Sam Harris riddled with errors on gun control

image Sam Harris recently posted a blog article as part of the post-Newtown gun control debates (The Riddle of the Gun). He essentially mimics many of the NRA arguments, himself being an avid gun owner and user. He does nominally criticize the over-simplicity of some NRA argument against sensible gun control laws but he spends the bulk of his effort attacking the idea of gun laws as necessary or effective. As an avid reader of his I find his reasoning to be sloppy, contradictory, and irrelevant and I hope to show you what is wrong with his thinking.

For those not familiar with Sam Harris, he is a well-known author with a well-rounded background. He’s the son of a Jewish mother, Quaker father, and spent 11 years studying and practicing Hindu and Buddhist meditation in Nepal and throughout Asia and dabbled in Martial Arts. He has degrees in philosophy from Stanford as well as a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and has conducted research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. Harris is better known for his books that apply this background in areas such as religion (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation) and applied moral reasoning and cognition (The Moral Landscape, Free Will, Lying).

I highly respect Sam. He lives what he writes and he usually has a well-thought-out debate style. Watch any video of him debating theists and you’ll see what I mean. I have written before about his book, Free Will, (Free Will Hunting) and criticized his debate with security expert Bruce Schneier regarding airport screening and profiling (Err Lines on Security). I was surprised at the sloppiness of his arguments there, though Schneier was sloppier and Harris more convincing. With this additional sloppiness on gun control, and the less then stellar essay in his book Lying, I’m beginning to think Harris is coasting.

Harris commits a variety of rhetorical crimes including blatant contradiction, appeal to emotion, irrelevancy, strawman arguments, and conveniently leaving out important information. This sloppiness is unlike his usually debating style in books and videos. I suspect it is because he spends a lot of time developing his arguments for books and debates, using his time and professionalism (and perhaps editors) to clean up the sloppiness. His blog articles seem to be more off-the-cuff arguments in raw form where he is just as subject as everyone else to cognitive deficiencies, as evidenced in the airport security discussion.

The contradictions in Harris’ article come from selective application of his arguments. He argues that a world without guns isn’t such a great place and selectively uses examples where a gun would help to demonstrate this.

A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene. […] The fantasies of many martial artists aside, to go unarmed against a person with a knife is to put oneself in very real peril, regardless of one’s training.

In the very next sentiment he directly contradicts this:

A world without guns is a world in which no man, not even a member of Seal Team Six, can reasonably expect to prevail over more than one determined attacker at a time.

So let’s get Harris’ arguments straight. In Sam’s Imaginary World Without Guns a single rapist can hold off a dozen witnesses, and presumably his victim, while raping his victim, with just a knife, but even a member of Seal Team Six can’t hold off more than one determined attacker without a gun. Do you see a little bias in this baseless assertion?

From his rapist example you might think Harris is a big proponent of citizens walking around with their guns. After all, it wouldn’t do any good for those dozen witnesses to have their guns locked up safely at home when they unexpectedly came across that rapist. Guess again:

Carrying a gun in public, however, entails even greater responsibility than keeping one at home, and in most states the laws reflect this. Like many gun-control advocates, I have serious concerns about letting ordinary citizens walk around armed.

You’ve lost me, Sam. If Sam’s Imaginary World Without Guns is such a bad place because a rapist can hold off a dozen witnesses with a knife, then doesn’t that also apply to Sam’s World Where Ordinary Citizens Don’t Walk Around Armed? Harris claims “I have never had any illusions about how quickly the police can respond when called.” but he does seem to have illusions about quickly rape witnesses can run home and get their safely locked up guns, load them, and return. Hopefully Seal Team Six carries theirs around at least, otherwise they too would have to run home before taking on their gang of determined attackers.

Harris’ obliviousness to his contradictions here seems to be a result of having the delusional belief that guns are a great equalizer:

A world without guns, therefore, is one in which the advantages of youth, size, strength, aggression, and sheer numbers are almost always decisive.

