What Mass Shootings Tell Us About Gun Control

Yesterday morning, an Illinois man named James Hodgkinson approached a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, and opened fire on members of the Republican Congressional baseball team. Hodgkinson, said “to be distraught over President Trump’s election,” indiscriminately shot between fifty and sixty rounds but — miraculously — only managed to injure four people before being shot and killed by Capitol Police.

To no one’s surprise, this incident has reignited the gridlocked debate about gun control. The Washington Post, relying on data from the Gun Violence Archive, reported that this shooting was the 154th mass shooting in America so far this year. Per WaPo:

The archive considers an incident a mass shooting if four or more people are shot, not including the shooter. Some definitions are broader: If the shooter is included in the tally, the number of mass shootings rises to 195. Some, however, are much more narrow: If a mass shooting is defined as four or more victims killed in a public location, excluding robberies and gang violence, the number falls to four.

I am not personally interested in debating how we should define the term “mass shooting.” I am, however, inexplicably drawn to analyzing large datasets, so I spent the morning digging into the Gun Violence Archive’s mass shooting database.

A few notes: the GVA archive is downloadable as an Excel file, but not all of the pertinent information comes with the spreadsheet. I spent the better part of the morning investigating and categorizing each individual incident. In fifty cases, or about a third of the dataset, there was either no suspect in custody, police were not releasing details about the suspect’s motives, or no motive information was available. I removed these incidents from parts of my analysis. Further, some might dispute how I categorized certain shootings. An example: when a shooting was described as a drive-by shooting with two or more shooters, I categorized it as a gang shooting. Someone else might call that terrorism. With respect to the broader implications, I don’t think the distinction matters much.

Of the 104 shooting events I could categorize, I used eight broad categories (listed from most deaths to least): Gang-related, Domestic Violence, Interpersonal Disputes, Robberies/Home Invasions, Workplace Violence, Terrorism, Shootouts (where two or more people exchange fire), and Hate Crimes. Here is a chart of those incidents:

This is where the debate often goes off course. Republicans and Second Amendment advocates tend to point to gang shootings, acts of terrorism, and other crimes as evidence that criminals, by definition, are people who are willing to break the law, and as such are willing to acquire guns illegally. And this point is duly noted: of the incidents where a gun was illegally acquired — or an illegal gun was used — the vast majority were gang-related shootings. One the other hand, in the incidents involving interpersonal disputes, workplace violence, and domestic violence, Democrats and Gun Control advocates have an equally compelling point: most of these crimes would not have happened if the perpetrator, temper running high, did not have immediate access to a gun.

With this idea in mind, I compared the locations of the shootings with the local gun control laws. To do this, I borrowed from Gun Law Scorecard who, through a somewhat opaque process, rates each state by the gun control legislation they’ve enacted. Cross referencing each shooting by the state’s Gun Law Score, I put together this table:

States that received an “F” grade likewise had the most mass shootings, the most deaths, and the most injuries. The Gun Law Scorecard appears to be vindicated, at least in terms of the states they fail. (On the other hand, the states with the fewest mass shootings and least deaths had B, C, and D grades, so the rest of the grading system might require some tweaking.)

But not all gun control measures are created equal. There is plenty of academic debate over the efficacy of allowing or prohibiting concealed carry. However, one measure that seems to be generally effective is universal background checks. In states where universal background checks are required, impulse or “hot temper” mass shootings make up less than a quarter of the overall incidents, compared 58% of such shootings in states that do not require universal background checks. Moreover, mass shootings are more common and lethal in non-background check states.

The single most effective gun control measure appears to be universal background checks. Though Republicans are right that there are a number of situations where a person intent on committing a felony act of violence will acquire a gun by any means necessary, there are many incidents where the mere presence of a gun fatally escalates an situation that would otherwise only result in bruised fists and egos. The evidence also shows that mass shootings are more rare in states that require a background check, the shootings are less lethal in those states, and there are fewer injuries per shooting. Although I generally support the Second Amendment right to gun ownership, a nationwide universal background check on all public and private gun purchases seems to be a clear and effective strategy for reducing, though not eliminating, mass shootings.

Donald Trump Jr. and Very Big Numbers

Recently, Donald Trump, Jr. – son of the Republican nominee/possible lizard person – tweeted out this graphic:


The insinuation, of course, is that any Syrian refugee could possibly be an ISIS sleeper agent trying to gain access to the United States. The comparison was quickly denounced in some circles, roundly praised in others, and given a stern rebuke by the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., the maker of the fruity candy, who said, “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy. We will respectively refrain from further commentary, as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.”

