Proving Yourself Wrong About Things You Think You’re Right About

By Christopher Duston

This is a story about hypothesis and fact-checking on the gun-violence debate. And about how proving you are wrong about something is better the thinking you are right.

I was listening to an interview on NPR with Jack Levin, a sociologist and criminologist from Northwestern Northeastern University in Boston. He commented that there are not very many similarities between the shooters in these mass killings, making it hard for policy-makers to target the problem. However, he said most of them had some kind of “history of depression.” I did not verify the accuracy of that statement, but that suddenly made sense to me – it is at least believable that citizens in a 21st century United States face new social, economic, and technological challenges that could increase the rate of depression.

The details of this depression-link (if it even exists) would be very complicated, but if we claim that it is because of some kind of major change in our society, we should look for an indicator that detects such large scale phenomena. In other words, it can’t just be the growing income gap that is causing us to unleash outlandish violence against each other.

So we need something that will measure the “total health of a society”; such things exist, for instance the Legatum Prosperity Index (LPI), which takes into account various factors such as economy, healthcare, and personal freedom. This seems like something that would track what I’m interested in, since the basic claim is that there are a number of different factors, which together contribute to an increase in gun violence.

And, the great thing about the LPI is that Wikipedia lists the top 30 (and bottom 20) countries for the years 2012-2008. You don’t need a degree in criminology or a class in statistics to look at numbers.

We want to compare to gun violence rates; again, Wikipedia helps! You can get the firearm-related death rate (per 100,000 population). You can even sort it. (Although, this is ALL firearm-related deaths; I am not isolating mass shootings. In this case, Wikipedia’s entries are so detailed that broad categorization is hard).

So, with the most basic data analysis software you can imagine (Google Docs), I made a spreadsheet of the LPI rank of each country and their firearm-related death rate. I was already writing my segment as a guest on Rachael Maddow…but then I made the plot. Well I was wrong. As you can see, there is zero correlation between the LPI rank and firearm-related deaths.


But this doesn’t mean we didn’t learn anything. The LPI is not a discriminating enough tool; my interpretation is therefore that gun violence is not connected to “quality of life,” broadly defined. Of course, there are all kinds of other possibilities, but this is a simple analysis, and so I restrict myself to simple (and imprecise) statements.

I’m not saying there is a complete lack of analyses out there about the violent nature of the United States – I won’t do a literature search, but good people certainly work on the problem. However, with the democratization of data, we need to acknowledge that no one should be allowed to get away with statements that are not backed up by at least a minimum of quantitative analysis. This analysis took me about 35 minutes. I just came up with something I thought was brilliant, hopped over to Wikipedia to mine some data, plotted it using a FREE online service, and proved myself wrong. Study over.

Police yourself!

PS: One guess as to which blue dot is the U.S. Yup, it’s that one. Yeah, we have less gun violence per capita than the likes of Mexico (LPI rank 61), Brazil (44), and Colombia (69), but that is not the group we should be in.

Christopher Duston is a graduate student in the physics department at Florida State University. His research focuses on mathematical physics and quantum gravity, and he will receive his Ph.D. in May 2013.

5 Responses to Proving Yourself Wrong About Things You Think You’re Right About

  1. Zack says:

    The people who don’t get access to guns… for the most part, just use knives, or molotovs, or other tools to murder.

    If you look at the full homicide rate, yes, we’re above the first world in terms of homicides committed, but vastly below most of the second and third world.

    And, if you look here:

    Click to access 12s0310.pdf

    Black people are disproportionately affected; they are half of all murder victims, yet make up roughly 12% of the population, for a rate roughly 4 times that of white people.

    and they commit homicides at 7 times the rate that white people do, (almost entirely against other black people). Using that 12% number and 300 million as the U.S. population, you come up with a rate for the U.S. white population of 2.5- putting them on par with Luxembourg, and a rate for the U.S. black population of 18.3, or right between Burkina Faso and Guyana, and an aggregate rate of 4.5

    Hispanic statistics are almost impossible to find, but the following may be suggestive:

    If a similar relationship as exists between whites and blacks exists between whites and hispanics, it suggests that hispanics might have a higher homicide rate than the white population.

    If we look at the cause statistics, we get that white people are responsible for most of the gang violence, workplace murders, and sex murders; black people are responsible for most of the murders related to drugs. The two are pretty much evenly balanced for murders based on arguments. Black people commit the majority of firearm homicides, and white people commit the majority of arson murders and the vast majority of poisonings.

    The meaning here is that the U.S. problem is largely cultural. It’s still a significant problem, but the proliferation of guns isn’t the problem. There’s something in the culture of the black community that causes them to end up disproportionately becoming victims and criminals, and that’s what needs to be focused on.

    And I’m certain you’ll find similar problem areas among the white, hispanic, and asian communities as well- and that’s where we should be focusing our attention. We should be focusing on the minority of areas where the majority of the crimes occur, not at the majority of areas where the minority occur.

    Just some thoughts of mine. Hope this helps.

    • Chris says:

      Yeah you are getting to a part of my point; every one of us can check easy-to access data to make our arguments more intelligible. And in fact, your “cultural problem” is basically what I was trying to get at; I just tried an international index since that’s what I knew was out there. I cannot find something like the LPI across minority communities.

      But what I am specifically interested in are comparisons to nations which have a significantly different approaches to governance then we do, and trying to learn from them. Ok people are “prosperous” in Sweden, but on national scales that does not seem to matter as far as gun violence goes. This leads me to believe that the US needs a unique approach to gun violence, one that does not follow from what has generally worked in Europe.

      From my perspective, it’s not at all surprising why minorities in the US are more prone to commit and be victims of gun violence; it sucks to be a minority in the US! Which basically brings me to the same conclusion you have arrived at; I wanted a nation-wide answer, but it would appear that is not the right approach. Policies targeted towards minority communities appear to be the answer, based on how I understand the problem at this point.

  2. […] Data: there is no correlation between firearm deaths and “prosperity index” (by country). […]

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