Current Events

How to Learn From a Tragedy

For a great many people, it is simply not enough to mourn the losses in the Newtown massacre. They want to think about preventative measures, to figure out how to stop these events from happening in the future. I too am interested in prevention but I want to avoid a lot of the unseemly ideological reactions to the killing, in particular the instant reaction that the right way to solve the problem is through legislation.

So here’s my contribution. Like most of my co-bloggers, I’m a political philosopher and policy dabbler so I thought I’d share my thoughts on how to learn from tragedies like the Newtown massacre so as to effectively stop such events from happening in the future. I think these nine steps, if followed, would help us to make real progress.

Step One: Calm Down.

The Newtown massacre is a nightmare. You’re right to be upset about it. But don’t let your grief or fury determine your thinking. Making decisions based on raw emotion is often a bad idea and it is an even worse idea when it comes to politics. Politics makes us stupid most of the time. Also remember one of the great lessons of 9-11: making policy based on emotional rage and ignorance can be a complete disaster. The American response to 9-11 was horrific, making us no safer, wasting trillions of dollars and losing hundreds of thousands of lives.

Step Two: Get the Facts. 

We don’t know a lot about what led to Adam Lanza’s decision to kill his mother, several adult educators and twenty little children. We don’t know much about his family life or about his relationship with his mother. We don’t know a lot about him at all, actually. So before determining what to do, we need to get the facts about Lanza’s motivations, insofar as we can.

Second, we need to get the facts about the frequency of such mass shootings, and the kinds of events, circumstances, character traits, family history, firearm access that correlate with these mass killings. Some bloggers have started to put the facts together, but there’s still a lot to know. If you want to learn from this tragedy, wait until the facts come in.

Step Three: Avoid Bias.

Avoid bias if you can, two in particular: availability and ideological bias.

The availability heuristic is a cognitive mechanism people use to make probabilistic judgments based largely on cases that come to mind. For many ordinary decisions, the availability heuristic works well. But it’s bad for making policy because policy applies to millions of people and will affect millions of events. We should not make policy decisions based on a single case. So when learning from this tragedy, try to set the availability heuristic aside and determine the frequency of this event in comparison to the frequency of other terrible events.

Ideological bias occurs when you let predetermined views about your values, empirical judgments and the like get in the way of properly assessing evidence. Unlike many, I don’t think holding an ideology is morally problematic. But be careful that your ideology doesn’t make you insensitive to good reasoning. This is really very hard.

Step Four: Enumerate Causes. 

The next step is to enumerate the potential causes for the tragedy in question. Undoubtedly one necessary condition for the Newtown massacre was that Adam Lanza had access to powerful weapons. But there are a great many other necessary conditions, among them some form of (so far undetermined) mental illness. I imagine family conflict was also a necessary condition, as early reports indicate that he did not handle his parents’ divorce well. I’d also bet that his moral views and desensitization to violence via computer or video games were (mild) necessary conditions as well. I also suspect some neurochemical imbalance was at work, perhaps via a change of medication or a cessation.

But what do I know? I don’t have all the facts. So remember, completing step four requires a successful completion of step two.

Step Five: Consider the Evidence for Blocking the Causes. 

Suppose we decide that the salient necessary condition for Lanza’s actions was his access to handguns. If so, we need to review the evidence on the correlation between legal firearm access and mass killings, or at least whether the availability of handguns makes mass killings more likely in a statistically significant way.

In completing step five, it is critical not to confuse correlation and causation. Even if more available guns correlates with more mass killing, we cannot easily infer that the former caused the latter. Perhaps both are caused by a more general “culture of violence” that would have led Lanza to kill anyway.

Step Six: Ask Whether Coercion Is Required.

One thing that progressives and conservatives can learn from classical liberals is the plain truth that coercion sucks, both morally and economically. In many cases the use of legal coercion is ineffective and usually requires pushing people around. If we can avoid using coercion to solve an important problem, we probably should. So if we can reduce the likelihood of future shootings via cultural and moral change, then we should prefer these options to the use of coercion.

Step Seven: Outline and Rank Proposals (Include Opportunity Costs).

At some point, we will need a list of proposals for solving the problem. We will then need to generate a ranking and determine which policy is most worth the effort. Some proposals will require changes in customs and moral conventions, while others will involve changing laws or policies at various levels of government.

