The ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ conservative consistently ignores facts

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It is truly fascinating how confidently conservatives misuse statistics and manipulate data to sound right and support their biases. When their arguments are really broken down, you find out how easy it is to manipulate anything to try and prove a point. Today, we will be looking at how conservative pundit Ben Shapiro uses studies and charts in an attempt to debunk gun control, specifically leftists’ case for gun control advocacy (side note: leftists, in my circle at least, do not advocate gun control as guns will be needed for the revolution, but I digress.) There is a litany of refutations of Shapiro’s body of “work” that have discredited his debate style, his so-called logic, and arguments time, and time again. While I will not attempt to do that here, I recommend giving them a read as well so you can get the gist yourself and maybe even get a laugh or two out of right-wing ridiculousness.

Anyway, I stumbled across this video on YouTube titled “Ben Shapiro Debunks Gun Control With Statistics In 6 Minutes.” Now, based on the title I was not sure what Shapiro would be “debunking.” Would he disprove the idea that legislation aimed at gun control leads to less gun deaths? Would he argue that the United States is predicated on freedom and natural rights, therefore gun violence in the U.S. is an acceptable trade-off for these things? Would he persuasively use statistics to undermine the unique level of gun death in the U.S.? Needless to say, I was curious and decided to listen to his arguments. After listening, it was clear that Shapiro was all over the place. He jumped around every argument given for gun control advocacy and twisted every piece of data to suit his position. Shapiro focused primarily on mass shootings and I presume this is because at the time he gave this talk, the Parkland shooting had just happened. In other words, the climate of the political moment was a deep concern about the severity of school and other mass shootings that seem to be routine in the U.S., and Ben Shapiro was here to hit us with cold statistics and hard facts.

However, from Shapiro, we just hear all the conservative talking points that sweep serious conversations about gun violence under the rug, but I want to focus specifically on the statistics and data he cites to support his arguments. And as we shall see, he also sweeps major parts of the data he cites under the rug too. I mean, to the point that even if you are in staunch opposition to gun control, this would leave you with various questions to challenge him. First, let’s take a look at the graph Shapiro cites and his argument that the graph is supposed to substantiate:

“Fine, ok, let’s get to the real gun violence statistics. So what we’ve been hearing is that gun is constantly on the increase. People are being murdered on a scale that boggles the imagination, school shootings are increasing, and your child is, if not likely going to die, has a high likelihood of being shot at a school. Okay, this is not true. Gun deaths in the united states have been radically declining since 1993. According to the CDC, there were 7 gun related for every 100,000 Americans in 1993. By 2013, that number had been sliced in half to 3.6 homicides per 100,000 population. During that same period, the number of privately owned firearms in the U.S. doubled from 185 million to 357 million privately owned firearms in the United States. So, the number of arms in the United States is going like this (Shapiro’s arm pointing upward) and the amount of gun crime is going like that.(Shapiro’s arm pointing downward.) And yet, everybody in the media assumes that more guns means more crime. You’re going to have to explain then why more guns does not mean more crime.”

Now, I would argue that the position he is supposed to be refuting here is a straw man position, but more importantly, even if I agreed that this is everybody in the media’s position, Shapiro is making really basic statistical errors to prove his point. What’s funny about this is I actually remember when Shapiro showed this graph on twitter making the same argument. Here’s the visual,

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As we can see, from 1993 to 2013, the number of privately owned firearms has increased 56%, while the gun homicide rate decreased 49%. Shapiro is asking us to explain again how more guns inevitably means more murder, implying that this correlation between a sharp increase in privately owned firearms and a sharp decline in the gun homicide rate undermines the idea that one reason the United States might see a substantial amount of gun violence is due to the access to so many guns. The problem is this graph is seriously flawed in relation to the point he is trying to make. For example, the first major problem is that he is comparing absolute numbers with per capita rates. The issue with doing this is that the absolute number of X can increase while the actual rate of X is in fact decreasing. The fact that privately owned firearms is in absolute numbers and gun homicides is used as the per capita rate, I cant tell if the rate of firearm ownership is decreasing simultaneously with gun homicide rates unless I look beyond this graph. Therefore, you cannot get an accurate representation of this correlation from this graph alone.