Sure, this makes sense as long as you have the gun and they don’t. If a rapist with a knife can hold off a dozen witnesses, a rapist with a gun can hold off more and do so more effectively. The fantasies of action heroes aside, no man with a gun, not even a member of Seal Team Six, can reasonably expect to prevail over more than one determined gun-wielding attacker at a time.

In reality you get the worst of both worlds. The rapist can keep more witnesses at bay, the group of determined attackers will now shoot you instead of breaking your leg, and you have the added bonus of increased risk from your own gun at home from accidental shooting, access by children, and, as Harris admits, “resorting to deadly force in a circumstance that would not otherwise have called for it”. Contrary to Harris’ original assertion, a world with guns is one in which the most aggressive, and mentally unstable, men can do more or less anything they want and take out dozens of people, including children. That doesn’t happen so easily in a real world without guns.

Guns don’t equalize the problem; they escalate it. It becomes a literal arms race where the most aggressive, unstable, and criminally minded dictate the terms and any individual who doesn’t have as good a gun or training is in greater danger than if they were in a real world without guns (as opposed to Sam’s imaginary one).

Harris is fully aware of that inequality even in the gun world but is completely obliviousness to how it destroys his equalization arguments. He spends much time discussing different types of guns, bullets, and their usage including this point about rifles:

There is, in fact, no marksman on earth who can shoot a handgun as accurately at distance as you would be able to shoot a rifle fitted with a scope after a few hours of practice. This difference in accuracy between short and long guns must be experienced to be understood. Having understood it, you will in no way be consoled to learn that a madman ensconced on the rooftop of a nearby building is armed merely with a “hunting rifle” that is legal in all 50 states.

Once again this is a wonderful argument for the utter uselessness of arming everybody. Even if everybody carried around personal handguns and could stop that rapist (who didn’t have a gun for some reason) or that gang of determined attackers (who didn’t have guns for some reason), Harris argues here exactly why they’d be useless against a madman with a hunting rifle on a rooftop.

It is utterly futile to try to stop madmen determined on taking people out by making guns more ubiquitous. The best that we can do is to make it as difficult as possible for such a person to acquire that gun, to increase the likelihood of catching at-risk people by having greater review on of who does buy them, and reduce the likelihood of anyone thinking of doing it.

A real world without guns is actually far safer than Sam’s Imaginary World Without Guns. And here’s the difference in my argument versus Harris’: you don’t need to take my word for it. Such worlds essentially exist in reality. Other Western nations have solved this problem.

Some Statistical Facts About Guns

Let’s look at Harris’ rape scenario. Rape statistics put the U.S. consistently among the top 2 or 3 of all Western countries. It was #3 in 2010, the latest year in the data, and #2 in 2009. In terms of guns per capita the U.S. is by far in first place with double the rate of the second place, the small peaceful country of Switzerland with mandatory military training of citizens, and triple that of the other Western countries. The point here isn’t the inverse correlation from what Harris proposes. Quite the contrary, the point is that there isn’t really a correlation. Harris’ rape scenario is a fictitious contrivance. More guns don’t reduce rape.

It’s a similar story with Harris’ assault on Seal Team Six. The U.S. is by far the #1 country for assaults leading to death of all OECD countries, about three to four times that of other OECD countries. (Keep in mind too that this is assaults from any kind, not just guns. Other countries don’t compensate with assaults from knifes or other weapons.) If there is a correlation, it is the opposite of Harris’ assertion. Seal Team Six is better off in a world without guns. You just have to be talking about the real one and not Sam’s imaginary one.

Yes, of course these other countries aren’t without guns. That is not the point. The point is that Harris’s arguments about what happens in a world without guns are utterly delusional. At best the guns have no effect and at worst actually make the rapes and assaults worse.

What about at the personal level then. Clearly in the greater society a world with guns is worse off but that’s including all of the criminals, mentally unstable, and madmen. What about if we just look at those good, upstanding citizens. Harris suggests

it seems to me that there is nothing irrational in judging oneself to be psychologically stable and fully committed to the safe handling and ethical use of firearm.

