Active Measures

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

We can often be forgiven our sins of omission. We let small duties slip, under-perform just slightly on challenges to our integrity. If the harm done is not too great, and we buck up and pledge to do better, fine. We can’t be expected to attend to every little thing all the time.

Take Hi C Fruit Punch. I was raised in a time when adults believed it was good for kids, because, read the label, it has vitamin C. Back then, there were no science-based warnings like this one that say, for the love of god, DO NOT give this diabetes bomb to innocent children. It was a sin of omission.

But not anymore. Now we know. In just a few few minutes you can inform yourself, using reliable sources, about what Hi C is–a dyed mixture of water and corn syrup containing more sugar than Coke. And, so informed, you need never again be implicated in the peculiar form of child abuse for which this product was designed.

This past week I was reminded that, in some cases we are not merely guilty of passive, Hi-C-in-the-1970s-style ignorance, but we sometimes take active measures to achieve the levels of stupidity our corporate masters desire of us.

If you don’t believe in the Devil, you can go ahead and believe in this, which is far worse: we humans will actively harm our intellects to keep from knowing things that threaten to constrain our other appetites.

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For example, it is no secret that lobby groups have for decades suppressed any kind of scientific research into gun violence. The CDC wants to do this analysis, since gun violence is a leading cause of death, but it can’t get the funding. For anyone with eyes to see, this is clearly because the gun industry does not want to have a Hi C moment. Almost everyone who looks at the available data knows, for example that, if you of keep guns in the house to defend against “home invasion,” you are much more likely to end up killing or wounding yourself, your spouse, or someone else in your family than an intruder. To put the point slightly technically, gun possession in the home makes self-harm a more likely outcome than successful home defense.

But here’s the rub. The point cannot be put more than slightly technically, because the necessary science has been prevented. (Orwell wrote with bitter disdain about the “prevention of literature” in an authoritarian political culture. He would have loved the idea that the authorities could also prevent science. Not.)

Suppose for a second that you are a rational actor seeking to make an informed decision about whether to keep guns in your home. (I’m not sure there are rational actors, since the work of Tversky and Kahnemann, but the concept is at least a useful fiction. It makes a certain kind of liberal politics on which our laws are based possible, so let’s go with it.)

What you want is a sound cost-benefit analysis, a comparison of the most likely risks and rewards presented in your dilemma. The perceived rewards in this case are generated inside your head. They are derived from horrific, or possibly heroic scenarios of you confronting psychopathic home invaders bent on harming you and your family. Movies and TV help supply these images. But drawing on one’s cinematic intuitions of home invasion as a data source does not really give us a running start at making a rational choice. However, we have to start somewhere. Let’s table this side of the analysis and take a look at the other side.

The data on the other side, about the potential costs of keeping guns in the house, comes from . . . nowhere. That’s because, as I noted, it has been forbidden to do the required research. Since the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which drastically cut funding for gun violence research, no major studies have been done on the potential linkage between gun ownership and various kinds of self-harm. And the spirit of that law has been vigorously reinforced over the decades by the energetic lobbying of the NRA. Anytime some crusading university or think tank starts thinking about trying to reinvigorate gun violence research, the NRA meets with the senator(s) who are capable of shutting it down. And shut down it is. It’s money well spent, if your objective is never to know anything substantive about linkages between guns and gun death.

The last, probably only rigorous study of the risks and rewards of keeping guns in the home was done in 1993. It said if you kept a gun at home you tripled the chances that someone would be shot there, and that someone was rarely an intruder. Specifically: “The researchers found that a majority of victims, 76.7 percent, were killed by a spouse, family member or someone they knew, and that in 85 percent of cases there was no forced entry into the home.”

Research, if it is to be effective, must be done and re-done. Its results must be challenged, validated, put into new contexts. Much has changed since 1993. Or has it? When it comes to gun deaths, we really don’t know. Many gun advocates with even a rudimentary understanding of statistics are probably looking at that figure from 1993 that says keeping a gun at home triples the risk and saying to themselves, “Well, okay, that’s a change in risk, but what’s the absolute risk level? If it’s small enough, I might still make a rational choice to keep a gun in my home. That tripling figure might not be decisive for me if it means the risk factor goes up from .01 percent to .03. Going from one percent to three, though?–that might be a different story.

But we’re on course to never know the real figures. Active measures are being taken to prevent the pertinent knowledge. Ambient levels of ignorance among the public are not good enough for the NRA, so they are funding active resistance to scientific research.

Here is the nub of the problem: corporations and their lobbyists (and therefore our government) are doing whatever it takes to deprive us of the science necessary to ground a rational choice. No matter which side of the debate our instincts lie on, it is impossible for us to discover enough to upgrade our emotive instincts to reasoned arguments. We’re allowed to know about the effects of Hi C on blood sugar (thank goodness), but the effects of guns on the home and family are officially off limits.