Perhaps the most interesting response came from Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute. Nowrasteh argued that the Skittles meme is an appropriate metaphor, but only if utilized properly. It is, after all, a very different story if our bowl holds fifty Skittles or if it holds a million. Per Nowrasteh:

Imagine a bowl full of 3.25 million Skittles that has been accumulated from 1975 to the end of 2015.  We know that 20 of the Skittles in that bowl intended to do harm but only three of those 20 are actually fatal.  That means that one in 1.08 million of them is deadly.  It gets even better though.  There are over three hundred million Americans and not everyone can get a Skittle.  This means that the chance of any American actually eating the fatal Skittle and perishing is about one in 3.64 billion a year during the 41-year time period. Do you eat from the bowl without quaking in your boots?  I would.

The odds of an American being killed by a refugee in any given year are one in 3.64 billion. That is an absurdly small number. But is it correct?

Nowrasteh arrived at his estimate by finding the number of refugees admitted to the United States who were either convicted of planning a terrorist attack or actually carried one out. There were twenty such individuals. “Refugees were not very successful at killing Americans in terrorist attacks,” Nowrasteh writes. “Of the 20, only three were successful in their attacks, killing a total of three people.”

Nowrasteh then comes to his yearly average by dividing three by the sum total of the American population from 1975-2015 (roughly 10.9 billion) to arrive at his one in 3.64 billion figure. (The most dangerous form of immigrant is the one here on a tourist Visa: the odds of dying to such a person in any given year are one in 3.6 million. The second most dangerous? Students.)

“The three refugee terrorists were Cubans who committed their attacks in the 1970s,” Nowrasteh adds. “(They) were admitted before the Refugee Act of 1980 created the modern rigorous refugee-screening procedures currently in place.” According to Nowrasteh, there have been no such murders committed by foreign-born refugees since that act passed.

There are a couple things to consider here. The first is that translating a yearly probability into an absolute probability is a fairly tricky process. The absolute probability over the span from 1975-2015 is roughly 1 per 166 million people. (The sum of Americans who are alive today plus the number who have died since 1975 gives the total number of Americans alive at any point since 1975. That number is approximately 500 million. If three died in refugee-related terrorist activities over that span, that gives us approximately one in 166 million.) But 41 years does not cover the average American life-span. If we can expect to live to 75, on average, and we can expect this rate to remain constant at 1 in 3.64 billion, then the odds of being killed by a refugee-terrorist are now one in 49 million, or roughly the odds of winning the Powerball if you buy four tickets.

Second, if we use the number of refugee-terrorists (whether or not they were successful in their attacks) as our numerator, the odds get a little worse. The number of victims in any given terrorist attack is highly variable. Sometimes these attackers are victims of their own incompetence and there are no victims except for an amateur bomb-maker and the application of common sense. Future attacks, if they are ever indeed carried out, might be more effective at producing casualties. According to John Mueller, professor at Ohio State University, there have been approximately 3.2 million refugees admitted to the United States since 1975. Of those, 20 have attempted acts of terror, or about one for every 162,000 refugees. That’s almost identical to our current rate of mass shooters, which begs an uncomfortable question: are comfortable with the current level of mass shooters in our country?

That leads us to the final, most important factor: is there any reason to expect that the current rate of one in 3.64 billion should stay constant? This is the question at the heart of the debate. “Perhaps future Skittles added into the bowl will be deadlier than previous Skittles but the difference would have to be great before the risks become worrisome,” says Nowrestah. Total refugees from ISIS-controlled territories have increased steadily. According to the State Department, there were 31 total Syrian refugees admitted into the United States. In 2015, that number was 1,682. Refugees from high-percentage Muslim countries have increased a small amount since 2008 (30,934 last year compared to 23,490 in 2008).

Of the twenty refugee-terrorists on Nowrasteh’s list, nine of them entered the US after 9/11. Four of them – Yassin Aref, Najibullah Zazi & Zarein Ahmedzay, and Abdullatif Aldosary – came from regions affiliated with terror groups. Given the high numbers of refugees from these areas, the relative risk for such refugees is one in 44,000 – four times higher than the average rate for refugees. (None of these men were successful in carrying out their crimes).