The truly stable people are personally better off, right? Think again. The statistics are clear:

Having a gun in your home significantly increases your risk of death — and that of your spouse and children.

And it doesn’t matter how the guns are stored or what type or how many guns you own.

If you have a gun, everybody in your home is more likely than your non-gun-owning neighbors and their families to die in a gun-related accident, suicide or homicide.

Furthermore, there is no credible evidence that having a gun in your house reduces your risk of being a victim of a crime. Nor does it reduce your risk of being injured during a home break-in.

Perhaps Harris should look up the definition of irrational. In economics it refers to the state in which “people’s actual interests differ from what they believe to be their interests.” In psychology it is defined as “the tendency to act, emote and think in ways that are inflexible, unrealistic, absolutist and most importantly self- and social-defeating and destructive.” Yes, Sam, it seems to me that there is indeed something irrational in what you suggest. It’s also interesting in the study of irrationality that “people fail to realize the irrationality of their actions and believe they are acting perfectly rational, possibly due to flaws in their reasoning”.

Some Facts About Irrational Fear

So why does Harris bring up rape and assault at all if they are uncorrelated or reversely correlated from his assertion? As with most gun apologist arguments, he is resorting to the appeal of fear. The antithesis of a “bleeding heart liberal” is a “fear-mongering conservative”, and Harris brings it out in spades. In fact, (stealing one of Sam’s lines) I have never seen an gun apologist conform to left-wing caricatures of himself with such alacrity.

Harris starts by putting you in the place of a helpless rape victim or witness, hesitating without courage to do anything. If only you had a gun. Next, you are assaulted by a gang and are helpless to do anything about it. If only you had a gun. Then he shows us a Houston PSA video re-enacting an office shooting scenario and asks us to “Imagine being one of the people in the Houston video trapped in the office with no recourse but to hide under a desk.” If only you had a gun. Heck, why not just show everybody how a gun can save you in those scary scenarios. Sure enough, Harris pulls out a video of a motel clerk shooting an armed robber

He swiftly dismisses worries about crossfire with ease by appealing to what should be your real fear,

If you found yourself trapped with others in a conference room, preparing to attack the shooter with pencils and chairs, can you imagine thinking, “I’m so glad no one else has a gun, because I wouldn’t want to get caught in any crossfire”?

Feel the fear. Let it grow. Now think about your daughter:

As the parent of a daughter in preschool, I can scarcely imagine the feelings of terror, helplessness, and grief endured by the parents of Newtown. But when I contemplate atrocities of this kind, I do not think of “gun control”

Are you feeling it yet? Are you one of those horribly bad parents who would let their child die by supporting gun control? Think of your terrified child. If only there were guns to stop this guy. Feel how the fear disappears by imagining holding a gun in your hand and what power it gives you to stop atrocities, to stop rapists, to stop gangs, and to save your daughter.

If you listen closely you can just hear the ghost of Charleton Heston exlaim, “Good, I can feel your anger. I am defenseless. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete!”

I’ve always wondered why “conservatives” are always so scared. (I use the quotation marks here because modern conservatives have little to do with actual social, fiscal, or political conservatism.) America used to believe in things like “live free or die” and “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” But now a large potion cowers in fear, ready to get their gun if somebody steps on their lawn. Forget how socially corrosive it is. Forget how it increases your real danger. Get your gun because it give you power and relieves your fear.

Apparently that’s what matters. American conservatives are driven by irrational fear. Harris seems to be falling in this direction. I use irrational here as defined above and with multiple applications. It is irrational to worry about the circumstances Harris describes. As even he points out such cases of violence are very rare and are decreasing even in the United States. If it’s so rare then rational people don’t need guns to protect themselves. It is even irrational to think that personally owning a gun in your home actually makes you and your family safer. It is also irrational to think more guns in general lead to a safer world, or that a world without guns is worse, when international statistics clearly show that is not the case.

