To Understand Shootings We Need Statistics, not Stories

Humans are natural storytellers and we tend to build a picture of the world assembled from stories that strike us as important and, significantly, reinforce our intuitions and prejudices about what the world is really like.

We do not naturally think mathematically and, as a result, often have very wrong ideas about the world. The problem relates to what is broadly known as “cherry picking” or “hasty generalization.” We are attracted to “stories” that support our preconceptions and then enlarge those stories to be much more significant than they are.

In the same way, we ignore stories that don’t suit our narrative. On our various media outlets, from Facebook to Fox News, we constantly see this or that minor story presented as if it establishes some point when, in fact, it does not. Often this is simply accidental and benign. But often it is not. Donald Trump has exploited our tendency to think in terms of stories instead of statistics by regaling us with accounts of criminal acts committed by immigrants. We are never informed that, statistically, immigrants are less likely to be criminals than non-immigrants.

Individual stories, no matter how extraordinary, are almost always statistically insignificant. They are also countered by stories making the opposite point. The only way to avoid living in a “self generated fantasy world” is to think in terms of statistics rather than stories. But because math is hard we don’t naturally move in this direction.

In the wake of the recent shootings and the subsequent conversation about guns and their use we should keep in mind the following:
 1) American schools are very safe places. We have about 100,000 public schools (K-12) and 35,000 private schools in America. The average number of “school shootings” since 2013 has been about 50 per year. (Most of these shootings are, in fact, relatively minor and do not involve loss of life. If a student brings a gun to school and shoots it at another student and misses this is a “school shooting.”) So, while school massacres are terrible and we should look for ways to reduce them, we might wonder about the wisdom of arming teachers or installing security guards in 135,000 schools in order to prevent a tiny number of shootings. If we want to invest money in saving lives, there is not much bang for the buck here.
 2) We hear a lot about “good guys with guns.” And there are a few encouraging — and sometimes quite exciting —stories of good guys doing good things with guns. But these stories are rare — so rare as to be statistically insignificant. Many of the guns owned and carried by “good guys” end up being implicated in accidental deaths and suicides. Any stories of heroism by “good guys with guns” need to be balanced with stories of legitimate guns inflicting unintended tragedy.

Our natural tendency is to gather whichever set of stories we like and present those as typical — cherry picking. The statistics here just don’t support the idea that a particular gun is more likely to accomplish something good than something tragic.

3) The most unreported gun stories — unreported because they are poor “stories” — relate to suicides. Violent death rates have declined significantly over the last 25 years but suicide rates have risen. From ages 10 to 34 it is the second leading cause of death. 2259 young people from ages 10 to 19 committed suicide in 2014 and about 1000 of those deaths involved firearms. So while it is true that many guns are owned by “good guys,” the tragedy is that the children of those good guys sometimes use those guns to end their lives, often during a brief period of depression. The mere availability of guns poses a serious risk, regardless of who owns them.

Statistics, as the saying goes, can lie. But they are a far more trustworthy guide to the world than stories.