Guns for Teachers: an appeal to data

I saw this on CNN today, but here is the Huffington Post version: Oregon State Rep. Dennis Richardson: Teachers With Guns Could Have Stopped Connecticut Shooting. The argument is pretty straightforward: we should give guns to teachers so they can stop attackers.

It’s easy to see why Rep. Richardson is getting air time. He has a perfect lightning rod of an argument, seductive to one side and enraging to the other. But I don’t want to take the rhetorical route here. It’s easy, but without data it’s a pointless descent into mud wrestling. The point I want to make is that data can be brought to bear here. My belief is that there is plenty of data that shows that giving guns to the “good guys” results in net harm, not net safety.

I hope we are moving in a direction where we can appeal to data in situations like this. We saw a nice example of this recently on Fox News, of all places. Megyn Kelly grilled Karl Rove about math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better. If that election taught us anything, it’s that hallucinatory math has real consequences.

CNN will continue to interview the Dennis Richardsons of the world. They make for good ratings. But I like to think the appeal of magical thinking in the face of hard data is going to wane. More to the point, I think we have data that this is actually happening.

You’re pretty smart. Just not THAT smart.

Earlier this year I read a book called You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney (I discussed it briefly here). The book steps you through various psychological fallacies that all of us fall prey to at one time or another. Things like confirmation bias and anchoring effects and so on. As you read, you are constantly hammered with the message given in the title: you’re an idiot. The research is interesting, but the premise gets a little wearying. I get it! I’m not so smart.

Much of the research presented in the book is the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. So David McRaney must have been a little disappointed to learn that Daniel Kahneman recently published his own book on our psychological shortcomings. The book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, comes from the veritable horse’s mouth. In it, Kahneman describes the arc of his career developing and promoting the school of behavioral economics. Kahneman’s book, as you might imagine, is more thorough but also much more readable and humane. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Kahneman shows great respect for the rapid and intuitive decision-making apparatus that humans rely on. It sometimes causes spectacular problems, but usually it works incredibly well.

If you study genetic diseases for a while, you start to think that genes exist to cause disease. Similarly, if you make a detailed study the failures of intuitive thinking, you can be forgiven for thinking that intuition is disaster-prone mess. But if it were, how could you possibly be so successful and good-looking?

Turns out you’re pretty smart after all. But you already knew that, right?

Synchronized reading on the Kindle

As a pre-Christmas gift, I got the new Kindle Paperwhite. I’ve had the previous generation Kindle (now it’s called the Kindle Keyboard) for a while and liked it, but the Paperwhite is head and shoulders above it. The Paperwhite is smaller, but between the higher screen resolution and the fact that you don’t have to give any space to a physical keyboard, it doesn’t feel like you’re giving up any reading area. The physical keyboard is replaced by an onscreen virtual keyboard, which is much more pleasant to use. I also prefer turning the page by touching the screen rather than by pushing special buttons on the side of the unit. This is all old news… what I wanted to describe was how nice the automatic synchronization was.

My old Kindle was Wi-Fi only. Getting the 3G phone network option (called WhisperNet) seemed expensive and unnecessary. To download books via Wi-Fi, you only had to be in wireless range with a friendly network. This was no hardship. Since the wireless service burned up the battery, I just switched it off between book downloads and everything was ducky.

But that stopped me from enjoying a nifty feature. Kindle software runs not only on their readers but also on iPads and iPhones and various other devices. So you can pick up reading on one device exactly where you left off reading on the other. It’s surprisingly pleasant, but of course it only works when both devices are on the net. So even though I had the Kindle device, I couldn’t take advantage of this feature because I would always turn the Wi-Fi off right away.

The bottom line is that I wouldn’t have chosen the Paperwhite 3G for myself, but since it was gift, well, there it was. And having always-on connectivity let me take advantage of book synchronization. Now, if I have a few extra minutes while waiting in line somewhere, I can keep reading a book on my iPhone even when the Paperwhite is at home. It’s a simple enough feature, but one of my favorites of the whole Kindle environment.