The conservative war on science is one reason we can’t have good things…. (More)

“Cherry-picked the more negative findings in the field”

You probably saw the click-bait headline at the Washington Post: “I used to think gun control was the answer. My research told me otherwise.” It’s a story by former FiveThirtyEight writer Leah Libresco who, until that article, was probably best known for her atheist-to-Catholic memoir Arriving at Amen, and her anti-gun-control story immediately became yet another right-wing lodestone.

Vox’s German Lopez notes that Libresco’s column is … shoddy science:

But despite the article’s headline and author Leah Libresco’s data journalism credentials, the column is surprisingly thin on studies and data. In fact, it cites no specific studies on gun control whatsoever.
[…]
The original article at FiveThirtyEight, which Libresco again pointed me to in an email for her main source of data, cites a couple of real studies, but it only cherry-picked the more negative findings in the field. (Even then, one study cited found that Australia’s 1996 gun control law and buyback program was followed by a faster drop in gun deaths than would otherwise be expected; it’s just unclear whether the policy was the main cause.)

The rest of the article makes no attempt to raise any other actual empirical research, only citing a few statistics about the demographics of gun deaths.

More specifically, Libresco and her right-wing fans play the classic bait-and-switch of atomizing gun violence to ‘prove’ that this or that specific gun law would not have prevented this or that specific shooting. And they need to do that because the broader evidence shows that stricter gun laws do reduce overall gun deaths, as Lopez explains:

Last year, researchers from around the country reviewed more than 130 studies from 10 countries on gun control for Epidemiologic Reviews. This is, for now, the most current, extensive review of the research on the effects of gun control. The findings were clear: “The simultaneous implementation of laws targeting multiple firearms restrictions is associated with reductions in firearm deaths.”

The study did not look at one specific intervention, but rather a variety of kinds of gun control, from licensing measures to buyback programs. Time and time again, they found the same line of evidence: Reducing access to guns was followed by a drop in deaths related to guns. And while non-gun homicides also decreased, the drop wasn’t as quick as the one seen in gun-related homicides – indicating that access to guns was a potential causal factor.

Based on the other research, this actually isn’t a very surprising finding. Regularly updated reviews of the evidence compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center have consistently found that when controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths.

“Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide,” David Hemenway, the Injury Control Research Center’s director, wrote in Private Guns, Public Health.

I emphasized “for now, the most current, extensive review of the research” because … well … the Post’s Todd Frankel reports that Congress has all-but shut down research on gun violence:

But one reason the positions are so intractable is that no one really knows what works to prevent gun deaths. Gun-control research in the United States essentially came to a standstill in 1996.

After 21 years, the science is stale.

“In the area of what works to prevent shootings, we know almost nothing,” Mark Rosenberg, who, in the mid-1990s, led the CDC’s gun-violence research efforts, said shortly after the San Bernardino shooting in 2015.

The studies that Lopez cited are mostly meta-studies of older research, using new statistical methods to comb existing data. Oh, and Frankel reports that the congressman who pushed the ban on gun violence research later changed his mind:

Jay Dickey was a Republican congressman from Arkansas who, in the mid-1990s, led the effort to stop the CDC’s gun violence research. The Dickey Amendment, as it’s known, has been reauthorized every year by Congress. He and Rosenberg, the former CDC official, were once sworn enemies. But the two men later became friends. And Dickey, before he died earlier this year, changed his thinking. After the successive waves of mass shootings, he saw that something needed to be done. Dickey said he changed his mind: Gun violence needed to be studied by the CDC. He wanted solutions — ones that, he said, also protected gun rights. It might be possible.

“We need to turn this over to science and take it away from politics,” Dickey said.

That would be nice, but with people like Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) invoking the “Old West” to say the solution was for concert-goers to carry guns and shoot back … I’m not holding my breath.

“Sociological gobbledygook”

Then there’s Chief Justice John Roberts dismissing scientific measures of gerrymandering:

And if you’re the intelligent man on the street and the Court issues a decision, and let’s say, okay, the Democrats win, and that person will say: “Well, why did the Democrats win?” And the answer is going to be because EG was greater than 7 percent, where EG is the sigma of party X wasted votes minus the sigma of party Y wasted votes over the sigma of party X votes plus party Y votes.

And the intelligent man on the street is going to say that’s a bunch of baloney. It must be because the Supreme Court preferred the Democrats over the Republicans. And that’s going to come out one case after another as these cases are brought in every state.

And that is going to cause very serious harm to the status and integrity of the decisions of this Court in the eyes of the country.

Well sure, if judges discuss the science in the most baffling terms they can – such as “EG is the sigma of party X wasted votes minus the sigma of party Y wasted votes over the sigma of party X votes plus party Y votes” – then yes, “the intelligent man on the street is going to say that’s a bunch of baloney.”