For example, if I were a foreigner to the U.S. and tried to grapple with the relationship between gun ownership and gun deaths using this graph, I would have so many questions with the data I wouldn’t know where to even start. For example, has the population of the United States swelled since 1994 so much that would make the increased number of firearms proportionate to the population increase when compared to 1994? And if it is not proportionate, are people who own the private firearms more evenly distributed throughout the country? Or is it a situation where households that already own guns just add to their collection? And how would this affect the likelihood of getting killed by a gun anyway? If I am part of the 3 percent of Americans that own half of the guns in the U.S., how would adding another batch of arms to my stash suggest an anticipation in the homicide rate to go up? These are all questions that this graph cannot answer and Shapiro does not seek to answer them when he cites it. Its safe to say that he was trying to use any set of numbers or statistics, no matter how manipulated they were, to serve his ideology. In fact, it is pretty easy to manipulate any set of data to suit your ideological purposes and if you’re statistically illiterate or dishonest enough, you can go around citing it support almost any argument you like!

It is actually quite fun! For example, here is a quick graph on excel that I made:

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Source: Center For Disease and Control Prevention’s WONDER database/General Social Survey: Trends in Gun Ownership in the United States 1972-2014.

Here I am using the actual rate of gun ownership, the percentage of households that own guns, and comparing it to the gun homicide rate from 1994-2014. This is a more accurate depiction of the relationship as we are comparing apples with apples. Just because there are more guns does not mean that there are more guns in circulation in close proximity with more people, which is what experts argue is required to increase one’s propensity to gun violence. And this graph supports this argument: The rate of gun ownership is falling and so is the homicide rate. Hopefully these trends continue so we can see a 90% decrease in the homicide rate from 1994!

Alright, now let me be clear: I would never use this graph I made to go around making this argument. Even though the numbers are correct and carefully taken from credible sources, I can already come up with questions that people who wanted to counter it could ask. Someone could ask, for example, ‘how can you know the actual rate of gun ownership? There is no national database that tracks who owns which guns.’ I would respond with: Well, yes, that’s why we can only go off of surveys and I tried to find the most comprehensive long-standing survey and virtually every survey you find will present similar trends. But, ultimately, citing my graph would come off dishonest to me. Gun violence is a complex issue. Therefore, we have to approach any discussion with nuance, not visual correlations we can create out of thin air that prove little on their own.

To give one more example of the dishonesty, when I went and checked out the graph’s sources, I found that the graph starts in 1993, which was one year of a few (two years before it) with an abnormally high homicide rate when compared to most years in the U.S. I suspect the reason they chose the arbitrary year 1993 to start with was to make it seem like the homicide rate has always been dramatically falling. Furthermore, I would like to know how Shapiro would rationalize the recent rise in gun-related deaths. “Gun-related deaths are on the rise in the U.S., bucking a decade-long decline, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During 2015-2016, the federal agency says there were 27,394 homicides involving firearms and another 44,955 gun suicides — the highest levels recorded since 2006-2007.” You obviously cannot dissect this trend using the date he cites. So, this graph is useless. My intent with this was to demonstrate how easy it is to twist and spit out any data that will prove whatever point you want to prove.

Besides being dishonest, I also suspect Ben Shapiro just does not understand statistics. At one of his Q and As, he was going back and forth with a young college student about the transgender community, and he attempted to disprove the idea that bullying or not accepting people who are transgender can cause a person who is transgender to commit suicide. Shapiro argues this point by citing a study that literally claims the opposite of what Shapiro claims the study says, and by flat-out misusing statistics:

“The normal suicide rate across the United States is 4 percent. The suicide rate in the transgender community is 40 percent. The idea that 36% more transgender people are committing suicide because people are mean to them is ridiculous.”

This is not even remotely right. First, the claim that the suicide rate in the transgender community is 40 percent is false. But, here I want to focus on Shapiro’s remedial use of statistics. There would not be 36 percent more transgender people committing suicide. There would be a 36 percentage point increase from the United States’ population suicide rate to the United States’ transgender community suicide rate but this does not even capture the increased relative risk. If the suicide rate is 4 percent for Americans generally and 40 percent for people who are transgender, this is actually a 900 percent increase in relative risk of suicide if you are transgender. Shapiro seems to be suggesting that bullying people who are transgender cannot cause an increase in a suicide rate as dramatic as this (he conveniently seems to ignore all the studies that find correlations that prove otherwise), but I would argue Shapiro lacks basic statistical skills. Otherwise, someone who would go to great lengths to make any number fit his political agenda would not undersell his point like that.

