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Fear of scientific knowledge about firearm-related injuries.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the United States, a significant amount of scientific research is funded through governmental agencies, using public money. Presumably, this is not primarily aimed at keeping scientists employed and off the streets*, but rather is driven by a recognition that reliable knowledge about how various bits of our world work can be helpful to us (individually and collectively) in achieving particular goals and solving particular problems.

Among other things, this suggests a willingness to put the scientific knowledge to use once it’s built.** If we learn some relevant details about the workings of the world, taking those into account as we figure out how best to achieve our goals or solve our problems seems like a reasonable thing to do — especially if we’ve made a financial investment in discovering those relevant details.

And yet, some of the “strings” attached to federally funded research suggest that the legislators involved in approving funding for research are less than enthusiastic to see our best scientific knowledge put to use in crafting policy — or, that they would prefer that the relevant scientific knowledge not be built or communicated at all.

A case in point, which has been very much on my mind for the last month, is the way language in appropriations bills has restricted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funds for research related to firearms.

The University of Chicago Crime Lab organized a joint letter (PDF) to the gun violence task force being headed by Vice President Joe Biden, signed by 108 researchers and scholars, which is very clear in laying out the impediments that have been put on research about the effects of guns. They identify the crucial language, which is still present in subsection c of section 503 and 218 of FY2013 Appropriations Act governing NIH and CDC funding:

None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.

As the letter from the Crime Lab rightly notes,

Federal scientific funds should not be used to advance ideological agendas on any topic. Yet that legislative language has the effect of discouraging the funding of well-crafted scientific studies.

What is the level of this discouragement? The letter presents a table comparing major NIH research awards connected to a handful of conditions between 1973 and 2012, noting the number of reported cases of these conditions in the U.S. during this time period alongside the number of grants to study the condition. There were 212 NIH research awards to study cholera and 400 reported U.S. cases of cholera. There were 56 NIH research awards to study diphtheria and 1337 reported U.S. cases of diphtheria. There were 129 NIH research awards to study polio and 266 reported U.S. cases of polio. There were 89 NIH research awards to study rabies and 65 reported U.S. cases of rabies. But, for more than 4 million reported firearm injuries in the U.S. during this time period, there were exactly 3 NIH research awards to study firearm injuries.

One possibility here is that, from 1973 to 2012, there were very few researchers interested enough in firearm injuries to propose well-crafted scientific studies of them. I suspect that that the 108 signatories of the letter linked above would disagree with that explanation for this disparity in research funding.

Another possibility is that legislators want to prevent the relevant scientific knowledge from being built. The fact that they have imposed restrictions on the collection and sharing of data by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (in particular, data tracing illegal sales and purchases of firearms) strongly supports the hypothesis that, at least when it comes to firearms, legislators would rather be able to make policy unencumbered by pesky facts about how the relevant pieces of the world actually work.

What this suggests to me is that these legislators either don’t understand that knowing more about how the world works can help you achieve desired outcomes in that world, or that they don’t want to achieve the outcome of reducing firearm injury or death.

Perhaps these legislators don’t want researchers to build reliable knowledge about the causes of firearm injury because they fear it will get in the way of their achieving some other goal that is more important to them than reducing firearm injury or death.

Perhaps they fear that careful scientific research will turn up facts which themselves seem to “to advocate or promote gun control” — at least to the extent that they show that the most effective way to reduce firearm injury and death would be to implement controls that the legislators view as politically unpalatable.

If nothing else, I find that a legislator’s aversion to scientific evidence is a useful piece of information about him or her to me, as a voter.
______
*If federal funding for research did function like a subsidy, meant to keep the researchers employed and out of trouble, you’d expect to see a much higher level of support for philosophical research. History suggests that philosophers in the public square with nothing else to keep them busy end up asking people lots of annoying questions, undermining the authority of institutions, corrupting the youth, and so forth.

