Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, July 23, 2012

I guess I need to say something about this . . .

I'm usually reluctant to write on the topic du jour, unless I can truly claim some special expertise or insight. In this case I suppose I have just a little.

The homicide rate in the U.S. has declined by a lot over the past 30 years, believe it or not. Social scientists aren't sure of the reasons. It partly has to do with demographics -- young men are the most likely to commit homicides and they constitute a smaller proportion of the population. But that's not the whole story.

Nevertheless, we're still a particularly violent country. On average, more than 44 people are murdered in the United States every day. Every day. That means 12 extra people barely makes a blip. It's within the range of normal variation.

But, as I have discussed here many times, people's perception of the seriousness of an event or the magnitude of a risk is profoundly affected by factors that aren't necessarily part of what an insurance actuary would call rational calculus. In this case, specifically, when a bunch of casualties happen all at once, as part of the same event, we take much more notice. That's why, as I have said too many times, we pay a lot more attention to commercial airline crashes than to motor vehicle crashes, even though the latter kill anywhere from 70 or 1,000 times as many to infinitely more people in any given year.

We also don't pay a lot of attention to the everyday carnage because it usually happens for familiar reasons -- robbery, rape, revenge against specific persons. These shooting sprees that target people chosen at random are much more frightening because they are unfamiliar.

They often seem inexplicable as well. I checked in with the news on Friday only because I wanted to  know if there was any indication of motive. Thank the FSM there is no evident political motive for the crime in Colorado. That would have produced a category 4 hurricane of gasbaggery.

I think it's fine that people want to have an adult conversation about regulation of weapons but it's a waste of time -- that's just going nowhere right now so we need to worry about other problems. Sorry, just giving you the facts, just the facts.

These incidents also provoke conversations about mental health services. It is true that access to services is inadequate for many people, but in a free society, it's very problematic to force people to get services they don't want. Viz. the Virginia Tech shooter, who was apparently ordered to get treatment but didn't do it. People recognized that the Tucson shooter who attacked Rep. Giffords needed help, but there wasn't much anybody could do to make him get it. The latest wacko was evidently flying under the radar, although the entire neuroscience program at UC has clammed up, so we can't be sure. That does suggest they are afraid of being accused of inaction, but apparently the police have asked them to keep mum as well.

So what we are left with, as far as I'm concerned:

The human brain is an extremely complicated apparatus, and it can malfunction in spectacular ways. We know that traumatic and abusive childhood environments are one cause, but sometimes it happens for entirely unknown reasons. That's just the way it is, pending major advances in, ironically, neuroscience. Fortunately, events such as this are rare, but: in a society in which deadly technology is readily available to everyone, individuals who run amok can do more damage than they could in the days of the muzzle loader.

Our worries are often disproportionate to our real problems and risks.

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