Depending on how you frame the question, you have between a one in 49 million and a one in 166 million chance of being killed by a refugee-terrorist on American soil. Somewhere between one and 44,000 and one in 162,000 refugees will attempt such an act. Those numbers may seem high, maybe even intolerably high. But stop to consider the fact that you are 7300 times more likely to die in a car accident than at the hands of a refugee-terrorist. Have you stopped driving yet?

The refugee vetting process starts with the UNHCR, which is the U.N.’s refugee agency. The U.N. performs interviews, biological screenings, and attempts to do background checks to weed out criminals and military combatants. After the U.N. refers candidates to the U.S., the Resettlement Support Center initiates an interagency background check, sending the relevant information through the FBI, NCC/IC, the State Department, and Homeland Security. (Syrian refugees receive an even more thorough screening than the average refugee.) Basic biometrics are collected and a medical screening is done. Less than half of referrals are accepted. Finally, an NGO determines where refugees will be settled.

Refugees are subject to the highest level of scrutiny and security checks of any traveler to the United States. The process takes 18-24 months to complete. Refugees have little influence on where and when they will be resettled. As a recipe for spreading terror across an ocean, this method has serious drawbacks. It’s no wonder why the most deadly terrorists came here on student and travel visas. Though we may squabble about particular numbers, the current risk posed by refugees is absurdly low.

This Transgender Bathroom Issue Has Made Hypocrites of Us All

When Facebook asked me for my political affiliation, however many years ago, I put “moderate.” Though I hold a lot of conservative values, and the philosophy that undergirds conservative ideology makes intuitive sense to me, a lot of Republican positions run contrary to those values and I’ve had trouble finding politicians that consistently embrace similar views to my own. The landmark essay “A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” was penned by gay conservative Andrew Sullivan in 1989 and went largely ignored until it was dusted off last summer to help Republicans cope with the Obergefell decision. I’d made my own (conservative) case for gay marriage while in college. All that to say, the philosophical foundations were there, but the marriage between conservative philosophy and Republican ideology has long struck me as a loveless one.

It’s not as though I found liberal ideology fit me better. As I learned more about Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory, I was better able to put into words the discomfort I had with liberalism. According to Haidt, there are five key moral foundations: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. “In this analogy,” he says in his book “The Righteous Mind, “the moral matrix of a culture is something like its cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes. You can’t have a cuisine based on grass and tree bark, or even one based primarily on bitter tastes. Cuisines vary, but they all must please tongues equipped with the same five taste receptors. Moral matrices vary, but they all must please righteous minds equipped with the same … social receptors.” (For the record: comparing something to food is one quick way to get me to take an idea seriously.)

Haidt’s key observation was that while conservatives hold each of these moral foundations in roughly equal importance, liberals emphasize care and fairness far above the other three. The Black Lives Matter movement is almost a perfect case study for this theory: those who embrace it use “fairness” language; those who critique the movement almost invariably make an appeal to the importance of authority. This should not, in itself, be read as a critique of Black Lives Matter. Sometimes sweet and sour, combined in precarious balance, form a transcendental flavor. But just as I don’t want to only eat sweet and sour foods the rest of my life, I can’t completely eschew the values of loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

This has all been prelude to the main idea, which is the baffling disagreement about the bathroom ordinances currently in contention, most notably North Carolina’s HB2. Outrage over the signing of the law has been swift and loud, of course, with businesses and governments staging boycotts of the state of North Carolina. And while I agree with Governor Pat McCrory when he says that there has been a “vicious” smear campaign miscategorizing components of the law, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good law. In fact, I can think of no compelling case to restrict transgender men and women from using the bathroom they feel is most appropriate to use.

But – yet again – this does provide a fantastic case study for Haidt’s moral foundations theory. Proponents of such restrictive bathroom laws such as HB2 are reacting to encroachment of their “care” and “sanctity” foundations, while opponents are responding to the “care” and “fairness” modules:

a) The mainline argument in support of HB2-type laws argues that when we rely on the subjective standard of personal gender identity, there will be nothing stopping rapists and other sexual predators from insincerely using personal gender identity to gain access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms. At that point, it is argued, they will have better access to victims. To phrase it in care language, someone might reasonably say, “I care about the women and children in my life, and without these laws they are at greater risk to sexual predators.”

