Regulation and Higher Education: Can We Find the Reasonable Middle?

It is rare indeed for people in higher education to agree with a conservative Republican on much of anything (most of us tend to skew towards the liberal Democrat side of things politically). But Sen. Lamar Alexander may be achieving what was once thought impossible in Washington: a bipartisan consensus around something:
Congressional Report Blasts 'a Jungle of Red Tape'
To be fair, this is not Sen. Alexander all by himself - he has put together a task force that is indeed bipartisan (two Republicans, two Democrats, all from the "reasonable middle" range of the Senate). And the report in question is not, in reality, a "Congressional" report but one developed and written by the American Council on Education (ACE). But the overall point here is to try to find that "reasonable middle" by making two points together:

• Regulation is a useful and necessary thing for helping insure quality in higher education and making sure that Federal resources (financial aid dollars) are being well-spent.

• Too much regulation, or regulation that is sloppy and poorly thought-out, can impose serious costs on universities - costs which are passed on to students in the form of higher tuition.

This latter point is one I have blogged on before (see here and the series of posts, linked in that one, that preceded it). I'm glad to see that someone else is publicly recognizing what I and others inside higher education have been saying for years - some of our cost increases and "administrative bloat" are due to ever-increasing regulations from outside.

Does that tend to make people who are otherwise Democrats look more like Republicans? Yes, it does. And I think that in this hyper partisan age, that's a good thing. Maybe higher ed can become one area where we can get past the tribal boundaries and have a real conversation about real issues. Hats off to Sen. Alexander and his colleagues from both parties for helping that to happen.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Vaccines, Climate Change, and the Misuse of "Research"

Because of the increase in measles cases across the United States, a lot has been written recently about vaccines and the anti-vaccine movement. I've avoided blogging on the subject, partly because the discussion has been a lot of heat and not very much light and partly because it's not so much a debate or a conversation as a minority of folks screaming at the top of their lungs while holding fingers in their ears lest they listen to anyone else. Frankly a lot of it is pretty ugly, so while I have taken some pains to make sure I read some "authentic" voices on the anti-vaccine side, on the whole it all just makes me sad.

I do think that the continual parade of claims and counter-claims, of facts and factoids and made-up nonsense, is counterproductive because it isn't an argument about science or what's true. The primary drivers, as they so often are, amount to tribalism - people protecting their self-identities. I read this piece the other day and was glad to find a medical professional who gets this. Click the link - it's well worth a read.

So what do I have to add to this conversation? I want to focus on the use - and more particularly the misuse - of one word, "research". I have seen this word misused in recent weeks by anti-vaccine parents, I have seen it misused in exactly the same way by climate change "skeptics" in recent years, and in similar fashion by partisans on any number of issues over time.

As an illustration, let me borrow words from an anti-vaccine parent posted to the internet (underlining added):
You want to vaccinate? Go for it. I choose not to. But shouldnt we all have the freedom to choose what's right for our family? My unvaccinated child is not putting your vaccinated (and therefore protected-right?) child at risk. In fact it's the opposite. Your vaccinated child sheds his/her vaccine for days putting my child, and others who cannot vaccinate due to medical reasons, at risk. But I'll assume that risk and hope his immune system is strong enough to protect him. You do your thing. I'll do mine. Just stop assuming I don't care about others, because I do. I care enough to watch Vaccine Nation to understand herd immunity and research vaccines for myself. I've read the package inserts from the manufacturer websites. Have you?
Now, to be clear - I do not doubt this person's sincerity or motives. I believe this author genuinely believe these words. The problem here is a fundamental misunderstanding of the term "research".

I see this claim a lot, not just from anti-vaccine folks but from climate change skeptics, gun-rights advocates, and many other partisans for various issues. They will claim to have "researched" something to come to their own conclusions - a subtle cultural argument that appeals to Americans' individualism. After all, who wouldn't want to come to their own conclusions instead of being one of the "sheeple" who follow the herd, right?