The irrationality can be well-hidden though. Consider if everybody else had guns and your chance of being brutally murdered is, say, 30 in 100,000. If you get a gun you might be able to stop a few attempts, perhaps reducing it to 25. Therefore it might seem rational that more guns improves safety. Except it is relative to a baseline where everybody else has guns. If you got rid of most of them your risks might drop to 2 or 3 per 100,000. Arguing for a local minimum in the face of a much lower global minimum is irrational. (“Global” and “local” here are referring to the mathematical relationship of guns and violence, not geography.

Harris and other gun apologists can’t use rationality to justify the availability or personal choice of guns. This is why they must resort to contrived and cherry-picked scenarios where guns have been, or could conceivably be, helpful. That is a problem with the politics of fear. They make you chose options that put you, your family, your co-workers, and especially your children at greater risks, not less.

Some Facts About Irrelevance

Hypothetical and anecdotal stories about how guns might help are worse than just biased cherry-picking, they are completely irrelevant. They serve only to spread irrational fear that cause people to make choices that put them in greater danger. The only thing that matters in discussing control is whether there are policies that actually reduce crime and risk, and are the costs of such policies worth the improvement. That’s it. Anything else is a misdirection.

This is where Harris fails terribly. He spends much time creating Sam’s Imaginary World Without Guns stories. He spends much time telling scary stories to raise your fear and then how much better you’d feel with a gun in your hands, even when in reality it’d statistically put you at greater risk. He spends much time discussing different types of guns, bullets, and equipment that only serve to undermine his other arguments about how arming people can help. But he never really addresses policies, their real-world (statistical) effectiveness, and their costs.

When Harris does use statistics he uses them selectively:

Fifty-five million kids went to school on the day that 20 were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Even in the United States, therefore, the chances of a child’s dying in a school shooting are remote.

He continues by describing how violence is decreasing and how the types of guns that some gun control advocates are chasing are a negligible portion. As I’ve pointed out already, it’s interesting that he only applies this to why gun control activists shouldn’t be so worried, but not to why arming and training everyone and posting armed guards at schools is foolish. But this isn’t just trivia; he has a point to make:

Of course, it is important to think about the problem of gun violence in the context of other risks. For instance, it is estimated that 100,000 Americans die each year because doctors and nurses fail to wash their hands properly. Measured in bodies, therefore, the problem of hand washing in hospitals is worse than the problem of guns, even if we include accidents and suicides.

Harris makes a huge, but common error here. He confuses the relative size of the problem with its priority. If this were reasonable, it would be foolish to address any problem other than the worst one. But that’s not the correct metric. Priorities are a function of cost-benefit-risk analysis, perhaps easiest understood by utilitarian mathematics. You need to address the costs of solutions with their expected benefits, both scaled by their uncertainty and risks. You also hedge your bets by diversifying — addressing multiple problems in parallel.

A small problem with a simple, inexpensive, and guaranteed solution should be a parallel priority to a large problem with a complex, expensive, and uncertain solutions. Heart disease is the biggest killer. Does that mean we shouldn’t address car safety until we’ve cured heart disease? Let’s not put safety railings on bridges because only an insignificant number of people accidentally fall off bridges.

Of course that line of thinking is ridiculous. You put in cheap and simple solutions where you can. Let’s look at that hand washing problem. I can’t find any reference supporting Harris’ claims of 100,000 deaths due to improper hand washing in hospitals. The closest I can find in the literature is references to about 80,000 deaths due to nosocomial (hospital acquired) infections. That is, infection from all sources in hospitals, for which improper hand washing by doctors and nurses is just a small fraction. Putting that aside, there actually is appropriate effort at implementing policies and solutions to improper hand washing, including “wash-control” policies like a five-point checklist and alcohol gels that show under UV light where you’ve missed to help educate workers.