Anyway, Shapiro then goes on to make a few more ridiculous partisan based claims that I would like to go through and challenge. The first one refers to gun violence and cities. Shapiro says,

“The idea from the left is that states that have lax gun laws have higher rates of gun crime. This is not true. Gun involved deaths take place in mostly America’s major cities. So all those hicks from the sticks, you know, people who actually own all the guns. Those aren’t the people who are killing each other. This is all happening in cities–in major American cities. Virtually all of these American cities are governed by one party and I will let you guess which party that is.”

Jesus, I don’t even know where to start with this. First of all, that “idea” from the left is correct. In fact, “States with weak gun violence prevention laws and higher rates of gun ownership have the highest overall gun death rates in the nation, according to a Violence Policy Center (VPC) analysis of just-released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.” But he seems to be trying to draw a distinction between states and cities. Those states with lax gun laws and higher rates of gun deaths, could have cities within them that stand out in terms of gun violence and this is what the left is missing. But I want to focus on one point here which is the implied reason for the higher rate of gun death which is that most of these cities are governed by Democrats. This might just be a correlation to him, one that he knew would get an applause from a mainly conservative audience. Still, this does not make sense. The first simple reason is Democrat mayors also govern large cities with the lowest crime rates. Middlesex, NJ, for example, “has one of the lowest murder rates in the nation, in addition to a very low rate of larceny.,” and is governed by Democrat mayor Ronald J. DiMira.

So, what’s was the point of bringing up Democrat mayors governing the cities with the highest gun death rates? Maybe he would argue that these specific Democrat mayors are terrible at crafting sensible gun control policies. However, therein lies the second problem which is that most of the country (44 states) prohibit localities from enacting their own gun laws through pre-emption. Pre-emption statutes refer to the hierarchy of legislation in the United States. This means, Federal law trumps state law and state law trumps municipalities. Therefore, local cities cannot enact gun control legislation that are harsher than State law. This is enforced through costly litigation. The NRA and other gun groups sue local governments if they feel they are violating the state’s pre-emption statute. There are only five states that “allow cities to enact their own gun laws without restriction — Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — are also the states with the lowest rates of gun death.” So let’s go by leadership at the State level with governors. Based on the cities that Shapiro cites, six out of the top 10 cities with the highest gun homicide rate are in states that have Republican governors and they govern four out of the top five cities!

However, even though mayors cannot enact gun control and we have to go by the state, Shapiro might believe that local Democrat governance is so awful that it just fosters a value system that makes people want to kill. But this is just a point Shapiro cannot prove, meaning, it serves no purpose but to confirm his biases, worldview, and fans. More specifically, if he is not going to explain his position further then this point is meaningless. I understand this may seem like a petty thing to pick at, but it can be valuable to address how sloppy people can be to serve an ideology. Again, if I were only concerned with doing this instead of searching for truth, I could do the same thing. In the video, Shapiro mentions the fact that two-thirds of all firearm deaths are done by way of suicide. Then, he implies that gun control would do nothing about that because “it is very easy to substitute a method for killing yourself.” Earlier, Shapiro made the point that Democrat mayors run the cities with the worst gun crime. My point would be that Republican governors run the states with the highest rates of suicides (Alaska, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada). Why do people abuse substances and suffer from mental illness more with Republican leaders? Does this prove anything? No. We would have to dig more into the complexity of the issue, something Shapiro would do very bad at.

The last and perhaps the most egregious misuse of data Shapiro engages in is when he cites findings by Richard Florida to serve his narrative and prove he is not very logical. Shapiro says,

“The single strongest predictor of rates of gun deaths by a wide margin is actually race, unfortunately. Okay. Richard Florida writes, the share of the population that is black is positively related to both the overall rate of gun death, and more so, gun-related homicide. Now, let it be noted, I am not suggesting that black people are inherently more likely to kill each other because that would be stupid and racist. What I am suggesting is that culture has a high likelihood of causing homicide and culture differs. Okay. You can look in poor white communities, there’s a higher rate of homicide there as well.”

