Thursday, May 14, 2009

Culture : the root cause of voodoo statistics and the sudden urge to write 10,000 word dissertations?

I've been reflecting recently on how we as human beings have an infinite capacity to rationalise away the most indefensible of things, and on how when we do this in the most determined fashion it's usually because we're defending something we've known since childhood. If an activity, an object, an attitude, a state of affairs was 'normal' and 'comfortable' to us in childhood, it can't possibly be wrong, can it? My own minor examples are that, as a child, one of my favourite toys was a golliwog, and I also sometimes used a racist term to describe a corner shop run by a Pakistani. I recall my absolute incredulity when I first encountered suggestions that there was anything wrong with either of those things - and it was dangerously easy to sustain that incredulity given that the reaction of my peer group was almost unanimously the same as my own. How could any reasonable person find such trivial, silly things offensive, we asked in unison. In retrospect I can't believe that it took me literally years to accept how wrong I was, and to recognise that in a frequently hostile environment ethnic minority communities have every right to complain about the invidious effect of casual, unthinking racism. I wouldn't open my mind to that powerful argument because for some reason it was too painful to let go of a couple of the certainties of my childhood, however unimportant those certainties were. This same pattern can be seen played out time and time again - and people will construct the most astonishingly complex defensive arguments just to avoid having to let go of their familiar certainties, whether those certainties be that cruelty to animals can always be justified because life wouldn't be so easy without it, or that wealth inequality is justified by differential intelligence, or that there was no immorality in the mass slaughter of innocents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (because it was the US that dropped the bombs, and the US doesn't do genocide). The more well-rehearsed these complex arguments become (and the defence of the Hiroshima atrocity is a good example of one that has become extraordinarily well-drilled), the more you can see the signs of insecurity in the individuals putting them forward. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the defenders of the indefensible have evidently realised "we need something bloody good here, or everyone's going to see straight through us".

And so let's recap. A few weeks ago, I present a very simple proposition that fewer people die in the UK as a result of gun violence than in the US. I suggest this is directly as a result of there being fewer guns around, which in turn is at least partly due to the much stricter gun laws here. I also refute the argument that 'guns don't kill people, people kill people' by pointing out that it would simply not be possible for an individual to kill as many people in a short space of time with virtually any other weapon, whatever their degree of murderous intent. People kill people, but they do so with guns, and could not do so with anything like the same degree of efficiency in any other way. A third proposition I put forward is that increasing opportunities for legal gun ownership would inevitably lead to a large number of lethal weapons ending up in the hands of those who are a danger to themselves or to others. All these common sense propositions are easy to explain. Why then, does it take a 10,000 word (yes, really!) incomprehensible, logic-bending, pseudo-scientific 'analysis' to refute them? And this dissertation has randomly appeared several weeks after the 'debate' ended, remember! If I could make sense of much of it, I might be provoked into breaking my word and responding directly to some of Mr Baker's points, but frankly I can't (doubtless a lack of intellectual capacity on my part). The only thing I will respond to is Baker's convenient wheeze that the huge difference in the murder rate in the US and UK can be explained away with just one word - 'culture'. America is simply a more violent culture, apparently. Hmmm, two wee problems there, Kevin. Firstly, culture doesn't generate itself out of thin air, it's moulded by facts on the ground - one of which happens to be the presence of an absolutely mind-boggling number of lethal weapons. I think that may just have something to do with America having a more 'violent culture' (along with other important factors such as jingoistic American militarism and the legitimisation of violent vengeance through policies such as the retention of the death penalty). Secondly, if as Kevin earnestly believes, he has 'statistically proved' the most important benefit of the prevailing American cultural norms - that more liberal gun laws actually make people safer - why can't he show that the level of violence has not just fallen as a result of such laws, but has fallen to a lower level than in a comparable country that has had stringent gun laws for a prolonged period? As I've said repeatedly, that's the kind of 'statistical proof' that would impress me, and it's distinct absence is one of the reasons why most people in this country are secure in the knowledge that, at least on this one issue, we've got it right and countries like the US have got it disastrously wrong.

And from our perspective we wonder, why can't they see what's so blindingly obvious? As Mr Baker has brought up the issue of culture, that's not a bad place to look for the culprit. It is indeed culture that drives Kevin to write these dissertations of such extraordinary length - at some level he must recognise that the arguments ranged against him are simple, powerful, well-supported and have resonance with many people in his own country, and he feels that if he gives an inch to them he stands to lose something of great value to himself. But that thing only seems valuable to him because of the cultural certainties he grew up with. Viewed objectively, the loss of the right to own a luxury item like a gun really isn't that big a deal, especially not when you consider the benefits both to individual liberty and society of asking people to make that small sacrifice. I will obviously never convince Kevin that those benefits exist, and he will doubtless continue to try to disprove their existence by resorting to a barrage of voodoo statistics, but I remain more than content that I am on the right side of this argument.