There is one important difference to note about the efforts to implement “wash-control” policies: there aren’t any dirty-hand apologists getting in their way and arguing that there are worse problem so people should stop over-emphasizing clean-hand policies. They simply move forward by testing various policies and implementing those that work and where the benefits are worth the costs.

Harris makes no effort whatsoever to look at the costs and benefits of any solutions. He goes to great length to describe how armed guards and well-trained citizens can actually protect us from madmen with guns. It’s not just a transient thought; he means it as a viable solution:

This leads me to believe that if we care about minimizing the harm caused by the next school shooter, we should focus on stopping him at the doors of the school. To be sure, hiring enough guards to protect our nation’s schools would be a daunting task. The security industry is notorious for poor quality control, and there is even reason to worry that some police officers have insufficient training with their guns. But it is clearly possible to hire as many competent guards as we want, should this become a national priority. This is entirely a question of money, not of whether it is possible to enlist, train, and equip 100,000 highly qualified men and women to protect our children.

Ignoring how he showed that we actually can’t stop them if they have a rifle on a rooftop (another contradiction), what are the costs of such a solution? The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2009-2010 there were 98,817 public schools, or roughly the 100,000 that Harris mentions. The average salary of an armed security officer is $31,000 as of this date. Just in salaries alone this amounts to $3.1 billion per year. Add in training costs, equipment, management, and other overhead and you are probably talking well over $10 billion per year. This is just for the armed guards at public schools. We haven’t even begun to account for guarding any other place or the training or arming of individual citizens which will likely dwarf this. I would not be surprised if it was on the order $100 billion per year.

For comparison, there are somewhere between 200 and 300 million guns in the U.S. Quality guns average about $500 to $1000 new depending on the type. Let’s say about half that amount for the average used gun. That means American taxpayers could buy back all of the privately owned guns for a one-time cost of about $50-$150 billion, or somewhere between about one to ten years worth of costs of the Harris-approved NRA suggestions, depending on whether we’re just talking schools or including greater arming and training in general. In the long run, arming everyone is far, far more expensive and far less effective.

Yet Harris is at a complete loss here:

Any effective regime of “gun control,” therefore, would require that we remove hundreds of millions of firearms from our streets. As Jeffrey Goldberg points out in The Atlantic, it may no longer be rational to hope that we can solve the problem of gun violence by restricting access to guns—because guns are everywhere

So spending on the order of $10-$100 billion per year in perpetuity is “just a question of money” when it comes to protecting our children, but spending a similar amount once, amortized over a few years to a decade, and to make them a lot safer as part of a permanent solution, is somehow not rational. I can’t be the only one who finds problems with such baseless and biased assertions.

Granted, just buying them back won’t solve the problem outright. Several million new guns are bought every year, though that number would likely drop organically simply from the reduction in danger. Although the risks already outweigh the benefits of ownership, with most guns removed from circulation the irrational fears that drive the behaviour would be more transparent.

Such an “all-in” solution would likely have to include legislation strictly controlling the production, sale, and purchase of guns of all kinds, and the massive buy-back would probably have to be made mandatory. Gun apologists would probably argue that criminals would not give back their guns. Of course that relies on the a caricature of the reality. People who use guns in serious crimes aren’t usually career Mob hit men; they are otherwise normal people who snap, drift into criminal behaviour, or have mental problems, and have easy access to guns that were never intended for criminal activity. The Newtown shooter stole his guns from a family member who wasn’t a criminal. He wasn’t a career criminal himself. Furthermore, significantly reducing the number available in circulation or harder to get approval means it is harder for criminals to get them and raises their prices in an illegal market.

Of course this level of effort would require significant political will and possibly constitutional amendment should any of the inevitable Second Amendment objections succeed.