In determining your ranking, please consider opportunity costs. Legislation usually has significant costs, some of which are hard to identify and anticipate. On the other hand, moral change is much slower and harder to bring about.

Step Eight: Discuss With Others. Be Civil.

You’re not that smart, particularly when it comes to making policy. So make sure to share your thinking with others you respect to check for errors. If you disagree with others, make sure to be civil. The point of discussion is not to “win” the argument but rather to figure out whether your reasoning is sound.

Step Nine: Advocate.

If you’ve followed steps one through eight, you have learned from a tragedy and have a high degree of justification for the beliefs formed in the process. So you’re ready to advocate for your preferred norm change.

I know most people don’t have time to complete steps one through eight. In fact, most people don’t even know how to complete them. So in most cases, people will have to rely extensively on testimony from trusted sources to determine which norm alteration to endorse. If you do, you should be especially sure that your sources are trustworthy and smart. Make sure they’re providing you with good information and that you aren’t agreeing with them merely due to ideological bias.

Conclusion: Learning from Tragedy is Hard.

Learning from a tragedy is pretty difficult. There are many potential pitfalls. But if you really care about the children who died, you’ll try to avoid ideology, ignorance and incivility in figuring out how to respond. When it comes to a policy response to Newtown, I’m not going to make up my mind for a while. Maybe you shouldn’t either.

  • Larry

    Well-written and thoughtful. Thanks for sharing.

  • Great article! More people need to follow this process, or one that is similar, instead of: getting emotional, making decisions and advocating based on that.

  • The problem that you pose may be much harder than you think. As someone who has taught forensic psychology, I can make a really good guess at what the investigators are going to conclude. From what I know of Lanza so far, he fits the classic profile of a psychopath/rampage killer. In his 20s, lives with his mother, a loner, few friends, such a “quiet boy.” Oh yeah, classic. What are the implications of that? The experts in this field believe that psychopathy has a genetic influence. Someone incapable of empathy. The environmental factors that factor in (in the case of rampage killing) are mostly in the family environment–things like authoritarian fathers, unstable mothers, etc. Not video games, not access to guns per se. So none of the band-aids the politicians are desperately calling for are relevant. No surprise there. But preventing the killings? We are not even close to figuring out how to deal with such events. The rehabilitative psychological interventions that I know of have had no effect.

    I really have no idea what would be helpful. IMO legislation wouldn’t do a damn bit of good against this kind of person; not any legislation we would allow in a democratic country. How do we even go about detecting such people? There might be ways but not easy ones and what do we do if we think some kid is a psychopath (and it’s not always that easy to pick up on without invading privacy) How many families would believe that? Denial is never more strong than in families. What kind of intervention would be allowable? We can’t make parents be what they are not, not easily anyway. I’m not sure what interventions would be helpful with a psychopath, regardless of what Simon Baron-Cohen says.

    Psychopaths who become killers do sometimes give clues earlier in their lives but no sure bet there. We can’t closely watch every kid who is cruel to animals, for example. Maybe more education among teachers might help. Watch for warning signs. The guy who did the spree killing at Virginia Tech left all sorts of clues before he went on his rampage. The psychiatrist he saw ignored the warnings signs and gave him a clean bill of health. beats me why he did that. But then, even if we think the guy is off, what is permissible in a democratic society? I don’t have any easy answers. I just know that legislation is so far removed from the source that it will be of virtually no use at all, at least the legislation being considered now.

    There just aren’t any easy answers and the people who want them or promote them, let me be blunt here, are ignorant fools or opportunists.

    • Rob Gressis

      I think it’s a matter of their being opportunists more than ignorant fools. For advocates of gun control, the major issue is not massacres, but the thousands of people in the USA who die from gun violence every year (I’ve read 16,000, though who knows if that’s right).

      Now, a lof of people think that the proper political response to the massacre is gun control, so if you think gun control would be effective in reducing the 16,000 deaths, then it makes sense that you’d want to ride the wave of understandable indignation.

      That said, it does seem to me that if all guns save for hunting rifles were banned, and all citizens’ houses were raided, searched, and stripped of their guns, and the seized guns were destroyed, then it would indeed be harder for at least some mentally disturbed people to get guns, and so it would be harder for them to commit violence.

      Of course, it’s pretty unrealistic, or so it seems to me, that anything like the above could happen in the USA. And I’m not sure that it would be a great idea for it to happen, either.