Comments policy - As the sainted Kezia Dugdale would say, this is my own little corner of the internet, and I make no apology for setting my comments policy myself, and not allowing it to be dictated by presumptuous visitors from Arizona or anywhere else. Rachel Lucas - the owner of the blog in which this 'debate' commenced - takes precisely the same view. She moderates comments she finds offensive, and closes threads to new comments completely after a certain period of time. Evidently Ms Lucas is a staunch believer in 'reasoned discourse'.

My general position has always been that I will allow any comment, as long it isn't abusive and it doesn't contain strong language. However, I changed that position solely on this gun issue, because people were clearly putting their points to me as an individual and I felt I needed to respond in most cases. It was taking over my whole life and that was why I decided to make a clean break. I think that's a perfectly honest, straightforward position, and if Mr Kevin Baker has a problem with that, well tough. This blog is not written (to the extent it's written at all anymore!) for his benefit, or to satisfy his personal preferences. As I said at the time, another factor in my decision was that it rapidly became obvious that Kevin was not remotely interested in a genuine debate, but only in an ego-boosting gladiatorial contest involving lots of delusional triumphalism on the part of both him and his adoring fans (I Could Not Have BEGGED For Better, Now THIS is Reasoned Discourse, etc, etc). I was also concerned at Joe Huffman's semi-abusive blog post title, directed towards me personally. (Joe, incidentally, seemed astonished that I didn't bother reading the contents of that post - did he seriously expect me to consciously choose to read a post entitled What Did James Say That ****** You Off So Much?) No-one with an ounce of self-respect would persevere with a 'debate' that had descended to that level. But if anyone feels strongly that they want to comment on anything I've said here or in previous posts, they have the opportunity to do so at Kevin's blog, where in any case they can be assured of a much greater audience. For the avoidance of doubt, however, I'd just like to confirm that when I talked about Kevin's quest for 'ever more detailed statistical evidence', yes, I was being sarcastic (I understand some Americans have difficulty picking up sarcasm). Lots and lots of noise jumbled up with big numbers does not a credible statistical analysis make.

UPDATE - Kevin has 'updated' his blog in a kind of non-update sort of way, to point out that I've 'responded' to him in a non-responsive kind of way (which was always my intention given that the vast bulk of Kevin's dissertation genuinely makes no sense to me at all). And don't worry - reliable as ever, he has included the words 'Reasoned Discourse' in his update, yet again without explaining the reference. If I didn't know better, I'd suspect a form of Tourette's is at play here (which I seem to be in danger of picking up myself). However, I'll hazard a guess as to what this tedious in-joke might be referring to - I'd imagine that on many occasions when a proponent of gun control has decided not to continue in debate with Kevin, the stated explanation has been "it's simply impossible to have a reasoned discourse with you". If I'm close to being right, I'd like to gently suggest something to Kevin. If something like that keeps happening again and again with so many different people, isn't it at least worth considering the possibility that "it's not them, it's me"?

Incidentally, Kevin is most certainly misleading his readers on one point. He says in his update "James has disabled comments. I never expected anything more (or less, for that matter)." That being the case, why did he say this to me on April 8 - "they close their comments and often delete them. I don't think you'd do that"? By definition, one of those two contradictory statements must be untrue. A minor point, maybe, but it is a useful illustration of the insincerity that lies behind some of Kevin's rhetoric.

UPDATE (Friday 15th May) - A few extra thoughts. Some members of the Kevin Baker fan club have taken issue with my characterisation of their hero's notion of statistical-based evidence as 'voodoo statistics'. (In the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies - "well they would, wouldn't they?") Not being American, I'm afraid I'll have to rely on British examples to explain what I mean by that phrase. In the 1993 local elections in England and Wales, both the Conservative and Labour parties produced detailed statistical evidence purporting to show that council tax was on average lower in authorities run by them. Even in a world of 'lies, damn lies and statistics' that just doesn't seem to stack up - one party must have been lying, and the other must have been telling the truth, right? Well, actually, wrong. Both parties were telling the truth. As it turned out, it was Labour who were misleading the public, but they were doing so on the basis of a superficially honest statistical analysis. The deceit (and it was without doubt a conscious one) was that they failed to put those statistics in their proper context and explain what it was they didn't show. A few of you have suggested that I have by default 'lost the debate' (the KB fan club thinks that KB has won 'again'? Astonishing!) because I haven't put myself through the torture of going through Kevin's plenitudinous prose line by line, and pointing out where I think his statistics or logic don't stack up. Even if I had a mind to do so, it simply isn't necessary. We live in politically savvy times, in which everyone has been exposed to endless examples of the 'voodoo' approach to statistical analysis that I set out earlier (Lib Dem bar chart leaflets, anyone?). I trust the intelligence of people enough to know they'll instantly recognise Kevin's latest dissertation (and his earlier one) for what it is, without needing someone to hold their hand with a line-by-line rebuttal. If anyone is in any doubt that there are plenty of anti-gun equivalents of Kevin ready and able to compete with him toe-to-toe on who can produce the biggest barrage of seemingly unanswerable statistical evidence, you need only look here for one of the many, many examples on the internet.