**One of the challenges in getting the public on board to fund scientific research is that they can be quite skeptical that “basic research” will have any useful application beyond satisfying researchers’ curiosity.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Alain0209 3:10 am 01/18/2013

    OK, in the following sentence, quoted from above : “None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control”, can we, as an experiment, replace “gun” by “alcohol”, or “tobacco” ?
    How many people would agree with the reformulated sentence ?

    Link to this
  2. 2. David Marjanović 8:22 am 01/18/2013

    Perhaps they fear that careful scientific research will turn up facts which themselves seem to “to advocate or promote gun control” — at least to the extent that they show that the most effective way to reduce firearm injury and death would be to implement controls that the legislators view as politically unpalatable.

    “Reality? Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

    How many people would agree with the reformulated sentence ?

    I’m not sure what your point is.

    Link to this
  3. 3. holtza 2:20 pm 01/18/2013

    The NRA clearly announced in advance its intent to prevent public agencies from studying firearm violence. See this CNN series on violence as a public health issue that aired in 1992. An NRA representative directly attacked scientists attempting to study firearm violence: http://holtzreport.com/ViolenceSeriesGunMay1992.html

    Link to this
  4. 4. bucketofsquid 3:26 pm 01/18/2013

    I wonder how fast gun control would pass if the people advocating it would make more dramatic and thoroughly illegal examples of the dangers of unregistered guns and automatic or semi-automatic weapons by hunting NRA extremists and federal level legislators.

    Guns aren’t my weapon of choice but it isn’t the gun that causes most injuries. It is the crazy or careless person with the gun that needs to be controlled. A determined crazy can kill you with a spoon. A spoon doesn’t let them slaughter 20 children at a time but they can still kill 20 children at 20 different times if they are smart and careful nut jobs.

    Link to this
  5. 5. denisosu 3:48 pm 01/18/2013

    From a moral point of view, you and I are totally aligned (I suspect). I very much favour using science to inform decisions and policies, and I’m also not a fan of guns.

    It is great that you have brought this absurd piece of legislation to light, and hopefully this will lead to some action being taken…

    But I can’t agree with your analysis here – and it’s important, because the right solution involves addressing the right objection.

    To my mind, “legislators” are doing their best, and very few of them would want to prevent the development of scientific knowledge. The issue is: they needed to make sure that all these studies get funded. And if there is a significant group of senators who are opposed to gun-control and who fear that the money approved could end up being used to support gun control (which, let’s face it, would be a highly effective way of saving lives), then they probably blocked the legislation until this phrase was included. (you seen similar examples with donations to hospitals which may not be used to support abortions …)

    So, instead of blanket blaming the legislators, there are two options here:
    1. can we not all (even the NRA) agree that studies which find better ways to treat victims of gun violence are not “promoting gun control”, and so enable some studies to take place?
    2. can we ask why so many legislators (but not all) are so behoven to the NRA that they feel they have to insist on exceptions like this? Would be interesting to review the NRA-contributions to those who worked on this bill …

    Link to this
  6. 6. M Tucker 4:53 pm 01/18/2013

    “If nothing else, I find that a legislator’s aversion to scientific evidence is a useful piece of information about him or her to me, as a voter.”

    Yep, and yet there are a lot of other voters who select representative who do find scientific evidence so inconvenient, so at odds with their ideology, so dangerous to the “authority of institutions,” that it cannot be tolerated. It cannot be allowed. It must be demonized and eliminated. We have been living in that world for something like 20 or 30 years now and it is only getting worse.

    Remember Socrates!

    Link to this
  7. 7. Alain0209 4:40 am 01/19/2013

    To David (comment #2)
    My point was that
    1) I assume a vast majority of american people would agree with “None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote XXX control” where XXX is alcohol, explosives or tobacco, but not gun.
    2) I found this strange, as all these are managed (or regulated?) by the same Federal Bureau.
    Same rules on research use should apply to all topics, including firearms. But indeed, facts have a liberal bias.

    Link to this

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