Reading between the lines

This article on shows why one must dig deeper, 14 paragraphs deeper in this case, than just the headlines.

The article’s headline is “First on CNN: Guns used by LA deputies put officers, public at risk, report says”. This is followed by a picture of the new handgun with the caption “The Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm was introduced to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 2013. The following year, accidental discharges in the field shot up by more than 500%.”.

Wow… 500%?! They must be dropping like flies in L.A. County! Of course, the question a reader should ask is “500% of what?”. 14 paragraphs later, we learn that it’s 500% of 3. Accidental discharges by LASD deputies increased from 3 to 19 in 2014. 12 paragraphs in we learn that the guns were issued to ~6100 deputies. So put another way, ADs increased from .05% of deputies to .3%.

So where does the problem lie with this story? “500” is more interesting number than “19” or “.3”. 500, even with the percent symbol following it, is perceived as a large number; 19 is not. .3% is even smaller to our minds. However, it’s the “larger” number, 500, that gets seen first by the reader. This creates a cognitive bias called anchoring or focalism in the reader: I saw a really big number, therefore LASD guns must be going off like firecrackers at a Chinese New Year’s parade. Dig deeper and you see that the report is fretting about a very slight increase; one that is probably hard to read above the statistical noise. (The next question to ask is “How do LASD’s accidental discharges vary from year to year?”. If they bounce up and down a lot, then an increase from 3 to 19 becomes less spectacular than CNN would have you believe.)

We see this type of attempt to exploit anchoring bias often in reporting about firearms. Recent reporting about “mass shootings” in the US would have the reader believe that these are an everyday occurrence; that one would be safer strolling the streets of Mogadishu than any place in America. This isn’t true and even Mother Jones, hardly an NRA front, says that it isn’t true. One popular and widely cited website claims that there have been 381 such shootings in the US this year; Mother Jones says there have been 4. But once the big number, 381, gets put out there, the bias is set. “It’s a really big problem” part of the reader’s subconscious decides. “4” causes the opposite response; the “wrong” response.

A related phenomenon is the Availability heuristic. We judge things to be more common if we hear about them more often. Thus repeated news stories about the same incident make that sort of incident seem more common. Read 10 reports about the same event, and part of your mind thinks that it saw 10 reports on 10 events. Thus when a new event is reported, that same part of your mind counts it as number 11, not number 2. The same bias is seen when the AR-15 is repeatedly called a “high powered assault weapon”. We gunnuts snicker at that definition, but gun muggles don’t understand why we do. In fact, we risk coming off as callous and uncaring if we don’t explain why we’re laughing at that kind of reporting. As far as the gun muggle is concerned, it must be a high powered assault weapon because they’ve heard it a thousand times. “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.”

Our job as gun owners is to debunk that sort of myth. Each gun owner needs to be a walking for his or her gun muggle friends.

(For the visiting gun muggles, the AR-15 commonly fires the 5.56X45mm cartridge. This is a mid-powered round. It has more energy than a pistol round, but far less than that of a common hunting round like the .30-06. This is why we’re snickering.)