(I also suspect that many people perceive transgenderism as a threat to the sanctity of the “male” and “female,” at least in a more traditional formulation of gender. But until people are free to discuss those ideas openly and without being labeled bigots, the principle of charity dictates we should restrict ourselves to considering the strongest form of the arguments actually being set forth.)

b) In a similar way, opponents of HB2-type laws are simply saying, “I care about the transgender men and women of the world, and it is unfair that they should have to face the “othering” and discrimination that comes with having to use the wrong bathroom. They face enough challenges as it is.” I find it prohibitively difficult to brush aside that argument.

Tim Keller said in “The Reason for God” that if you can’t formulate your opponent’s argument in a way that he or she would agree with, you can’t actually claim that you disagree with them. Similarly, Daniel Dennett has said, “You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’” I hope either position would accept my characterization of their position. If not, that’s what the comments section is for.

I suppose it should not be surprising that this controversy has made hypocrites of us all.

Let me start with liberals. Do you not see the baffling contradiction in the fact that you’ve been yammering on and on about rape culture, that you’ve been parroting statistics about the threat that women face daily and in accumulation over the course of their lives, but when it comes to public bathrooms and locker rooms, you’re suggesting that the threat of rape is no longer real? Do public bathrooms have a magical property about them that prevents sexual assault? I’ve heard women complain about being ogled at the gym, or at bars, or in restaurants. Acknowledging that there are men who don’t respect your agency and privacy enough to leave you alone when you’re on the treadmill, what makes you think they won’t likewise ignore the spirit of transgender-inclusive spaces? From a sheer, raw numbers perspective, do you honestly believe there are more rapists in American or more transgender men and women? The fear of increased risk of rape is real.

Or maybe you’re just trying to say you don’t like anti-rape measures when they unfairly hurt innocent people. Please, tell me more.

Conservatives aren’t exactly paragons of self-consistency on this issue, either. In fact, I think they’ve got it worse.

Conservatives, isn’t one of the big arguments in support of gun rights the idea that criminals, by definition, don’t care about breaking gun laws? What makes you think that sexual predators have cared about violating the sanctity of public restrooms? Since we have a plethora of examples of such men doing just that, why would we expect to see a flood of new cases? If you weren’t seeing a statistically significant risk of being assaulted in a public restroom before, there is little reason to expect that to change.

With respect to your children, were you really sending your six-year old to the bathroom by his- or herself? According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), four fifths of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and 70% of rapes take place within a mile of the victim’s home, in the victim’s school, or at the residence of a friend or family member. The increased risk of bathroom rape is overblown (1). When RAINN says, “The perpetrator is not hiding in the bush,” they might as well be saying, “The perpetrator is not hiding in the bathroom.”

Besides, aren’t you guys the ones typically complaining about the expanse of the “nanny state”? And now you’re saying it’s the government’s job to mitigate the risk of rape of your children via bathroom regulations? That doesn’t really add up, either.

I suspect businesses will be intelligent about how they manage this situation – and it seems to me there is ample room for compromise. Target stores, for example, have gender-neutral family bathrooms. The Gap and Banana Republic stores have gender-neutral changing rooms, typically in a single row. Perhaps larger stores can implement a panic button (or such buttons in each stall) that will alert security of particular threats. I think an innovative solution will eventually win out. That is, if we can find a way to give each other the benefit of the doubt and offer some understanding for the real concerns of both sides.


(1) You may have noticed that I claimed both that the fear of more rapes is both real and overblown. And yes, on the surface, this is a paradoxical statement. But it’s like shark attacks: the odds of being attacked by a shark are incredibly low, and not a significant-enough risk that they should deter would-be swimmers. But attacks do still happen, and they are gruesome to witness. That is, the fear of shark attacks is real, but the risk is overblown. Especially when you’ve just been watching Jaws.

St. Paul Street Harassment

Last night, I stepped off the train at Hamline rather than my typical home base of Lexington. I had a craving for some Milk Duds, and I figured walking the mile home from Target with temperatures dropping would compensate for the caloric burden. My hoodie was up and I had earbuds in (“The Funeral,” by Band of Horses was playing at that moment, which isn’t relevant to the story or for symbolic purposes, but some people like those details so there you go). I’d wager that after dark, wearing an expression of sweets-induced determination under my hoodie, I look pretty intimidating.