That’s not about bad science. It’s people like Chief Justice Roberts who intentionally good science into “gobbledygook.”

It’s equally possible to describe the efficiency gap (Chief Justice Roberts’ “EG”) in simple terms:

There are two types of wasted votes:

1. All the votes cast for the losing candidate
2. All the “extra” votes for the winning candidate

The efficiency gap measurement aims to summarize the effect of gerrymandering by identifying all of the wasted votes in victory and defeat for both parties. It then adds them up, finds the difference between the two sides, and divides that by the total number of votes in a state. This yields a single percentage figure: the efficiency gap.

That’s from the New York Times’ Nate Cohn, who then offers a clear, easy-to-follow example from Maryland:

1. 510,000 Democratic votes and 789,000 Republican votes are wasted in Maryland.
2. Which means that, on net [789,000 minus 510,000], Maryland wasted 279,000 Republican votes.
3. The efficiency gap is net-wasted votes as a share of a state’s total vote [2,598,000], which means that Maryland has a [279,000 divided by 2,598,000 equals] 10.7 percent efficiency gap that favors the Democrats.

I plugged the numbers from Cohn’s chart into his verbal summary, so you could see how simple it is. The efficiency gap calculation itself is – literally – sixth-grade math. So yeah, Chief Justice Roberts turned sixth-grade math into “gobbledygook.”

What’s more, the Washington Post’s Phillip Rocco reports that the Court has a long history of applying social science to critical policy questions:

Yet Roberts’s questions in oral arguments downplay how social science has helped the court understand complex and historically significant issues. In the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren relied heavily on social science research by Kenneth Clark to refute the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of “separate but equal.” This evidence illustrated how school segregation created a powerful sense of inferiority among black students. Recently, a study of judicial reasoning in same-sex marriage cases concludes that, “most judges appeared to be savvy consumers of social scientific evidence, not easily duped by the misleading operationalization of core concepts, analytic procedures that failed to include proper statistical controls, or easily disproved claims of lack of scientific consensus.”

It’s not that judges can’t understand scientific findings. It’s that Chief Justice Roberts doesn’t like what the efficiency gap measurement would allow — unbiased analysis of partisan gerrymandering.

And that fits University of Minnesota professor Matthew Motta’s new research on anti-intellectualism in our politics:

Recently, Americans have become increasingly likely to hold anti-intellectual attitudes (i.e., negative affect toward scientists and other experts). However, few have investigated the political implications of anti-intellectualism, and much empirical uncertainty surrounds whether or not these attitudes can be mitigated. Drawing on cross-sectional General Social Survey (GSS) data and a national election panel in 2016, I find that anti-intellectualism is associated with not only the rejection of policy-relevant matters of scientific consensus but support for political movements (e.g., “Brexit”) and politicians (e.g., George Wallace, Donald Trump) who are skeptical of experts.

Yet Motta sees a ray of hope:

Verbal intelligence plays a strong role in mitigating anti-intellectual sympathies, compared with previously studied potential mitigators.

In other words, don’t spew verbal hash like Chief Justice Roberts’ “EG is the sigma of party X wasted votes minus the sigma of party Y wasted votes over the sigma of party X votes plus party Y votes.” Instead, explain the science in simple, clear terms, as Cohn did in the summary above.

Here’s a potential mitigator: Duh!

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BONUS: An easy way to end gerrymandering

I meant to add this earlier. Gerrymandering is an absurdly easy problem to solve. Simply use proportional voting, with at-large seats added to make legislative party seat totals match voters’ vote totals.

For example, let’s say the Bippiestate Legislature has 50 seats. In the most recent election, 52% of Bippiestate voters chose Squirrel Party candidates, and 48% chose Pootie Party candidates. However, the combination of district boundaries and where people live meant that 31 Pootie Party candidates won their districts, and only 19 Squirrel Party candidates won their districts. So the Pootie Party got 48% of the votes cast, but won 62% of the districts.

The question is how to turn 31 seats into 48% of the legislature, and that’s an easy calculation: 31 divided by 0.48 = 65. So if the legislature added 15 “at large” seats, the total would be 65 seats. The Pootie Party would get the 31 district seats they won, and the Squirrel Party would get the 19 district seats they won plus the 15 “at large” seats, for a total of 34 seats. The Squirrel Party would have a 34-31 (52% to 48%) majority, matching the statewide vote percentages.

How would the Squirrel Party fill their “at large” seats? Just seat the 15 Squirrel Party candidates who lost their districts by the narrowest margins.

States could easily do this for their state legislatures, but we’d need a constitutional amendment to do it for U.S. House districts. The point is, gerrymandering is not an inherent problem of representative government. It’s a problem that exists solely because we haven’t chosen to solve it.

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Original Image: TotallyGaming.com; Pixelation & Texture: Crissie Brown (BPICampus.com)

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Good day and good nuts