How Committed Are You to Facts?

I think a fairly reasonable way of describing the ideal way to come up with political positions is this:

  1. Use empirics, reason, and philosophy/theology to determine your core values
  2. Search out for facts to help you understand what courses of action best help you maximize those values, make the best trade-offs, etc.

I'd like to believe all of us are pretty committed to being based in fact. Especially with respect to the opposite commitment, which is not caring at all about facts.

I have also found that it is a common thread to believe that the people who agree with us are committed to facts, and those who don't are committed to ignoring facts. We like to protest about facts mattering, and accuse the other side of not caring about facts. I've argued before that such accusations are worse than useless, but some people will at least hold on that they're quite right in the matter: the other team is fact-less. 

But there is a more important place to search for aberrations from facts than within the other party. It's within yourself. We all like to think we're committed to using facts, and only facts, to back up our positions. But how committed are we, really?

A Few Examples

Perhaps you're very afraid of terrorism, and the US should take extraordinary measures to prevent it: "extreme vetting," perhaps building a wall, waging overseas war, or other measures. These are meant to keep Americans safe. But how dangerous is terrorism related to other threats? 

Turns out you're about 5x more likely to die of lightning than a terrorist attack, and 10x more likely to die of a bee sting. Would the facts not suggest we should invest about 5x and 10x more resources in lightning and bee sting prevention, respectively?

Perhaps you are feeling pretty proud of yourself, because you recognize that terrorism doesn't cause many deaths. You, instead, worry about school shootings. Those are the problem to fix. You marched at the "#MarchForOurLives." You're boycotting folks who work with the NRA. Think of the children!

Well, about 200 students have been killed in school shootings since Columbine. This is less than the 4000 or so that have died of terrorism in the same time, but there are fewer students: 50 million instead of 330 million, so about 1/7 the number of total Americans. This means your kid is a little bit less likely to die of a school shooting than terrorism, but within the same order of magnitude.

Your kid is still far more likely to die of a disease they picked up in school, an injury they received while playing at school, or an accident on the way to school. Even more likely to die swimming in someone's pool. And, yes, beestings and lightning are still more deadly to our kids than school shootings. (Mass shootings in general are similarly rare and unlikely to kill you.)

Why aren't we marching about nationwide bee sting prevention or mandatory epi-pens to actually keep more kids safe?

If you think only one of these two groups is right, and one is foolish, in worrying so much about a threat, you're not committed to facts. You're committed to facts that are convenient, because you want to root for your team and against the other team, and you'll use whatever facts you can get to support that. 

Perhaps you recognize that these threats aren't so huge, but you want to keep yourself safe. You fiercely defend the right to bear arms, and keep one in your house, because you believe it will keep you safe. Well, bad news: you're twice as likely to die from being shot in your own home than the folks that don't have guns (American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol 160, Issue 10--from Wedged, pg 77), particularly by family members.

Are you going to lock away your gun, or are you going to keep it under the bed? You may not want it to be true that having a gun makes you more likely to be killed than not having one, but there it is.

But perhaps you're smarter than all that, and you know the real thing to be worried about is black Americans being killed by police. Institutional racism causes police officers to kill black Americans at a much higher rate than they do white Americans. This is one of the key facts behind #BlackLivesMatter (yes, the left wing uses more hashtags, whatever).

However, when you dig into the numbers, a different story arises. Black people in America are 4x more likely to be arrested for a crime than white people (Brad Heath, USA Today. "Racial gap in US arrest rates: 'staggering disparity.'" From Wedged, page 189). They are also 2x more likely to be shot and killed by a police officer (The Guardian, "The Counted: People killed by police in the US." From Wedged, page 189). A police officer is not actually more likely to kill a black person than a white person while conducting an arrest. In fact, per arrest, white people are 2x more likely to be killed by police officers. A New York Times article highlights a study that backs up my own analysis, focusing on "per stop" rather than "per arrest." He finds that there is no statistical difference between police killings of black and white people. The professor called it "the most surprising result of [his] career," because the common narrative so strongly does not match the facts.

Police are not more likely to kill a black person than a white person when stopping or arresting. That's simply a fact. You may not want it to be true, it may not support your team or your protest or your narrative, but there it is.

Facts are hard. Facing them requires courage. Do you have the courage to own that police offers are equally likely to kill black and white people per stop? Can you own that terrorism and school shootings are much less risky to you than bee stings? Can you own that guns are statistically bad at protecting you?

All of those are facts. Until you accept all of them, you're not yet committed.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.