We Don’t Know if Guns Kill People

In 2013, the Center For Disease Control (CDC) reported:

  • Motor Vehicles accounted for 33,804 American deaths
  • Firearms accounted for 33,636 American deaths

That year, the CDC had an operation budget of $11.2  billion and included  “$137.8 million for injury prevention and control programs that will support efforts to reduce premature deaths, disability, and medical costs associated with injuries and violence.”  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) spent over $600 million to “help States identify their highway safety problems using data, evaluate safety programs and activities, provide technical assistance to State program managers and training on a variety of programmatic subjects.”  The NHTSA has a division dedicated to “implement research programs to continually further the Agency’s goals in reduction of crashes, fatalities, and injuries”.  Based on 2013 research, the NHTSA reported: about 1,630 lives were saved by motorcycle helmets; crashes were not among the top 10 causes of death; the percentage of drivers text-messaging or visibly manipulating handheld devices increased from 1.7 percent in 2013 to 2.2 percent…  And On, and on.

In 2013, the CDC, the only US agency to research gun violence, spent $0 dollars on research into gun violence.  Total injury and death rates were cobbled together by the FBI, local PD, and secondary review sources.  We don’t know if they’re accurate.

File:Blank stare.jpg
¿Are blank stares more deadly than a .22? We dunno

The Dickey Amendment

This dearth of research funding for firearm research is thanks to former Representative Jay Dickey (R-Arkansas) who successfully added language to the 1996 congressional budget quashing all governmental research into firearms.  The Dickey rider states:

None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.

To drive the point home, Congress then reduced the CDC budget by $2.6 million, or the exact amount invested in firearm research the year before.  Scientists took the hint.

For the next 20 years, it was known that putting your name on firearm research was a career blackhole.  Other research agencies were also affected: the National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism budgets were trapped with similar research stipulations suit against firearms research.  Between ’93 and ’99, the US Department of Justice (The National Institute of Justice) conducted 32 fire-arm related studies; they’ve completed none since.  

Research publications on US firearms use and their impact dropped 60% between ’96 and 2010.  In effect, Dickey largely eliminated governmental research into US firearm use.

Courtesy – Creative Commons, David Ohmer

But According to Studies…

In 2014, after the Newtown tragedy— this funding freeze continued.  While President Obama requested $20 million to expand the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System and $10 million for new research, Congress has been largely antagonistic to these efforts.  Some within the CDC are calling for change, but the agency and thus those researchers who rely on it for guidance and funding, still refuse find a way over this third rail of Constitutional politics.

In effect, the public and legislators are reduced to either emotional arguments or biased funding sources.  There is no question this topic is contentious, but without careful research and proper analysis, it’s turned from an empirical question into opinionated chest-beating. Even Jay Dickey, original sponsor of the ’96 rider, wrote in a 2012 Washington Post op-ed piece:

We were on opposite sides of the heated battle 16 years ago but we are in strong agreement now that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries and that ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners.

Billions have been spent to research vehicle safety and use, and yet car owner rights are just as solid and legitimate as ever before.  It’s time for Congress to embrace a scientific minded approach to public safety and allow research into firearm’s use in the US.


Science and Tragedy: A Reminder

Last Friday, I was flying home to Chicago to see my family and celebrate my dad’s 75th birthday.  I was excited, anxious, happy for the the chance to see my fam and the Windy City – maybe get some real pizza  (sorry LA, you have nothing that compares to deepdish).  As Southwest calls group A, a peculiar Twitter tag starts boiling my phone: #ParisAttacks.  I missed my boarding group, barely made it between the doors as they closed, and, for the first time in my life, bought internet service on the airplane – all to follow the news.

This entry won’t be about the attacksDAESH, or the wholly execrable manner some politicians are reacting to the event.  It’s important to talk about the humanitarian, religious, and personal repercussions this event.  In a nominally scientific blog, I could talk about the physics of the weaponry, medicine used for the victims, even the demographic sociology which allows for and creates the US reaction; but I want to talk instead about what binds us together.  The pursuit of Science.