      • Sean II

        I go back and forth on that myself. In some moments, I think : “How dare these guys use a coffin for a soapbox, how dare they reduce this complex thing down to a talking point, and how dare they try to push through some legislation now, in the heat of popular panic.” In other moments I think just what you said: “Well, if they sincerely believe this is the cause and they have the solution, then why wouldn’t they be screaming loud as they can.”

        My disgust comes from the fact that they are far too confident in their proposals, and far too willing to appeal to emotion instead of reason. But my empathy comes from the fact that I, too, know what it is to desperately hope that the public might at long last be persuaded to see things as I do. It’s not much of a stretch for a libertarian, to understand that feeling.

      • It’s my understanding that most gun murders in the US are felon to felon. Not quite the assault on innocents that many people imagine. Also Jim Peron of the Moorfield Storey Institute has an article with stats to show that many countries with low-gun ownership rates have higher murder rates than the US. See James Peron’s Facebook page or the Moorfield Storey site or my FB page tomorrow for a link to this article.

        • Rob Gressis

          Even felon to felon murders are quite unfortunate.

          As for the link between gun control and the murder rate, I agree that it’s probably very complicated, and not easy to pin down.

          That said, the thought experiment I imagined was INCREDIBLY unrealistic, and I only threw it out there to give an example of a situation that, intuitively at least, would probably reduce gun violence. It could be, though, that I’m wrong, and in that situation, the murder rate would go up; that said, I bet the massacre rate would go down, and that seems to be the main concern for most people who are talking about this right now.

    • Sean II

      Indeed. The foolery and opportunism are sufficiently obvious that I really am surprised more people aren’t outraged by them.

      The specific fear I have is what happens when scared but otherwise decent people fall under the spell to those fools and opportunists. As we sit here, talking heads are blathering on every TV station, newspaper, and blog about the need to be vigilant against the menace of smart, socially withdrawn loners.

      Of the people who superficially fit that description, maybe 1 in 100 are seriously mentally ill. Of those, maybe 1 in another 100 are ever going to commit a violent crime. And of those in turn, only 1 in some really huge number are ever going to commit a violent crime on the scale of Columbine, Newton, or Aurora.

      Even if the mental health industry had a clearly defined phenotype for things like this (they don’t), and even if there was some kind of diagnostic test (there isn’t), and even if there were no legal or moral reasons to prevent us from inflicting such tests on “red flag” people without compelling probable cause (there damn well should be such reasons), we would still end up unleashing a minor witch hunt.

      The reason is this: if there are 1,000,000 smart troubled loners in American and only 100 of them will go active shooter in given lifetime, then even a test that was 85% accurate would fail to detect 15 shooters while falsely accusing 150,000 people. (Meanwhile, anyone who developed a test in psychiatry or psychology that came anywhere close to 85% accuracy would not only win a Nobel Prize, he’d probably have the prize named after him from now on.)

      We can count the victims in Newton precisely enough, but in the wake of things like this, there is no way to quantify the subtle little pogrom that takes place against all those office oddballs and schoolyard outcasts who, having been ignored a week ago, are now closely watched with pundit-approved suspicion.

      These are the twitchy days when strange, unpopular and totally harmless kids in small towns we’ll never read about get sent into court-ordered therapy for yelling “I’ll show you! You’ll be sorry!” during a playground shoving match.

      The thought of that makes me sad for the near future, when I should be busy feeling sad about the recent past.

      • The profile of a psychopath involves more than merely being a “smart troubled loner.” For example cruelty to other kids and to animals in not unusual. Seriously dysfunctional families are another common factor. While it may be true that there is no one list of factors that is true of all psychopaths, there are in fact some common patterns. And it’s not true that there is no diagnostic test. There is. it’s called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. To say, therefore, that we can’t spot potential problem kids is not true. And to say that we can’t catch all of them doesn’t mean we should simply throw up our hands and give up. The real question is what to do with the ones who seem seriously troubled. *This* is the truly hard problem, much more than spotting kids who are troubled.
        While I agree that a witch hunt is not desirable, to simply say nothing can be done is not very useful. Unfortunately in the current climate, it may be true that kids who are not problematic are sometimes caught in the net. That needs to be countered. But simply throwing up our hands is not the answer either. Not when you find kids that torture animals. You don’t walk away from that.
        BTW your use of the term “mentally ill” is not really appropriate. Psychologists rarely use that term, for starters. The more appropriate terms is “mental disorder.” But more importantly, psychopaths are not exactly “ill.” They are not psychotic. They have a personality disorder. Which means traits that are pervasive parts of their personality that are dysfunctional and lasting. Personality disorders are the hardest of any category in the DSM to treat because they are integral parts of the person’s personality. And they do know right from wrong; they just don’t care.