There’s so many logical fallacies in this paragraph you could teach a critical thinking course off of it. First off, he tries to explain a correlation between the share of the population that is black and the gun-related death rate. Shapiro says he is not suggesting that black people are inherently more likely to kill each other but that culture has a high likelihood of causing homicide. This is ridiculous reasoning. Its almost as valuable as saying, “I am not suggesting that white males are inherently more likely to get in fights with each other, but I am suggesting that words have a high likelihood of causing someone to fight. And words differ. There are fighting words” Shapiro not only fails to demonstrate how culture can cause homicide but Shapiro fails to even define what he means by culture. Does he mean black culture? And what would he mean by that? I don’t know but we would have to accept the premise as true (culture can cause a higher likelihood of homicide) in order for his conclusion to be true (culture can explain the correlation). This is logically fallacious and what we call “begging the question.” Now, there is a implicit premise at the end of this quote. Shapiro says that there is a higher homicide rate in poor white communities as well, which implies this culture is just poverty or low-income areas. But, then this argument really falls apart because then his original claim should have been about a correlation between poverty and homicide and that a plausible explanation for the correlation between the black population and gun-related crime could be that black people tend to disproportionately live in poverty.

The reason this argument falls short is because Shapiro commits one of the most basic fallacies which is correlation implies causation. This is interesting because Shapiro cites findings from Richard Florida to support his claim. When I went and read the article from Richard Florida that Ben refers to, Florida is careful to point out that correlation does not equal causation. Richard Florida has a few analyses on gun deaths I could find. Two state-level analyses and one metro-level analysis. And each one seems to be the same: they find several key factors that are associated with gun deaths overall. The problem is Shapiro tries to extrapolate reasons from mere associations. In fact, there are many associations that Florida found that would contradict Shapiro’s anti-gun control narrative. Florida found, “our previous state level analysis found gun deaths to be significantly lower in states with stricter gun control laws. We found substantial negative correlations between the rate of gun deaths and states that ban assault weapons, require trigger locks, and mandate safe storage requirements for guns.” Florida continues, “My colleagues and I did, however, find gun deaths to be higher in states with higher levels of poverty and lower incomes, as well as in red states and those with more blue-collar working class economies.” Now, why would Shapiro leave out significant findings from Richard Florida that would contradict his beliefs? Shapiro had to stipulate that he was not suggesting black people are genetically predisposed to killing each other because that would be “stupid and racist.” However, I would argue cherry-picking one correlation about black males because it supports your worldview while ignoring major findings from the analysis you cited because they do not support your worldview was stupid and racist.

But, really Ben Shapiro does not even care to explore the actual arguments that gun control advocates make. If he did, he wouldn’t make the silly argument that children are more likely to die from your medicine cabinet than a school shooting. This is a complete non-sequitur. The fact that there are ways in which children are more likely to die than guns does not logically lead to the conclusion that gun control policy should not be attempted. Advocates of gun control wouldn’t deny that there are ways that children are more likely to be killed other than guns. But Shapiro ignores the argument that advocates of gun control would offer which is that the vast majority of children killed by firearms in the developed world live in the U.S. I mean, this is like someone asking me, “why do you stop your kids from playing outside during a bad typhoon? C’mon you’re kids are more likely to die falling down a flight a stairs than die from a flood!” I would respond with, “well, maybe, but these two things have nothing to do with each other. We should attempt to protect our kids from more than one danger at the same time, especially if they pose an immediate threat of death.” It seems he cannot honestly engage with this topic for anything!

So you might be wondering why Shapiro abuses statistics and misrepresents his opponent’s positions? Well, I can only speculate. But he did write a book on how to debate leftists and destroy them. He is only concerned with victory in debate, not logical argumentation or facts even. He also wrote an article about all the wrong, bigoted things he’s done and said during his career and its safe to say that list will never be exhaustive either. I am not even a strong gun control advocate but I could not stand how dishonest Shapiro was in presenting this. If anything, I wrote this one the give my fellow leftists some better armor to deal with conservative nonsense and demonstrate that most of their arguments are not really logical or based in reality. I can only hope we will collectively debate and shatter these arguments with the precision I know we posses, and unlike a hope that Shapiro can make a sound argument, I am actually optimistic about it.

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