Is this realistic? In principle, yes, but in practical terms is seems unlikely only because of America’s irrational political atmosphere and gun culture that Harris is contributing to, not because it can’t be done. Australia had success in this area. After the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, where 35 people were killed and 21 injured by a mentally unstable man with two semi-automatic rifles, the government implemented a buy-back program that got about 640,000 guns out of circulation of all kinds. It lasted one year. (Given Australia’s population of about 22 million, that’s about the equivalent per capita of the U.S. buying back 10 million guns in a single year.) These reforms also removed semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns and rifles from civilian possession.

Furthermore, the laws put strict requirements on the acquisition of firearms. The purchaser must be at least 18 years old, hold a firearms license, must have secure storage for it, and must obtain a permit to acquire. That permit has a 28 day waiting period with background check (for the first permit) and requires an approved and demonstrable reason for the purchase. Acceptable reasons relate to pest control, hunting, target shooting, and collecting. Self-defense is not an acceptable reason.

How did it do? According to published review of progress, in the 18 years prior to the legislation there were 13 mass murders or about one every year or two. In the 14 years (and possibly 16 years as of this writing) following the legislation there were none. As a possible bonus, firearm-related deaths (particularly homicides and suicides) appeared to decline faster, though it is debated whether or not the overall declines in homicides and suicides can be attributed to these laws directly.

So here is a country that had a much, much smaller problem than the U.S., had the political will to solve it, and did so. Was it the buy-back program that eliminated the massacres? Did the acquisition restrictions do it? Was it the social outrage that did it? Or was it just ongoing social change?

There are two problems with this line of questioning: it doesn’t matter, and it assumes they are independent and separable. Imagine if we could show that the laws didn’t actually have any contribution to the end of massacres. Would you change them back? Why? Do these laws not make sense in their own right? When it comes to weapons, we have to have limits on the destructiveness that any individual citizen can perform, and in the gray areas we need some means to demonstrate responsibility of ownership. We don’t let any person own any weapon.

A good measure of the destructiveness is the amount of power and energy output for the effort input by the user. Sure, a knife could be used to kill somebody, but it only has an destructive ratio of 1. All of the energy and power come from the human operating it. In a gun, the output energy comes from the chemistry of the gun powder, and the output power (energy per unit time) comes from the firing rate. The input is the effort to pull, and hold, the trigger. The input efrot is negligible to the output energy an power.

Even a small child can kill an adult with a gun. I can pull out a video too. (Warning, the video shows exactly what I say it does.) Sure, stupid parent, right? That’s the point. A small lapse in judgement or memory, like taking the clip but forgetting to check the chamber, is very easily fatal. With guns it takes little effort to kill, and with semi-automatic and automatic weapons it takes little effort to slaughter many people in seconds, perhaps even before those armed guards are anywhere near the scene.

Sure, a madman can still use even a knife to try and kill many people, but it is much more difficult, far less likely to succeed, and far less likely to happen in the first place. It is probability that matters, not possibility. This doesn’t stop Harris from falling into the cognitive trap; he pulls out the Chinese knife attacks on schoolchildren as a counter-example. He does pay lip service to admit that guns are more efficient, but dismisses the objection by simply saying “but the truth is that knives are often lethal enough”.

What does that even mean? Does Harris not believe that many more people would have been killed had they used guns, especially semi-automatic? How rare are these knife attacks compared to gun massacres? How easy is it to stop somebody with a knife compared to a gun? Apparently saving lives doesn’t matter to Harris. What matters to him is the binary condition of whether a weapon can kill or not.

The arguments of possibility are irrational in that they work against our own interests. The problem of violent deaths is a statistical issue. Reducing the number of deaths is the goal. The inability to make that number zero is irrelevant. Cutting the number is what matters. Even ignoring the emotional arguments, a purely utilitarian consideration says even one statistically reduced death is of value.