Looking past The Vitamin Shoppe and the Noodles & Co., I saw a young woman walking my way. She seemed agitated. Her arms were crossed over her torso like a running back cradling a football, and her inner eyebrows were running almost vertically up her forehead. Two paces behind her, she was being followed by a man of about twenty. He was wearing dark blue pants and a suede coat and his eyes didn’t seem to move off of the back of her head. Instinctively, I pulled out my earbuds.

“Nice talking to you,” I heard her say with a quivering voice. “Have a nice night.”

She turned abruptly to cross the street, and he kept stride behind her. So I crossed the street too. On the far side, she turned again to walk in my direction, and he stayed two steps behind her. I stood on the corner, trying to come up with some plan on the fly to intervene if necessary. When she got about ten feet away, her pursuer made eye contact with me. I gave him the harshest glare I could muster and shook my head with slow and absurd exaggeration. He stopped in his tracks and turned around. She kept walking north on Hamline, and I stood where I was to make sure he didn’t double back.

I want to defend men, I really do. Whenever I see a video like this one, where a woman walks silently through New York for hours while men mercilessly hit on and harass her, roughly a hundred protests and objections come to mind. I think, “Would you be upset with a three-year old for saying what these men say? Why are we choosing to see them in a negative light rather than a neutral one?” I want to mention the racist overtones: how the video showed only black and Latino men. I am almost desperate to discuss the broader cultural differences involved, such as how in places like Cuba catcalling is a celebrated part of the day-to-day experience. As Chen Lizra notes in her TED Talk, “In Cuba I found a very unique combination of things that I haven’t found yet anywhere else in the world. Cubans interact on the streets every day as if they’re playing the game of rumba. They keep a tension, a sexy tension, always alive.”

But those considerations all seem so shallow when I can’t even walk from the train station to the grocery store without encountering a terrifying display of sexual entitlement. So it doesn’t much matter if there are ten decent guys for every one that will do such a thing. It doesn’t matter if there are a hundred. What matters is that it’s impossible to differentiate at a glance between the good ones and the men who don’t know their boundaries. Of course we can have the conversation about what constitutes respectful behavior. But until women can feel safe in public, it will seem like we are having the wrong conversation.


Adrian Peterson and Cultural Context

Whenever you have a moment, do a quick inventory of whatever moral and political issues you can think of. Now try to think of how you felt about these issues five years ago. How about ten years ago? Do you see any differences? (If not, is it because you were 9 a decade ago? That’s fair.) The most obvious shift for most people will be with respect to gay marriage. For me, it was almost exactly ten years ago that my opinion started shifting on that issue: it happened during an argument with my grandpa when I realized he was reasoning in circles. “I’m against gay marriage because it’s wrong.”

“Why is it wrong?” I asked.
“Because it’s morally wrong.”
“But why do you think that?”
“Because it’s wrong, you jackass!”

Even progressive politicians have an interesting track record on gay marriage, the most obvious of whom is Barack Obama. Just before the 2012 election cycle got into full swing, Obama announced to the world that he had been “going through an evolution on this issue,” and was ready to announce his unbridled support for gay marriage. “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” As recently as 2008, however, he said, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.”

Now imagine, if you will, that over the next twenty years there is a similar shift in the philosophy of child-rearing and child-care. Imagine, say, that “time outs” – that is, making a child sit to him or herself quietly for a prescribed length of time – come to be seen as both ineffective and abusive. Rather than considering time outs as punitive but necessary, the punishment is regarded as psychologically damaging with lasting repercussions to a child’s social development. It’s maybe described as a “power struggle” that is “confusing for the child” who is “left to make sense of strong emotions” with no greater context. Imagine that this guiding philosophy is now firmly held by somewhere around half the population. In this hypothetical 2034, how much guilt would you feel if you’d used time outs on your children?

This last weekend, the news broke that Adrian Peterson had been indicted for “reckless or negligent injury to a child.” In May, as a disciplinary measure, Peterson struck his four-year old son with a switch – a small, stripped down tree branch, basically – leaving welts and abrasions on the boy’s buttocks and thighs. I am not attempting to defend Peterson here: Adrian Peterson is a man whose handshake makes grown men wince, he is a brutishly strong athletic marvel, even compared to his peers – men who are already among the strongest and fastest in the world. He has no business using corporal punishment as a disciplinary device.

The public reaction, however, has gone predictably over the top. Part of it stems from the immediate context of the situation – the recent release of Ray Rice for knocking his wife unconscious in a casino elevator being the most dramatic part of it. Fans are fed up about a culture in which athletes continue to earn financial rewards after committing barbaric, horrific acts against women and children. One aspect that has magnified the outrage towards Peterson has been the fact that he seems completely unaware that people think he did something wrong.

