Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Politician's Fallacy

When tragic events capture the nation's attention, the people, horrified at what has occurred, rightly ask what can be done to prevent such things from ever happening again. In turn, our elected representatives in Washington are often stirred to do one of the following (based on your level of cynicism toward politicians):

1) Act swiftly and smartly to address the situation
2) Immediately release a public statement before having found out what actually happened
3) Cancel their afternoon tee time and return to Capitol Hill so they can nap through emergency committee hearings

And in the midst of all this swift acting, public speaking, and committee napping, the politician, in trying to decide what course of action to take, usually goes through the following erroneous thought process, explained well in the British TV series Yes, Prime Minister:

Something must be done.
This is something.
Therefore, this must be done.

We shouldn't attribute this logical fallacy solely to politicians, even though I have done so in the title of this post. After all, it's usually the clamoring of the people to "Do something!" that provides the major premise (i.e. the first line) to this syllogism. Still, it is the politician who is able to act on it, so the buck stops there.

It's understandable. Something happens that shakes us and scares us, like a terrorist attack, or a mass public shooting, or a nuclear meltdown caused by a combined earthquake and tsunami. We don't want it to happen again. We don't feel we can wait one second longer to address the issue. Look at the death/destruction/horror/sadness that this caused. We can't let it happen again! We've got to do something NOW!

While this emotional reaction is to be expected, we ought not necessarily concede to its demands. Our heads need to temper our hearts if the desires of our hearts are to be truly satisfied; for the heart knows what it wants, but the head usually knows better how to get it.

Let's look at an example to illustrate the differences between emotionally charged perceptions and fact-based realities. A mass shooting happens, or a string of publicized mass shootings happen. People feel like there is an epidemic. But actually mass shootings are at their lowest levels in decades. People may point to the assault weapons ban passed in the 1990s and say, "Look, shootings went down after the weapons ban was passed! It must have worked!" But look at the broader picture: during that time, all violent crimes went downincluding homicides as a percentage of violent crime. Did the ban on assault weapons also lower incidences of poisoning, strangulation, drowning, stabbing, and other acts of violence? Unlikely. It would seem multiple societal factors were at work. This seems to be further supported by the fact that overall homicide rates have tracked closely with firearm homicide rates over the last 40 years.

(Hat tip to William Briggs for the statistics.)

If we don't take all of these facts into account, we risk committing the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, or "After this, therefore because of this." One might think that because overall crime went down after the ban of assault weapons, it was the ban that caused the decrease in crime. This is not necessarily the case; you would need more information to demonstrate this, and the information provided above suggests it's unlikely.

You might say, "But surely if we ban assault weapons, it will be much harder to commit crimes with assault weapons?" Yes, but if your goal is not strictly to reduce assault weapon crime, but violent crime, an assault weapon ban won't do the trick. Cities like Washington, D.C. and Chicago, which have some of the nation's strictest handgun laws, also have the highest rates of murder and handgun violence. Violent crime is a larger problem than the weapons available with which to perpetrate it. We can't lull ourselves into a false sense of security by doing something and saying, "All right, we've done something. Crisis averted." We might feel like things are worse than ever, but that doesn't mean they are. We might feel like banning certain types of weapons will prevent violent crimes, but that isn't necessarily the case.

You might say, "But why does your average citizen need automatic weapons and clips with dozens of rounds?" A good question, one involving the proper intent and interpretation of the Second Amendment and the rights of citizens to defend themselves. But it's a separate question from whether banning automatic weapons will reduce violent crime. Let's not confuse our terms. Let's stay focused on the task at hand.

Don't get me wrong. Don't interpret me to be saying something I'm not. Don't make me out to be saying more than I am. There may be good reasons to ban or limit the sale of certain types of weapons. Whether people should have access to certain types of weapons is a different issue from whether the availability of those weapons leads to more crime. But that's not the point at issue, and it doesn't help to meld two distinct questions together.

This is just one of the most recent examples to come up, but it's a common theme in our political discourse. To take an example dear to the other side of the aisle: our nation was attacked by terrorists in 2001, and since then our defense spending has grown increasingly, largely due to the extended prosecution of two wars. For some, the level of our defense spending has become a totem for how seriously we take our national security: if you want to cut defense spending, you're acquiescing somehow; if you want to increase defense spending, you're addressing the threats to our country. You might ask whether we could do more with less money, whether more advanced fighter jets are what's needed to combat terrorists, or whether we need to build more aircraft carriers when we have 10, while no one else has more than two, including China and Russia with one each. But to some, they are less interested in how effective our spending is than how much it is.

The point is: if we want to address a particular societal problem, let's take the time to examine the relevant facts (and sift out the irrelevant facts) and not let our emotional reaction, justified as the feelings themselves might be, overwhelm our thinking resulting in our doing something simply for the sake of doing something.


  1. Hey Nick,
    Great post. The only issue I have is your final point about the USA having 67 aircraft carriers. Looking at the link you provided it shows we have 10 active carriers and 1 in reserve. The 67 number is the all time count and seems a bit misleading... or just change the sentence to say we have *built* 67. Again, nice post!

  2. Such good thoughts. You make very good points about separating the issues and getting to the bottom of what we're really after. Each thing needs to be looked at separately. Could you please send this to all members of the House and Senate? Thank you.

  3. If only politicians would approach problem solving with the same clarity of thought and measured approach as you exhibit above, we wouldn't have to be constantly wringing our hands in dread for our future.
    Nice Job!
    Grandpa Jake