Of course the reduced deaths need to be put in the context of the lost benefit of having easily available, highly dangerous weapons. So what are they? What are the benefits that society, or even an individual, gets out of having easy access to semi-automatic or fully-automatic weapons, or any of the kind banned in Australia? How do those benefits in aggregate compare to the lives lost due to allowing them? Now what about the same question for handguns? Remember, the statistics are pretty clear that you and your family are at greater risk by owning one, and certainly the statistics show that the society at large is worse off. From a purely utilitarian cost-benefit analysis of risks, what are these net benefits we’d lose? The NRA and Harris have none to offer. That is why they both rely on anecdotal stories that are unrepresentative of the statistics.

Hence even if these Australian laws didn’t directly cause the drop in massacres to zero, that is not itself a justification for having them repealed. You need to identify a net cost, or a benefit that is lost that exceeds the benefits gained.

Some Facts About Symbology

Harris worries that gun laws would be merely symbolic. If that were true, so what? Who says that symbols are not of value? Symbolism doesn’t stand alone; it represents the values of a society and acts to facilitate social change. Many laws are symbolic and difficult to enforce in practice. Do oaths and perjury laws keep people from ever lying? Of course not. But the statement of values in these rules and the threat do affect people’s behaviour. People don’t lie and cheat just because they can find loopholes. Even if it were just symbolic, which likely isn’t true, symbolism has real effects.

Can Australians actually buy guns for protection by lying about it? Sure, but it means admitting to yourself that you are a liar who skirts the law for personal gain, and you have to maintain the false appearance of your honesty, making sure you never slip up. That alone affects how people behave.

More importantly, legislation is an important part of changing culture. Harris notes, as others do, that America’s gun culture is the primary problem. I think everybody can agree on that. I’m unaware of anyone who argues a few simple laws alone will solve the problem. But it also doesn’t happen by magic.

As I mentioned earlier, Harris points to Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels of our Nature that effectively demonstrates that violence is decreasing even in America. I too am an avid reader of Pinker’s and highly recommend his books and speeches. Let’s let Steven tell us how that violence decreases. We can get it from his own mouth in a video of the Global Empowerment Meeting 2012 put on by the Center for International Development at Harvard University. Although I do recommend the whole video, I’ve started the link at 11:41 as this is where he starts to talk about how such social changes happen. He starts by summarizing Adam Smith and other Enlightenment thinkers on how reason works to bring about social change.

Of particular interest is the segment starting at 16:20. Pinker describes the process of social change by norm cascade and describes, as an example, the detailed analysis by Andrew Hammel on the decline of capital punishment in his book Ending The Death Penalty. Here is blueprint for how a norm cascade works to put an end to some behaviour X:

1. Intense controversy, with the majority favoring [X].

2. Elites, influenced by rational argument, defy popular opinion, push through abolition [of X].

3. Nothing terrible happens.

4. People and press get bored.

5. Politicians realize issue is no longer a vote-getter.

6. Political inertia: No one wants to re-open the issue.

7. People get used to it, favor the status quo.

8. Alternative becomes unthinkable except …

9. Among radical fringe groups, whose extremism only cements popular consensus.

That is how reason overcomes irrational cultural norms. Other examples given include racial segregation, use of nuclear weapons in war, criminalization of homosexuality, women in the workplace and military, and we’re even now seeing it in areas like same sex marriage and universal health insurance. Heck, the same process works with addressing traffic congestion using nominal tolls.

The problem is that people are naturally risk averse. It is easy to come up with imaginary reasons why things won’t work (like Sam’s Imaginary World Without Guns). Change is an unknown; better to live with the devil we know. Except that once the change is implemented and the benefits realized, people en masse tend to change their opinion even to the point where they don’t think they originally objected to the change. Change is a feedback loop. The status quo can change as a result of changes in what people believe in, but you can change what people believe in as a result of changing the status quo. People aren’t psychic and people aren’t all statisticians or scientists; sometimes we need to see the change before realizing our imagined outcomes were fictional fears. Luckily we have other countries to look at, if gun apologists would only recognize that.

