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Wednesday

26

January 2011

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Critical Thinking, or Why The Interwebs Make Me Want to Yell

Written by , Posted in Politics

I recognize that there are dangers with overcomplicating things – Occam’s razor and all that. Simplicity is seen by many scientists and philosophers as a criterion that strengthens a theory. However, I think that this same simplicity argument can lead to people not taking a critical look at complicated social issues. The recent violence in Tucson has reminded me of this.

What has gotten me thinking about this lately is this comment that has been circulating on Facebook as of late:
To everyone who is calling for stricter gun laws in light of the tragedy in Tucson, may I offer this little tidbit: If guns kill people, then pencils misspell words, cars drive drunk, and spoons make people fat. Remember: Hold the person accountable for their actions, not the means they chose to utilize!!! Re-post if you agree.”

There is so much wrong about this statement that my mind boggles. First, I believe much of the discussion these days is on the ammunition, not the guns themselves, so this post makes me think the original author may not be fully engaged in the debate. Beyond that, I find it extremely frustrating that so many people seem to be refusing to examine the possibility that certain regulations and laws could be helpful and instead are falling back on simple (and false) analogies. 

Let’s look at the first part of this ‘tidbit’: equating ammunition with pencils, cars and spoons. First, the car argument is actually not a bad analogy – if one can’t be trusted to not drive drunk, then getting rid of the car would be one possible way of addressing the problem of that particular drunk driver. So  yes, actually, I do support not allowing those who are drunk to access their cars. 

I am having trouble addressing the pencil and spoon argument – misspelled words aren’t usually life and death, so that’s a silly analogy. And obesity is such an amazingly complicated situation that I almost see where this metaphor would work – except the thing is, if there were something in spoons causing death akin to huge ammo magazines causing death then perhaps spoons should be examined as part of the solution to health disparities. But somehow I doubt that the person who came up with this pithy analogy would agree.

The second part is equally annoying – this idea that if society chooses to look at ALL the ways that such violence as the Tucson shooting could be prevented in the future, this necessarily means that the person who committed the act is not being held responsible. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. In fact, focusing ONLY on the person strikes me as a very careless way to handle this type of violence. If we don’t understand what led to the action, how on earth can we expect to prevent it in the future? I’d imagine many people are familiar with the dangers of only treating the symptoms of a disease, rather than the disease itself. I concur – if I have a broken arm, some Advil isn’t going to fix it. However, if I have a broken arm, I’d like surgery to fix it, as well as Advil to help address the pain. Similarly, I’d like to figure out a way to address the issues of those who are prone to violence, as well as keep massive amounts of ammunition out of their hands. It’s a multi-pronged approach that recognizes there is no simple solution. 

Unfortunately, in this case, that requires the same people who refuse to consider the dangers of guns to recognize that there are reasons for violence beyond ‘evil’ or people being ‘bad.’ The world is not often black and white, and this insistence that it is seems to me to be leading people to turn off that part of their brain that involves critical thinking and to grasp at analogies such as the one above.

To be clear: I am not deaf to the idea that perhaps different gun laws are not a good idea. I’m still reading and learning and thinking through how to reconcile them with the constitution. Although, as an aside, I really enjoyed Rachel Maddow’s argument on this front – if the 2nd amendment argument is that we need guns so we can overthrow the government if needed, then we really should start allowing everyone the ability to own the exact same weapons the US military owns. That’s the only way it works. Because right now unless we all have some grenades, and some bombs, we certainly won’t be overthrowing the government. Are you okay with that? I’m not.

I am, however, also not swayed by ill-formed and ultimately inaccurate metaphors. If one is going to speak in the sound bites that Facebook and Twitter require, I think it might make sense to limit that to links to well-informed arguments, or statements that can be backed up by some critical thought and serious discussion. Hiding behind sad attempts to sound pithy only magnifies the ignorance.

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