The problem is that what these people call "research" consists only of reading stuff that other people have written. The most generous thing that could be said is that they are engaged in literature review - reading the research of others in order to get a sense of what's already out there in the field. Lit reviews, as anybody trained in any academic or scientific field knows, are a necessary precursor to doing research. But they are not research itself.

Actual research involves:

• Formulating a falsifiable hypothesis
• Designing a legitimate and non-biased test for that hypothesis including valid and reliable operational measures for the key concepts
• Gathering original data to perform that test
• Analyzing the results
• Carefully drawing conclusions by comparing the data with the hypothesis
and then (the gold standard)
• Allowing the entire process to be author-blind reviewed by other established experts in the field who are qualified to judge the work.

The parent cited above, and all of this ilk, haven't done any of this. All they have done is read some other stuff that other people did, usually based on non-falsifiable hypotheses to begin with (for example, "the CDC is the center of a global conspiracy to cover up the truth.")

Moreover partisans on a given issue don't even do lit review right, because they only read or watch the stuff that already agrees with their point of view. They will occasionally cite a peer-reviewed article, often misreading its conclusions in the process (since they are rarely, themselves, actual experts in the field). They dismiss studies that draw different conclusions and evaluate studies with the grossest and most obvious of double standards. Watching a documentary film made by this man hardly qualifies as a thorough review of the relevant literature on any subject.

This, of course, is why actual expertise is worth something. People who are qualified to conduct actual research in a given field have to spend years learning how to do it right. Because of my education, I am qualified to do research on political phenomena. I am not qualified to do research on vaccines. And neither are nearly all of the anti-vaccine voices out there.

So the next time you run into someone spouting what appears to be a questionable point of view on a given subject and claiming to have "done their own research", call them on it. Ask what that "research" consists of. Ask what data they have collected, what testing and analysis methods they used, and what hypothesis they were testing. I expect the answers you get will be much more heat than light, because this isn't really about science. But at least people should admit that.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Growing Inequality: Is This the World We Want?

We are just at the beginning of the 2016 (yes, 2016) US presidential campaign. Because of this, I suspect that the quality of public discourse about the most important issues of the day will get steadily worse between now and November of next year.

This is a shame, because there are some significant issues that we're either not addressing, or addressing badly. One that has been much on my mind lately is the wide and growing gap of inequality in the United States. This is not only an inequality between rich and poor, but the gulf that has opened between the very wealthy (the top 1%, in popular parlance) and everybody else. The statistics on this are too numerous to mention, but even a cursory search of economic data will show you this picture no matter how you slice it.

Simply pointing out the existence of this problem (or labelling it a "problem") is enough in some circles to get you labelled a hippie commie liberal. I'm not sure that I understand the knee-jerk response in some conservative circles to deny that the United States has moved much farther towards a highly stratified oligarchy, although I suspect it's because this "inconvenient truth" gores a few sacred cows. Nevertheless, I don't think this is - or should be - a partisan issue.

Early rumors in the presidential campaign are that some Republican candidates are going to make an issue out of this, using it as a cudgel with which to beat up on Obama (even though he's not running again you can always run against the sitting President, much as Obama ran partly against Bush in 2008). And there is some truth to the accusation - certainly inequality at all levels and of all types has increased over the last seven years, and it's not clear that the Obama administration has done much to halt that trend or even paid much attention to it. On the other hand, the same was true of the previous (Republican) administration, so there's not much help there. All in all, I suspect that I will be quoting Dickens a lot this campaign season:
'Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.' exclaimed the Ghost. They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling,wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
 'Spirit. are they yours.' Scrooge could say no more. 'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon them. 'And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.' cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. 'Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worseAnd abide the end.' 
I think our politicians will likely make things a great deal worse in pursuit of their factious purposes in the coming years.