As an American, my education was entrenched in an eurocentric vision of scientific development.  Logic from the Greeks, Physics from Newton, medical advances from the English Enlightenment.  You can’t swing a pendulum without hitting five textbooks gushing about European intellectuals boldly pushing back the borders of ignorance.  These discoveries and bold thinkers are not to be diminished; they are  important and the European Scientific Revolution is not insignificant.

But as a scholar, I must look past my own blinders and boundaries.  A honest scientist’s first meaningful revelation is her limitless ignorance, her need to reach beyond what is comfortable into the disorienting unknown.  So, for a few minutes today, I want to explore a few people living during the Golden Age of Islam.  These men were prophets, scholars, theologians, but above all, scientists.

al-Khwarizmi (780-850BCE), algebra’s progenitor

Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (محمد بن موسى الخوارزمی);  c. 780 – 850 CE.

Often cited as the founder of modern algebra, al-Khwarizmi lived in and around modern Baghdad.  He created many of the modern systems mathematicians use to solve linear and quadratic equations and even the word “algebra” comes from his text which spoke of al-jabr, “restoration”, in reference to adding terms equally to either side of an equation to cancel terms. His treatise “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing” (الكتاب المختصر في حساب الجبر والمقابلة‎ )  was largely responsible for introducing the Hindu-Arabic numeral system to the west which ultimately lead to the modern numeral.  When his text was translated into latin, Algoritmi de numero Indorum, the eponymous shorthand, Algoritmi, become the modern “algorithm”.

Geocentric Solar System – Portugal, 1568. Courtesy Wikimedia

Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Umar ibn al-Husayn at-Taymi al-Bakri at-Tabaristani Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi (أبو عبدالله محمد بن عمر بن الحسن بن الحسين بن علي التيمي البكري فخرالدین الرازی ); c. 1149-1280 CE.

Fascinated with ideas of astronomy and physics, he was a major player in the growth of thought surrounding celestial mechanics.  He was famous for forwarding a multiverse theory which suggested:

a thousand thousand worlds (alfa alfi ‘awalim) beyond this world such that each one of those worlds be bigger and more massive than this world as well as having the like of what this world has of the throne (al-arsh), the chair (al-kursiyy), the heavens (al-samawat) and the earth (al-ard), and the sun (al-shams) and the moon (al-qamar). The arguments of the philosophers (dala’il al-falasifah) for establishing that the world is one are weak, flimsy arguments founded upon feeble premises. (al-Razi, Matalib al-‘Aliya)

While his theories were couched in theologic terms, he roundly rejecting Aristotelian geocentric models, and refuted these theories through observable evidence and logic centuries before Kepler and Galileo were even born.

Human Heart – Courtesy Body Worlds

Ala-al-din abu Al-Hassan Ali ibn Abi-Hazm al-Qarshi al-Dimashqi (علاء الدين أبو الحسن عليّ بن أبي حزم القرشي الدمشقي ) known as Ibn al-Nafis (ابن النفيس ), c. 1213-1288 CE.

A singular mind and voracious scholar, al-Nafis was an expert in literature and jurisprudence as well as being a renowned physician.  An accomplished surgeon, al-Nafis is often cited as the first physician to describe the pulmonary circulation of blood; this position set him against most leading medical minds of the era.  Penning over 112 medical textbooks during his life, he is credited with leading a revolution in the field.

The Science That Binds

And on, and on.  My ignorance of this era of scientific and philosophical discovery is so profound, I can’t even conceive what I don’t know  (which is to say, apologies for anything I’m misrepresenting).  The era after the fall of Rome and before the Renaissance is often referenced as the “Dark Ages”, and nothing could be further from the truth.  It was an age of literacy, thought, and dramatic scientific advance.