But that doesn’t give us license to ignore the role that cultural context is playing here. Nobody is claiming that Adrian Peterson set out to hurt his son. In fact, the nature of the charges – reckless or negligent injury – tacitly acknowledges that the legal system believes that Peterson “went too far” in the normal course of parenting. The use of a switch has been commonplace in southern parenting for ages. Peterson himself received such treatment growing up, or so he claims. (Considering how open he was with police and the grand jury, it would be odd to doubt his word on that point.)

I am not trying to argue for the merits on using a switch – I think that’s horrific. What I am trying to do is point out the absurd arrogance of demanding that everyone, regardless of culture or background, regardless of context or mitigation, must adhere to the arbitrary set of progressive mores at play in society. This is an impossible standard. We are judging a Southern black man, one who grew up in a poor home with a dad in prison, under the ethical system of a predominantly White, upper-middle class East-coast ethic. This is disingenuous at best. We live in a world where the most liberal, progressive president we’ve ever seen didn’t embrace gay marriage until he’d held that office for three years. It’s easy to want everyone to agree with your core values at all times, but it’s unrealistic to expect anybody to be able to hold that pace.

By the way, that time outs hypothetical? That’s not a hypothetical. Several major child-care providers consider time outs to be unethical, ineffective for discipline, and harmful to the child. (The YMCA is the most notable example.) It is currently a minority opinion, of course, and it is not unreasonable to believe that a time out is a perfectly valid form of discipline. But that might not be true in ten years. And, perhaps more frightening, the same could have been said about using a switch twenty years ago. When we judge someone by our immediate cultural context, when we don’t temper that judgment with reference to how that person is acting in the context of their norms, we are constructing a system of social morality where no one has any legs on which to stand.


Aesop and Street Harassment

In September 2011, while sitting at the bus stop on the corner of Aurora and University in Midway, a middle-aged woman walked up to where I was sitting and propositioned me for sex. I was dressed well that day: I was wearing a pink checked shirt, a royal-blue polka dot tie – half-Windsor knot, of course – and a dark-gray cardigan with black toggles. I liked dressing up before work those days, when I worked as a cook. One thing a lot of people don’t consider about cooks is that it’s a physically-demanding job, one that requires working around and above hot surfaces and lifting heavy loads, all at a brisk pace and for hours at a time. Cooks are always sweaty and gross at the end of their shift. If they want to feel comfortable and confident in their appearance it has to come at the start of the day.

To be clear, she didn’t seem out of the ordinary as she approached. She was about 5’4, I’d say, wore gaudy turquoise sunglasses and carried herself in a distinctly hen-like fashion, but none of that struck me as peculiar. (When I’ve told this story in the past, people often ask me if she was a drug addict. I have no way of knowing, but she didn’t conform to my stereotype of such a person.) She gazed down from my face to my feet and back up and said, “Mmm!” in a nasally alto. “I could use you.”
“Uhm… for what?”

“Sex. Do you live around here?”

I’m not used to dealing with people who are being so direct. Even the Mormons that I meet ask for my name before they wax on about Joseph Smith. “And to think I just got dressed.”

She chuckled and changed the subject to the weather.

This who exchange has been on my mind as I’ve been thinking about the ongoing discussion of catcalling, street harassment, and how men and women think about these issues. I have plenty of thoughts about those things, and about how threatened and uncomfortable some women are made to feel by complete strangers. It just occurs to me that it’s almost impossible for me to relate, despite having multiple experiences that could be defined as street harassment. And that’s because I don’t feel threatened. When it happens to me, I think it’s funny.

I’m not saying it’s funny in general. I worry sometimes for certain friends when they have to walk alone in downtown Minneapolis. And I certainly don’t laugh when the women in my life share their experiences with me. It’s not funny that it happens to other people. It’s funny when it happens to me.

Every time I think I’ve come to an informed opinion on these things, I have to stop and remember that I can’t really empathize. I’ve never felt afraid or vulnerable out in public, and I’ve never thought that I could be in danger (even though there have been times that I really, really should have felt like I was in danger). I’m a tall, stocky, physically-imposing dude. I have the luxury of being snarky when someone walks up to me and asks for sex. And I never have to fear physical reprisal for doing so. Even men tend to give me a wide berth when they see my lumberjack beard.