Dickens, being of an earlier century and another country, is safe for both Republicans and Democrats. And the half-truth that Republican politicians are now seizing upon is that the gulf between the rich and powerful and everybody else is owned by both parties, perhaps because both parties are owned by the rich and powerful.

A significant study by Princeton professors briefly raised eyebrows last April in asserting that in the US, political outcomes are not significantly influenced by what the population at large wants but by what the rich and powerful want. In a study that is as clinical as it is chilling, they demonstrate with a significant pile of data that the output of the American political system is largely a function of an economic elite and the interest groups (corporations, business associations, and the like) that they control. The study briefly gained news attention - it might have lasted 48 hours in the news cycle - before being buried in the crush of day-to-day events and forgotten.

Global climate change has faced similar resistance and skepticism, but it has also had its passionate defenders who have pushed back, piling evidence on evidence. The climate change "debate" is now a part of the national conversation and slowly the science is winning out, insofar as those who would deny that climate change exists are being driven ever farther into dark corners as their numbers thin. This does not, of course, have any effect on policy because policy outcomes are determined by something else entirely.

But the observation that the US is becoming an oligarchy, and that our society is becoming both radically unequal and increasingly unjust, has no such passionate defenders. Al Gore will not make an award-winning documentary about it. Hollywood celebrities will not take up the cause. There are no equivalents to Greenpeace, no analogs to the photos of stranded polar bears, that can capture the public's imagination with the reality that they - we - are being slowly but surely isolated from both wealth and power.

Briefly, it seemed at the Occupy Movement might provide a visual center of gravity around which a counter-effort could coalesce. But that Movement was widely mocked, scorned, and at times brutally repressed. Its young participants all went home, many having learned the lesson of a previous age: you can't fight City Hall.

We can argue, of course, about what's causing the gap to grow. Certainly the widespread adoption of the creed of privatization, and the concomitant belief in private goods over public goods, has helped. In my own field of higher education, a study was just released showing that the share of higher education paid for by students and their families has risen from about 30% in 1980 to over 50% in recent years. I've blogged about this before - but this is just one fragment of the much larger iceberg.

That's part of the problem - we tend to view things as small, isolated fragments, separate puzzles rather than pieces of a larger whole. Yet societies and economies are organic things (as F.A. Hayek, a darling in some conservative circles, liked to point out), and in organic systems you cannot neatly separate out one piece from another and deal with them in isolation. Falling state support for higher education is related to the shooting of Michael Brown, and the responses to it, in Ferguson, MO. It's all a part of the same tapestry.

So the question we really need to ask ourselves is, What kind of society do we want to live in? Except for briefly addressing issues of race, President Obama has largely avoided this question. President George W. Bush never went anywhere near it, perhaps because like his father he was never very good at "that vision thing". Bill Clinton liked to govern largely by small to medium-sized policies - the Wonk-in-Chief. You have to go back to Ronald Reagan to find a President willing to use the bully pulpit to articulate a vision, not of what government should do but of what our society should look like. Not everybody agreed with his vision, but at least he tried.

Waiting for our politicians to break their silence and start talking about the big questions that matter is, I expect, simply wasting time. The current status quo is largely to the liking of the powers that seem to control that system - see how quickly the upper echelons on the financial world recovered after the crash that they themselves caused, taking the rest of us with them on the way down but not on the way back up. Perhaps politics, or at least the standard mechanisms we have come to think of as politics, isn't the right venue at all.

So here's a radical wish: that rather than participate in the bitter, petty tribal squabbling that defines the American political landscape over the next 18 months, I hope that Americans can come together to talk about the things that really matter: what kind of society we want to live in, and how we (not the politicians, but us) can get there. I don't think that this is terribly likely - I'm too old to be an optimist anymore. But wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if it did?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Silly NRA Memes and Myths of Self-Defense

One of the biggest obstacles to a real dialogue about guns, gun safety, and gun regulation in the United States is the belief, staunchly held by some, that guns are always the best means for individuals to defend themselves. This has spawned a host of internet memes (the 21st century equivalent of bumper stickers), one of which cropped up on my FB feed the other day:

The message here is as clever as it is misleading. The basic comparison seems unassailable - firing a gun is faster than dialing a phone, and bullets travel faster than police cars. Of course, this is an irrelevant and dangerous comparison that rests on some very problematic beliefs - let me pick on two of them here:

1) There are only two ways to defend yourself: Call the police or shoot someone.