As students, scholars, and scientists, we often feel our activities are somehow separate from the political world; that we’re above or beyond petty trifles of mankind.  In a way, this is true:  science has neither hometown nor accent.  But, really, the urge to explain, explore, and engage the universe is the greatest connection humans have.  The scientific method is just a process, a manner to sort and file data; the dynamo behind that process is universally shared human curiosity.   Science has no capital because it’s globally embracing; it has no tongue because we all speak its language.  It’s important to remember, especially at times like this, we are all scientists just looking to understand a little more every day.

Negative Relationship: Religion & Childhood Altruism

Ah, the holiday season approaches.  Around every corner, I find flocked trees, UnChristmas Starbuck cinnamon lattes (big redcup fan, btw), and people in an uproar about their celebration of the Season.  The bitter Lutheran child in me wants to write about the absurdity of the War On Christmas and just wax cranky about the commercialization of the holidays (a tradition hearkening from before the American Civil War).

But, nope.  Not gonna Grinch it up today.  Instead, I want to talk about the dear, lovely children.  ¿Aren’t they adorable?

¿Can you tell I don’t have any kids?

Tight-Fisted Religious Kiddies

If you’re like 84% of the Planet, you either have or had a religious upbringing – with a 65% likelihood of it being either Christian or Muslim.  If that’s the case, a new study suggests you were pretty stingy as a kid.  Alright, not You, of course, but the other 5.8 billion totally were.  According to researchers, in a random sample of 1,170, 5-12 year-olds, those from religious households were less likely to act altruistically and more likely to be judgmentally brusque.  That’s right – the godless heathen-children hold the Season close in their hearts:

“Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous.” Lead author Jean Decety

It’s not just You, It’s Everyone

But, “Hold everything!” shouts every religious parent, “that’s those brats from that other Major World Religion, my kid is an absolute delight!”  Yes, I’m sure she is, so let’s talk about all the rest of them for a moment – they’re abysmal.  The University of Chicago researchers took regional, societal, and cultural consideration in stride and selected children from six countries–Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and the United States–from both within and without the largest global religions (510 Muslim, 280 Christian, and 323 nonreligious children).

In the study (published in Current Biology), Decety et al. gave the children each 10 stickers and then, through advanced techniques in science and sociology (fibbing through their adult teeth), convinced the children to split up their own rewards: one envelope destined for themselves; and one for other children whom they’d never seen.  Kids take note: adults are tricksy and want your stickers.

When all the stickers settled, the researchers found nonreligious children gave, on average, 4.1 stickers while Christian and Muslim children gave away 3.3 and 3.2 stickers, respectively. The effect wasn’t “out-group” motivated either as the children were told the stickers were destined for other children in their same school and ethnic group.  This correlation was found across all the economic, age, cultural, and geographic groups studied.

Little bundles of joy

The researchers found other interesting affectations of religious children, namely they’re far more judgmental and punitive.  The same groups were shown a video of one child hitting another and asked to rate how mean the encounter was and how much punishment should be meted out.  Those children raised in religious households were more likely to condemn the aggressor and demand harsher punishment be levied.  Lotsa stones being thrown from glass treehouses.

Admittedly, this is one study among many, and does nothing to quell the overall discussion or debate regarding the intersection between religion and altruism.  Decety’s focus is on childhood morality and freely admits human ethics evolve and metamorphose as we age into tricksy adults.  All that being said, maybe it’s time to put down our red Starbuckaccino and really contemplate what it means when the holidays roll around.

After all, it’s at this time of year when we’re meant to celebrate the birth of one of the most influential, beneficial, and beautiful men ever to walk the Earth: Isaac Asimov, (b. Jan 2, 1920).

The Jolliest Elf
The Jolliest Elf


You Can’t Run from the Earth

The Oct 26, 2015 earthquake in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan measured a 7.5 moment magnitude (MMs), roughly equivalent to 10.7 megatons of TNT, and left 260 dead and more than 1,800 injured.  Just five months earlier in April a 7.8 earthquake near Nepal, India left almost 9,000 dead and more than 21,000 injured.