This is how a large part of human progress works and does so efficiently. We all benefit from the best ideas of a few. We don’t all need to cure cancer. We only need one person to cure cancer and 7 billion people can benefit by copying it. It’s the very basis of how scientific progress works. When reason shows that gun violence is greatly solvable, supported by statistics and the fact that the rest of the Western world has solved this problem, we can all benefit by copying it. The problems are the public inertia to do nothing (other than express outrage one way or the other) and the active resistance to doing that which reason shows.

This doesn’t mean that it is a short-term or easy solution. Norm cascades can take decades. Nor does it have to an immediate all or nothing. U.S. gun legislation need not start as comprehensive as what Australia did, but the framework of unifying laws and compounding power of large gun buy-back programs can help start a norm cascade of further laws and social change.

Gun laws also are not mutually exclusive from other solutions. Certainly mental health needs to be better addressed. At-risk youth programs can help. Often overlooked is journalism reform, which may or may not involve legislation. Part of the reason for massacres such as Newtown is the anti-hero infamy offered by 24-hour news programs. Many of these deranged individuals taking out innocent people, especially young children, are lonely and suicidal nobodies who want to stop being nobodies. Going out in a “blaze of glory” and being at the top of “worst” lists is being a somebody.

Even the sane can understand that somebody committing suicide alone, feeling that the world thinks of them as a pathetic loser and being remembered by nobody, may be less attractive than committing suicide while feeling powerful and being remembered as a powerful person making a mark on the world, even if bad. This is especially true for young men with an innate, but overactive, need to demonstrate their status in society, even when such drive conflicts with the cognitive consequences. There is no such thing as bad press, as they say.

Far more people can name the Newtown and Columbine killers than can name a even a single victim. The Aurora theatre shooter even has his photo as an internet meme. (I refuse to name the killers, itemize their arsenals, or rank their body counts. They’re just all pathetic losers.)

Some Facts About Gun Apologists

I know that Sam Harris is the wrong villain here. There are far worse gun apologists. Harris’ article at least notes some of the absurdity of extreme NRA arguments and the validity of some points of gun control proponents, and even the limits in some of his arguments. As I’ve noted, he only tends to pay lip service to those objections, as if only to cover his ass, without actually incorporating them into the balance. He also isn’t against gun control laws entirely, suggesting basic laws are sensible (without going into much detail). And to be entirely fair he does aim some of his arguments specifically at ignorance within the gun-control community, including significant errors in the press.

Caveats aside, the bulk of Harris’ arguments are exactly as I’ve presented here, suggesting that guns are good for protection and safety (statistically they are not), that a world without guns would be worse (it would not, by his own arguments), and that putting armed guards in schools is perfectly rational and a good idea (it is not) whereas it is probably irrational to try to tackle the number of guns and gun culture problems (it is not).

The difference with Harris is that NRA spokesmen, right-wing pundits, and politicians are easy to dismiss. They have an agenda and are fundamentally ideological by nature and by duty to their employers and core voters. By contrast, Sam Harris is a respected intellectual. Critical thinkers like me look to him for rationally thought out arguments when it comes to public debates such as this. It is therefore especially disheartening to see him do such a sloppy job with such blatant bias and irrationality, and not once address the most important point that undermines almost all of his arguments: the rest of the Western world has solved this problem already, and more guns isn’t it.

[Update]: Harris has responded to many of his critics including many of the criticisms I have given here. Unfortunately he just compounds his mistakes and biases. I’ll address them soon, but the epitome of his irrational bias here is summed up in this line:

But I don’t think these broader statistics apply to me (and I don’t think this judgment is the product of a reasoning bias)

and this line:

There are people who experience much more chaos in their lives who cannot honestly say the same. Such people should not own guns. 

The obliviousness is mind-boggling. The statistics don’t apply to him? That’s pure irrational hubris. Whom does he think should get to make those determinations? Him? Everybody for themselves. Scroll up to where I linked to the definition of irrationality, and note the common problem whereby people who are irrational judge themselves to be rational. Personally, I judge Sam Harris as irrational and I don’t think he should own a gun. And so starts the race to the bottom, as they call it.