        • Sean II

          That checklist is not a test within the meaning I intended, and there is a very real danger of confusion or deception on this point.

          When people think of health care practitioners running diagnostic tests, they think of someone observing steptococcus under a microscope, or measuring hemoglobin to a certain level of grams per deciliter, or using PET imaging to rule out myeloma, etc.

          So when people hear that another category of health care practitioners called psychiatrists or psychologists are running a different set of diagnostic tests with results that sound like “subject scored 23 on a multi-factor psycho-diagnostic assessment battery. According to currents standards of care the next step is…”, they think “Wow, that sounds impressively scientific. These tests must be just like the tests you get from an internist.”

          If they had any idea that the kind of test you’re talking about involves the assignment of quantitive values to vague attributes like “glibness”, “impulsivity” and “behavior problems”…they’d be asking for a refund loud and quick. It’s not like these things become any less subjective or context-dependent, just because someone came up with a scheme for putting numbers on them. That’s more like cargo cultism than it is science.

          Look…provided all your instruments are in good working order, and assuming you had a sample large enough, you could take blood from a patient and send 10 little purple-stoppered test tubes to 10 different labs in 5 different countries, and you’d get back 10 copies of a blood count identical within a stable and predictable margin of error.

          Be honest, though: if I took the Hare “test” and sent 10 copies to 10 different practitioners, it’s entirely possible I’d get back 10 different scores. To give just one example for fun: my own record of “juvenile delinquency” as an Irish catholic kid growing up in a wealthy suburb would seem edgy and menacing to a older white conservative female who practices up in British Columbia. I doubt a 29 year black man who grew up in East St. Louis and now serves a patient population under criminal justice supervision would be much impressed.

          If those two can’t look at my responses and give me the same score, then whatever it is…it’s not a scientific test.

          • Apparently you are unaware that tests like the Hare Psychopathy Checklist go through stringent standardization and testing before they are used. They may not be exact as testing blood but such tests are not made up through voodoo. You obviously have no idea how it is scored, because it is not a subjective observational test and the scoring is also standardized. If you want to call the tests of research psychologists trained in the scientific method “cargo cultism,” you are an ill-formed snob and I have nothing else to say to you. I strongly suggest that you don’t talk about what you know nothing about.

          • Sean II

            Sharon, please! This time, even more than usual, you’ve really run afoul of the old heuristic which teaches us that the first party to start mixing raw insults into an argument is bound to have the losing end of it.

            If there really is a way to standardize and measure traits like “sense of grandiosity” and “lack of remorse”, then there must be a way for you to explain how the scale works. Simply piling up adjectives like “stringent” and “standardized” and “rigorous” and “trained” won’t do. Trying to provoke me by calling my an ignorant snob and telling me to just stop talking about topics in which you claim (but refuse to demonstrate) expertise, that will do even less.

            If you have an answer to my criticisms, then answer them. If there is a real test to detect psychopathy, then say what it is and how it works.

            This “I have nothing more to say to you, good day sir!” routine is fooling no one.

    • Devon Sanchez

      “The maintenance of a free society is a very difficult and complicated thing. And it requires a self-denying ordinance of the most extreme kind. It requires a willingness to put up with temporary evils on the basis of the subtle and sophisticated understanding that if you step in to try to do something about them, you not only may make them worse, but you will spread your tentacles and get bad results elsewhere.” –Milton Friedman

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  • Cynthia

    Adam Lanza’s mother was going to put him in a psychiatric hospital because she was afraid of him..when he found this out he became angry & shot her eventually. He then directed his anger toward the school she worked at because he hated her going there, he was jealous of the attention she was giving the children at Sandy Hook School so he took his wrath out with the students & teachers. He was an evil seed ..a sociopath…you could see it in his eyes.

    • I don’t find this the least bit amusing. Mocking a disaster like this is in the worst of taste.

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