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Gun control, climate change & motivated cognition of "scientific consensus"

Sen. John McCain is getting blasted for comments he made on gun control yesterday.



Here's what he actually said:

I think we need to look at everything, if that even should be looked at, but to think that somehow gun control is — or increased gun control — is the answer, in my view, that would have to be proved.

And here is the conclusion from a 2005 National Academy of Sciences expert consensus report that examined the (voluminous) data on various forms of gun control:

In summary, the committee concludes that existing research studies and data include a wealth of descriptive information on homicide, suicide, and firearms, but, because of the limitations of existing data and methods, do not credibly demonstrate a causal relationship between the ownership of firearms and the causes or prevention of criminal violence or suicide.

Who is behaving more like a "global warming denier" here-- McCain or his critics? 

The reaction to McCain is impressionistic proof--akin to pointing to the U.S. summer heatwave as evidence of climate change--of the impact of politically motivated reasoning of expert scientific opinion relating to policy-consequential facts.

If you demand rigorous proof (you should), take a look at the CCP study on "cultural cognition of scientific consensus." We present experimental proof that individuals selectively credit scientists as "experts" on climate change, nuclear power, and gun control conditional on those scientists taking positions consistent with the one that predominates in individuals' cultural groups.

Actually, I wouldn't criticize people for this tendency; it's ubiquitious.

But I would criticize those who ridicule a public figure (or anyone else) who says let's take a "look at everything" but demand "proof" before making policy.

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Reader Comments (3)

Agreed that mc cain is unfairly reported here but as a foreigner I can't help thinking that a US study on gun laws has as much credibility as a US study on climate change. What earns climate change science some respect is its international reach. Research on gun laws may also benefit from this. Having said all that, I find myself doing exactly what you would expect people to do - I'm reading articles on websites that confirm my preexisting views. The cultural cognition approach at least gives me pause...

July 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFourcultures

Interesting, 4!

There are, as you know, zillions of US gun studies, and none of the authors ever surprise themselves or anyone else -- which is to say, the findings always seem to line up w/ ideological/cultural conclusions of every other study done by the same researcher, and on pretty much any topic...

The NAS/NRC panel, though, consisted of methodologists who for most part hadn't really been involved in gun debate & didn't have strong cultural/ideological affiliations to speak of. And they basically shrugged their shoulders -- or really concluded that the dueling models used by the econometricians were simply too fragile, too dependent on discretionary modeling choices, to support firm conclusions in any direction.

There was one dissent (very very rare for NAS "expert consensus" report): James Wilson, Harvard Political Science, who concluded that the evidence *supported* the inference that allowing private citizens to carry concealed weapons *reduces* crime through a general deterrent effect. Wilson was definitley the most opinionated/policy-involved member of the panel -- an advocate of, among other things, "order maintenance" policing & other controversial criminal law-enforcement policies. I dont' know that I'd say he was "conservative" but definitely he was not "liberal"; likey he was "high grid, high group." (He died recently.)


July 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

And on the other side of "let's demand proof that a correlation results from causation before making policy," this week, are opponents of this recently-upheld law.

July 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMW

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