That’s not to say I feel my opinion has no merit. I may even end up sharing it soon. It’s necessary, though, to contextualize my experience and acknowledge how it differs from what women experience. Having an opinion is all well and good. But any opinion that feels alien to what people actually experience on a day-to-day level is worthless at best.

Heuristics and Bad Decisions

A perverse and often baffling fact about crime is that people are known to voluntarily confess to crimes they did not commit. I am not referring to coerced confessions – those times when a suspect is subjected to beatings or tricky interrogation techniques and admit guilt under duress. I have in mind the times when a person steps forward on his or her own volition to take the credit for a crime they had no part of. When Elizabeth Short was murdered in 1947, in what became infamously known as The Black Dahlia case, more than sixty people offered confessions. No fewer than 59 of those confessions were false. Likewise, a man named John Mark Karr was being held on child pornography charges when he claimed he murdered JonBenet Ramsey. His confession was rejected after it was found that his DNA did not match what was found on the scene and it was established that he was in another state at the time of JonBenet’s death.

It is a natural corollary that the higher profile the crime the more likely it is a false confession will be offered. In an effort to quickly weed out the false confessions and save themselves unnecessary legwork, the police will sometimes provide the press with false information. For example, if a sixty-year old stock broker is found dead in his den, strangled with a red scarf, the police might tell the press he was found in his kitchen, bludgeoned by a cast-iron skillet. Any person that comes into the police station and tells of how they killed this man with a cast-iron skillet is referred to a psychiatrist and promptly shown the door.

(It is at least theoretically possible that a guilty person could identify the false details of a case and then confess using those false details in order to lure the police into eliminating him as a suspect. When I first learned about this, I thought it would make a clever twist ending in a “Whodunnit?” murder mystery if it turned out the murderer was somebody who had come forward at the start of the film but gave a false false confession. To the best of my knowledge no one has ever tried that gambit in real life.)

Whether they realize it or not, the police are relying on a psychological shortcut known as a heuristic. Daniel Kahneman defines a heuristic as “a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect answers to difficult questions.” Put another way, a heuristic is a rule-of-thumb strategy that enables us to make quick decisions or judgments by substituting a complex question with a simpler one. For example, when someone asks you, “How happy are you with your life these days?” you might substitute that question with, “What is my mood right now?” In the case of the false confession example above, the police are substituting the imprecise question, “Could this person be guilty?” with “Does this person know unpublished details about this crime?”

It may seem bizarre and unsettling, but we rely on heuristics in our day-to-day decision making as well as in how we formulate our attitudes. We rely on heuristics when we date, substituting questions like, “Are we compatible? Does he have good character?” with the question, “Am I attracted to him?” Similarly, when determining what our views ought to be about things such as gun control, we replace questions like, “What is the overall, long-term trend in gun crime?” with “When was the last time I heard about a school shooting?” We make hiring decisions by swapping out the question, “Will this person perform well in this career field, and is she qualified to work her?” with the question, “Did she shake my hand firmly when we met?

We rely on heuristics because our rational mind is lazy. Like detectives, we only have so much time, energy, and resources and we can’t chase down every possible lead. Answering a simple question reduces cognitive demand, but it bulldozes over many important factors and virtually all nuance. Asking, “Am I attracted to him?” ignores the fact that attractive men have less happy marriages and are more likely to cheat on their spouses. Likewise, if you are quick to recall a recent school shooting, you will likely overestimate the number of overall gun deaths and be less receptive of the research that shows gun crime has been dropping precipitously. On the other hand, if you cannot quickly recall a major gun crime, you run the risk of underestimating how severe the problem remains.

Heuristics are useful tools but they are prone to errors and they promote biases. It’s not a process we can actively turn off, but we can acknowledge that we are using them and that they influence our judgment. Kahneman suggests we constantly remind ourselves of this fact. Interviewers could remind themselves, he says, that “the question we face is whether this candidate can succeed. The question we seem to answer is whether she interviews well. Let’s not substitute.” We might findd ourselves ruling out a job applicant, a prospective spouse, or even a potential murderer based on these impressions. It would be healthy to stay openminded about some of these possibilities even after we’ve overlooked them. Kahneman reminds us, “you often have answers to questions that you do not completely understand, relying on evidence that you can neither explain nor defend.” Perhaps it would be helpful to our decision making to replace the word “no,” with “pending further investigation.”