Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Guns and crime: Please Stop Misusing Numbers.

I'm not as smart as my friends. Some of them see the obvious that if we ban all guns violent crimes like what happened at Sandy Hook will go away forever. Others clearly see the obvious truth that if we criminalize guns only criminals will have guns. In my ignorance neither of these conclusions are obvious.

I'm also no lawyer. I do not understand all the intricacies of the second amendment. If the amendment is referring to self-defense against the government, I don't see how having a semi-automatic weapon helps me against a federal government armed with nuclear weapons and fighter aircraft. On the other hand, if it refers to self defense in general I don't understand why more women's groups are not against gun control. A handgun levels the playing field. Without superior weapons smaller and weaker people (of whom women are the lion's share) are relatively defenseless against larger and stronger people (usually men) with baseball bats.

Neither am I a doctor, psychologist, nor social worker. Certainly better treatment for those with mental health issues is desirable, but I have no idea how to best accomplish this. Hopefully informed debate on this will provide some solutions, however that doesn't seem to be the focus of any significant efforts currently under way.

What I do understand is numbers. While not a mathematician nor statistician by trade, I did study both as part of the course work for my B.A. in Math from UCLA. Furthermore my 30+ year career in systems and software often has involved mathematical problem analysis.

Almost everyone twists numbers to meet their needs. This is unfortunate. When it happens in the engineering world bad things happen. For example when a flight director ignores engineers' warnings about launching a space shuttle when the temperature is too low the shuttle might just explode and kill seven astronauts. Similarly, in a gun control or other debate, twisting numbers to meet your needs does not help in finding a solution. Unfortunately this misuse of statistics happens so often I feel many must have no idea what they are doing. I have a friend who is bad with numbers. However, he understands this and takes steps to compensate, including double checking his use of numbers with those of us who know better. If you likewise don't understand why most of the statistics trotted out in the gun debate are garbage, please stop using them or at least get advice from those who know better.

I started this post intending to bring in statistics I've found that I think speak to the issue. As usual, however, my preamble has stretched to the length of a full post. So I will conclude with the above appeal to be much more careful with the numbers you use and I will post statistics later.

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