Picture of earthquake damage in pakistan
Afghanistan, Oct, 2015.t  Photograph by Basit Gilani, EPA – NatGeo

While the loss of life, immense property damage, and immeasurable suffering affected the world, these details touch me on a very different level.  I see these pictures and wonder when that will be me – as a Los Angeleno, I live every day over the tremble of the Big One.

There are over 300 fault lines criss-crossing California, the most famous being the San Andreas.  Running nearly 810 miles along the length of the state, the San Andreas forms one of the shifting boundaries between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. As both plates are moving in opposite directions, the fault line is under tremendous pressure.

Plates tect2 en” by USGS

With each passing year, scientists become more and more concerned regarding the pressure between these plates, and along other fault lines.  Kate Hutton, a seismologist from the US Geological Survey, predicted the destruction from a 7.8 quake in LA would see 50,000 injured and over 1,800 dead in a 2014 TheWeek article.  That’s not even the worst of it.  Seismologists are continually uncovering more information on the region and now feel a 7.5 quake along the Puente Hills fault line would result in a catastrophic 18,000 dead and $250 billion in damages.

Don’t even get me started on The Really Big One along the Cascadia subduction region north of California through the Pacific Northwest.  Some scientists are looking to that zone as the crack which will tear off parts of Oregon, Washington, and western Canada.


So, ¿how worried should I be?  Well, there’s the rub.  Seismology is a very exact science dealing with extraordinarily complex and unknown factors.  Predictions run the gamut, but some experts estimate an 80% chance for a major ~7MMs quake in the next 50 and and ~10% of a catastrophic (9+) in the same time-frame along these lines.  These predictions are open to huge debate, but the one thing most of the experts agree: each year without a shift increases the tension and pressure; each year without a quake increases the magnitude of the next one when it comes.

Cracking the Unknown Tomb: Science-blogging

King Tutankhamen’s tomb near Luxor (1923), The Times [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the next few weeks, I embark on a new adventure in my Master’s course at Chatham U, ¡SCIENCE!  A science-blog a week for six weeks covering myriad topics from the astrophysical peculiarities of Super Massive Black Holes (not a proper noun demanding capitals, but I’m not gonna be the one to tell Mrk335 that) to the social science vagaries of the Milgram and Zimbardo studies (neither of which are as damning as popular perception).

A word of warning: I am NOT a scientist.  I have neither spiffy lab-coat nor umpteen letters trailing my name.  I have a background in English creative-writing and a foreground in belligerent skepticism.  In college, I was voted most likely to say “¿What crappy source told you that?  Yanno, 83% percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.”  (that last fact is totally true, though the growth of the internet has reduced that number by ~8%).  I didn’t date much in college.

“Why does the sun come up? Or are the stars just pin holes in the curtain of night, who knows?”

Ramirez, Highlander (1986)

I’ve gotten better since college (marginally) as I’ve slowly realized knowledge is a process rather than a product.  In my case, the last moment of my childhood was the meta-cognitive realization that not only will I never know everything, but that most of what I did know was either pointedly relative or downright inaccurate.  A focus on answers, on “Truth”, obscured the greater pursuit of investigation and the punctuated equilibrium of analysis.  There is no end-point to science or education; only more and better refined questions.  At least in my case, I’ve found far greater fulfillment, joy, and revelation in uncovering the hidden maze of the unknown than in admiring the few gaudy trinkets of my accumulated knowledge.

I’ll be collecting topics as I go, but am happy to address anything you find interesting.  Just leave a comment and I’ll do my level best to research and spread the word.  I’ll be experimenting with form and style as I work to explore topics and fulfill my scholastic obligation.  A large part of the process is reading anything and everything provocative, so if you know a good feed or blog I should check out, don’t keep it to yourself.  Thanks.

p.s. 75% +/-2% of readers won’t find the above false statistic.