The meme above offers a choice. If you are in a situation where you need to defend yourself, you only get two choices (plus the bonus choice of which calibre of bullet you want to use!) This is, of course, patent nonsense. There are WIDE array of tools and tactics for self-defense - chemical sprays, sticks, knives, unarmed combat, or good old-fashioned running away. Situational awareness and common sense also play a huge role - as many in the martial arts community point out, if you have to use your self-defense tools you have already lost the real battle.

This also begs the question, defend yourself against what? Potential threats vary widely, both in terms of the potential assailant and their goals and in potential victim and their circumstances and profile. The 6'2", 30 year old guy who works out might make a great target for a slightly-drunk alpha male looking to impress his friends or defend his "turf", but is much less likely to be targeted for rape than a 5'2" woman (whom the drunk alpha male would likely ignore).

Our society, and our criminal justice system, have built into them a principle of proportionality. If I am threatened with deadly force then deadly force could be an appropriate response, but it would be inappropriate to shoot someone for shouting insults and shoving me in a bar. There are a host of other ways for me to address the pushing-and-shoving drunk or the guy that's getting a little too close and friendly. If I only have two choices - kill or call the police - then I am indeed in serious trouble.

2) Overwhelming force is always the best form of defense.

The meme above is tactically silly - guns are not the best method of self-defense in all circumstances, tactically speaking. I've blogged on that before - at certain ranges and in certain situations, you put yourself and other innocents at risk by brandishing a gun. But the far more disturbing message here is a moral one: that whenever I feel threatened, I have the right to kill.

Whether they admit it or not, this is what the National Association for Gun Rights (the maker of the meme above) is asserting. When you fire a gun, you have to assume that it is going to kill the target. Yes, people do survive bullet wounds, but largely by luck. A decision to pull the trigger is a decision to end a life.

When is this appropriate? Advocates of the "guns are the only means of self-defense" point of view apparently believe that it is always appropriate. I have yet to see the NAGR, NRA, or any other "gun rights" organization put forth an argument about when guns should not be used. So far as I can tell, at least by their rhetoric, they are willing to defend your right to kill at all times.

This is often behind the "Stand Your Ground" argument - the notion that I don't have to back down from anybody, any time, and I can escalate the situation to lethal force if I feel like it. This is the cry of the schoolyard bully and the dangerously insecure.

To put it nicely, this is not compatible with a civilized society. Last year a retired police officer took the life of a husband and father in a movie theater in an argument over text messaging, after the latter got angry and threw a bag of popcorn. There are far too many of these stories - if you want to depress yourself, go read the first few paragraphs of this article.

This is what too many gun-rights advocates don't get. It's the reason so many of us react in horror to their arguments. It's not that we want to take their guns away in all circumstances, everywhere, and impose a Nazi state. It's that they present themselves as dangerous, threatening, wild-eyed barbarians ready to shoot anything and everything that moves.

Until the NRA and its ideological kin come to grips with the moral implications of firearms ownership and use and are willing to actually talk about such things, most people won't take them seriously. They simply have too cavalier an attitude towards life to sit at the grown-up table. And while I am not an advocate for taking guns away from responsible adults, it's clear that there are far too many irresponsible adults out there.

Those who create flippant memes that celebrate killing make a good argument that they're in the latter category. If you want to talk about self-defense, let's talk about it. But I don't think that's what the NRA and NARG want. They want a world where they have the right to shoot anybody, anytime. That's not a world I want to live in.