You know that bumper sticker, Guns don’t kill people. People kill people? The NRA pays our government millions of dollars to make sure scientists never turn that quip into a testable hypothesis. It works because it remains a bumper sticker. Ignoring the potential link between guns and gun violence is a (forgivable) sin of omission but only as long as the relevant scientific knowledge is never generated.

This topic came up last week because the latest federal budget included a provision that said a teensy weensy bit of research might happen sometime. As weak as the clause is, it should be child’s play for the lobbyists to kill it.

So stopping science before it starts is one way to promote mass ignorance. Another one is to take a hammer and wreck scientific results after they have been produced.

An article in the Atlantic Monthly last week brought this kind of active measure into the light. Basically, this is what has happened. A federal agency tightly under the control of the current regime (yes, it is a regime), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), got ahold of research produced by the Environmental protection Agency (EPA) that had been used to underwrite emissions restrictions put in place by the former administration.

The EPA had rolled out this research in the usual way, by publishing a detailed explanation of the science behind it and a transparent record of how it got incorporated into policy recommendations. This is the kind of boring, thankless job that civil servants do each day for the citizens and leaders of the country. It gets done not for glory or money, but because individual experts are committed to public service and professional standards.

This kind of boring, deliberate process, by the way, is necessary in a republic because it allows citizens and lawmakers to judge for themselves whether the laws and rules that regulate our lives comport with reason and reality. It’s the kind of thing you would read with interest if you suspect big government ever tends to get too big. This kind of transparency is one thing that makes the difference between a law and a decree. When a government just says whatever it wants, without accountability or reason, that’s a decree.

And the NHTSA did such a shoddy job of showing its work on its latest emissions study that its conclusion looked an awful lot like a decree.

For decades, the EPA and NHTSA had coordinated closely on their work on tailpipe emissions, and their conclusions and policy recommendations were more or less issued jointly. But in 2018 the NHTSA took the most recent joint report on emissions and, without the EPA’s knowledge, re-jiggered its most important assumptions and re-did much of its math. The conclusion they came up with–and I am not making this up; if you don’t trust the Atlantic you can read the scientific paper on which its story is based–the conclusion they came up with was that increasing the weight and carbon emissions of American cars would save American lives.

This conclusion came out, unsurprisingly, without the long, tedious explanation that is required to accompany a change in federal rules. In the 7th grade, this is what you get a D for–writing a thesis sentence without any supporting evidence. It turned out, though, that there was something behind the study that was supposed to look like evidence, . . . kind of.

I had no idea what a turducken was before I read this article, but hats off to its author for describing the NHTSA’s reasoning behind this conclusion as a turducken of errors.

So instead of just coming out and making the baseless claim that we’d all be better off in bigger cars that emit more greenhouse gases, some apparatchiks in the NHTSA used a crayon–who knows, maybe it was a sharpie–to falsify the science behind a painstaking analysis to the contrary. The peer-reviewed science paper that rebuts NHTSA’s work says it “cited incorrect data and made calculation errors, on top of bungling the basics of supply and demand.”

I use the term apparatchik with due consideration. When Soviet regime loyalists needed to pull the wool over the people’s eyes, which was pretty much all the time, they would go back and change the written record to do so. They would simply make events or people disappear from books and newspapers. Or, insert new persons and events. And as Orwell illustrated in 1984, changing the documentary record with sufficient force and assiduousness is as good as changing the underlying reality.

Give an editor enough power, and s/he literally controls the truth. The NHTSA is trying to exercise this kind of power. It is trying to take a rule based in science and replace it with a decree based in the regime’s say-so.

The active suppression of facts–about guns, cars, what have you–flies in the face of what it means to be American. We are not supposed to be scared of information, or of the intellectual disciplines that test information and put it in theoretical context. As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “[L]et facts be submitted to a candid world,” and the world can evaluate them. The current regime, which has already outraged so many other American values, thinks we are unworthy of knowing facts, prefers that we put our faith in memes and bumper stickers instead. This active maiming of our own intellectual faculties is what makes decrees possible.

Our country was created for the bold exercise of intellectual courage. It’s part of our national purpose. Alexander Hamilton wrote about this in Federalist No. 1, the very first essay that made a case for what our country would be for. First and foremost, he said, the United States would be an experiment:

It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Sins of omission happen by the hundreds. Have I read every rule explanation that deals with, say, implementing the Clean Water Act? Nope. I’ve let my intellectual responsibilities slide. But I have a certain amount of justified faith that the pertinent explanations are available and have been designed by reflection and choice. I have been able, so far, to get by on a certain amount of trust that my government makes laws, not decrees.

But the government’s active measures to induce intellectual sloth and cowardice compromise this trust. Greater vigilance is called for. When we let a government cancel science and shout down reason, we make way for a life ruled by accident and force.

 

 

 

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