But I haven't gone down that road - I've stuck to arguing on the basis of what I believe in, without recourse to voodoo statistics. In a sense that was precisely what Kevin invited me to do - "it's all about the philosophy, James", he said in his original honeyed invitation for this 'debate'. What I didn't fully appreciate was that Kevin possesses the strange notion that his philosophy is literally 'provable' (the last person who believed that was Karl Marx). Well, that's Kevin's delusion and I'm happy to let him wallow in it. But what I won't accept from him or his groupies is the demonstrably absurd suggestion that because I have stuck to arguing my philosophy and Kevin has stuck to arguing on his voodoo statistics, that somehow means my argument has been all emotion and 'hand-waving' (??? - must be an American phrase) where his has been 'cool', 'detached', 'logic-based', etc, etc. Again, I trust the intelligence of any casual readers to see through this in an instant - because Kevin's whole driving force for endlessly debating on this subject (and for learning his lines and his statistics backwards) is emotion. Specifically that emotion is anger at what could be 'taken away' from him, and that leads to the mask of 'reasonable debater' slipping again and again and again. I've already flagged up his descipable debating tactic of producing a photo of a woman with horrific injuries and juxtaposing it with words to the effect of 'this is what James Kelly would call mere bumps and bruises'. So that's the KB fan club's idea of emotion-free debate, is it? Anyone brave enough to read through Kevin's dissertations in full will find quite a few other choice examples of how he breaks up his endless stream of epic quotes and voodoo statistics with similar 'emotion-free' rhetoric.


  1. Whoa there now. You say:

    "Rachel Lucas - the owner of the blog in which this 'debate' commenced - takes precisely the same view. She moderates comments she finds offensive, and closes threads to new comments completely after a certain period of time. Evidently Ms Lucas is a staunch believer in 'reasoned discourse'."

    The only comments I "moderate" are those that are completely inappropriate and abusive. NEVER because they disagree with me. You will note I've never moderated your comments on my site, nor will I ever.

    The reason I close them completely after 7 days is because of SPAM. I noticed several months ago, when I was getting about 200 spambot comments every single day, that they were all on very old posts, never on posts from the preceding week or so. So I installed the plugin that shuts them down after a week, and my spam has gone from 200 a day to maybe 1 a week.

    Just FYI. Let the record show, and all that.

  2. Rachel, I'm not a horse, and I see no reason to 'whoa' there now. I didn't intend to get into an argument with you, merely to point out (accurately) that you do not allow every comment through, and therefore Kevin was being a tad hypocritical in coming out with this smug criticism of me ("reasoned discourse") without applying precisely the same tag to people he's rather more keen on (such as yourself). I correctly stated that you close comments after a certain period - I made no suggestion at all about what your reasons for doing that might be, and I didn't have to because Kevin seems to feel that such a policy is always utterly wrong. As for the reasons you might delete comments, I actually read your comments policy before I posted anything (does that make me unique?) and I have to tell you it's somewhat more forbidding in nature than what you've posted above. I quote - "This blog is my property. It is not a news site, a public square, or your own personal punchbowl to take a **** in. It is not my obligation or my duty IN ANY WAY WHATSOEVER to protect your First Amendment rights, because they don’t apply here. Look at it this way: this blog is a restaurant that is open to the public. Since comments are open, you are free to walk in. But since it is still PRIVATE PROPERTY THAT I OWN, I am equally as free to refuse service to you and kick your *** out if you behave in a way that I don’t like. Do you expect to be able to walk into a pizza joint and wipe **** on the walls, without the owner kicking you out and cleaning your **** off the walls? I didn’t think so." I think I'm safe in saying most people would regard the comments policy I set out myself as being at least rather less hostile in tone, even if it's not very different in essentials.

    "Any comments using the name 'Anonymous' that I actually choose to publish, I’ll edit it to give you a name. And you might not like it." 'Choose' to publish - an interesting choice of word. Does that warrant you putting the word 'moderation' in inverted commas above? It sounds awfully like straightforward moderation to me.

    "Extremely long, rambling, or off-topic comments will be edited down to an acceptable size if not deleted outright." Again, does that warrant you putting the word 'moderation' in inverted commas - deleting or editing down comments for being, among other things, 'rambling'? That's a rather broader definition than 'abusive' or 'completely inappropriate'.

    I reiterate at this point that I have no complaint about your policy - I just don't see why you're complaining about my entirely accurate characterisation of it in my post above. And, just FYI Rachel (to let the record show and all that), as of 15:35 BST today, I still have only deleted comments for one of three reasons - spam, bad language and outright abuse (including one today, fairly predictably). If anyone's interested in seeing just how tolerant I've been in the past of borderline abusive comments, take a look at some of Unix-Jedi's behaviour on the threads where this debate took place - I think a great many bloggers wouldn't have put up with that, but I haven't deleted those comments and don't intend to. As I stated above, I am now reserving the right not to allow comments on this thread if people are trying to start up the argument on guns again, but people can hardly complain that I haven't given them fair warning that I'm going to do it. I think there's a rather big difference between me saying 'no further comments on this particular topic will be allowed', and just selectively editing out the comments I happen to disapprove of.

  3. Interesting. When I checked this link last night, there was no way to comment. Not even a "comments are closed" announcement.

    As to closing comments after five days, I understand that when people have old posts that get slammed by spammers. I've seen it. Closing comments because you're tired of responding to them is something else entirely.

    I will, however, revise the post to correct my error.

    However, you DID close your comments earlier - "I have now reached the point of utter mental exhaustion. My position is now that the debate is closed on this site, and I will not let any further comments through on the issue, no matter how well-argued or well-mannered . . ." When I saw no way to comment on this post, I concluded that you had decided to preempt any further discussion.

    Have no fear, I'm done with you now. Thanks for participating. You were wonderful!

  4. Kevin, you have what I believe is known in your country as an attitood problem. Let me explain the position to you again slowly. You decide the comments policy on your blog, and I'll decide mine. That's the way the world works - tough to accept I know, but there it is.

    And may I just say you've been 'wonderful' as well, darling - a wonderful example of what it is about right-wing zealots that is quite so objectionable. For casual readers of this blog who don't come across the likes of you and your cheerleaders very often, I suspect it's been a highly instructive experience.

    If this really is the end (and it's more the end for me than it is for you because I'm not a gun blogger), I'll just make this observation - the day of the gun is drawing to a close. It may not happen in your lifetime, but I think in your heart of hearts you know which way the wind is blowing - hence all the endless sound and fury. And when it does happen, your descendants (if you have descendants) will look back and wonder what on earth all the fuss was about.

  5. I've regrettably now - for the very first time since I started this blog - not allowed through comments for reasons other than the standard ones of spam, swearing or outright abuse. Nobody should feign shock or outrage over this - I made clear several times I was not going to allow this interminable debate to proceed any further on this blog, which I set up a year ago to discuss very different subjects. All five comments I've rejected have been (as usual) from Kevin's devoted fan base, and they all essentially just wanted to go round all the same houses we've already been round a million times before.

    And to 'Linoge' who said "allow me to say this much, assuming it will not violate your whimsical and flexible commenting policy" - well, sorry not to play along with you and your friends' heartrending martyr routine here, but if you'd bothered to properly read the crystal clear statements I'd made on comments (both on this thread and on previous ones), you'd have known I was never going to let yours through. What parts of "if anyone feels strongly that they want to comment on anything I've said here or in previous posts, they have the opportunity to do so at Kevin's blog", and "no further comments on this particular topic will be allowed", and "my position is now that the debate is closed on this site", and "I will not let any further comments through on the issue, no matter how well-argued or well-mannered" did you not understand? My characterisation of those statements of mine would be not so much 'whimsical' and 'flexible' as, well, 'extremely direct'. But to avoid any further 'confusion' on the part of any befuddled members of the KB fan club who are still scratching their heads at this point, I shall simply do what I've done with a handful of previous threads and close it to all further comments. I'd like to assure this blog's small regular readership (if they haven't all been driven away by now) that I'll still accept comments as usual on all other topics, and I hope to be able to remove moderation altogether eventually if Kevin is true to his word about finally letting this stunt of his - for that's all it ever was from the word go - die a natural death.

  6. I also refute the argument that 'guns don't kill people, people kill people' by pointing out that it would simply not be possible for an individual to kill as many people in a short space of time with virtually any other weapon, whatever their degree of murderous intent.

    You refute nothing here. You claim that having the gun alters the efficiency of the killing. That in no way invalidates the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" argument.

    Perhaps you need to lookup the definition of "refute."

  7. the day of the gun is drawing to a close. It may not happen in your lifetime, but I think in your heart of hearts you know which way the wind is blowing - hence all the endless sound and fury.

    Really? Reality, at least here in the U.S., disagrees with you. We're seeing record firearms purchases over a period of YEARS, more women & young people joining the ranks, and an explosion in the number of Americans getting CCW permits. Oh, and anti's are getting their butts kicked in the courts.

    It's obvious to any rational thinker just which way the wind is blowing.

  8. Circa 1994/5, I dare say you'd have said the same thing about "socialized medicine".