Monthly Archives: December 2012

Examples of civil discourse on Newtown and gun control

As a follow-up to my previous post, here are two examples of public discourse on the Newtown incident and gun control policy that, in my view, give “appropriate recognition [to] the legitimacy of differing views on the relevant value trade-offs involved,” as well as avoid demonizing those who disagree and resorting to “bumper sticker politics.” The points of view differ, but I feel that both are well-argued and civil.

Law and Order in the Fallen World” by Ben Domenech

The Freedom of an Armed Society” by Firmin Debrabander

My thoughts on the Newtown events and public policy discourse

The events in Newtown, CT last week were horrible. As a father of a daughter who will be in elementary school in a few more years, it struck particularly close to home.

As can be expected, these events began a conversation in the media about gun laws in the United States. As is often the case, I have been frustrated by the simplicity of the arguments and the “black and white,” “all or nothing” portrayal of the policy options that have been discussed. 

I regularly teach my students that politics is very rarely “black and white” but rather that it involves numerous trade-offs between competing desirable values. In this case, gun control laws primarily involve a value trade-off between freedom/liberty and safety/security. I think all would agree that freedom is a good thing and that safety is also a good thing. But in the real, messy world we live in, we are often forced to privilege one at the expense of the other. We can choose to increase freedom and accept less security or we can choose to increase security and accept less freedom.

Empirical evidence strongly suggests that less freedom (i.e. stricter gun control laws) is indeed associated with greater security (i.e. fewer gun-related deaths):

Again, the bottom-line value trade-off involved in this issue is: where along the freedom <–> security spectrum would we prefer our public policy to be?

Yesterday, President Obama hinted at his preferences on this question when he said:

“Surely we can do better than this. … We can’t accept events like this as routine. … Are we prepared to say that such violence visited upon our children, year after year after year, is somehow the price of our freedom?”

Going forward, I hope that our national discussion on this issue focuses on empirical evidence and the appropriate recognition of the legitimacy of differing views on the relevant value trade-offs involved. I also hope that we recognize that this conversation should rightly be focused on our gun laws, but that it should also include a discussion of the related effects of poverty, poor education, and mental health policy. 

I especially hope that we avoid the temptation to demonize those who disagree with us on the issue, and try to show respect for one another’s preferences. To earn that respect from others, however, it demands that each of us avoid the temptation to resort to “bumper sticker” political discourse as we discuss the matters involved. Our society, communities, and children deserve better.

My fall 2012 semester, by the numbers

  • 89 students between 3 different courses
  • 2 new course preps = 55 separate lesson preps
  • 521 assignments graded, including 178 exams and 208 essays/papers
  • About 100 hours in the classroom
  • 50+ regular office hours (who knows how many additional unscheduled visits!)
  • 53 blog posts (now 54)
  • 1 Vice-Presidential debate (with 20+ media interviews)
  • 1 county exit polling project (with 1,461 respondents!)
  • 1 internship supervision
  • 2 independent studies directed
  • 2 search committees (100+ applications read, about 15 phone interviews conducted, and 3 on-campus interviews so far)
  • 2 substantial committee report to the Dean produced (between 5 committee meetings)

It was a fun and exciting semester… but I’m ready for a break!

How my political science training helped me be a better parent

Yesterday my wife and I took took my (almost) 4-year-old daughter to a specialist for a consultation on a certain medical procedure. This procedure is minor and fairly routine for young children, but I didn’t know very much about it going into the appointment. The physician did a few checks and made a preliminary diagnosis and recommendation, depending on the outcome of another particular test, which we were told could be completed in a few minutes from then. We all went back out into the waiting room until we could go back for the additional test. I will admit that I felt a bit of anxiety. I didn’t really understand what the doctor had explained to us and I didn’t have the knowledge base to judge the preliminary recommendation.

While in the waiting room, I whipped out my smartphone and began Googling about the particular procedure. The search terms I used brought up a lot of hits, some from professional medical associations and others from individuals sharing their opinions on the matter (some informed, some not) and others from professional associations representing alternative views on the procedure. 

Within about ten minutes, I had about a dozen opinions and perspectives on the matter. These included reports of empirical studies on the procedure, which described experiments with terms like “random assignment,” “double-blind,” “statistically significant difference,” “treatment group,” “control group,” etc. Due to my academic training in political science, I was able to critically evaluate and understand the “gist” of these reports even though they were reports of medical studies, which I have no formal training in.

After just a few minutes reading through all this material, I had a much better understanding the procedure in question. I also better understood the basis for the physician’s recommendations. I also felt like I had a clearer picture of the pros/cons of the procedure and the extent to which my daughter’s symptoms matched up against those that the procedure is designed to address. I then understood the objective of the follow-up test that we were awaiting and what the implications of the results would mean in terms of the necessity of the procedure. During the meeting with the physician following the test, I was much more confident in my understanding of the situation and was able to ask appropriate follow-up questions to help my wife and I make an informed decision on the matter.

All in all, I came away from this experience with a few key insights:

  1. I think technology is amazing. In a matter of minutes in a doctor’s waiting room, I was able to independently access a universe of information related to a particular question that I had.
  2. Even though I could access a “universe of information,” I still needed tools to be able to make sense of it. Because of skills that I have learned in my academic training, I was able to quickly sift through the dozens of Google search returns and separate them out into “credible sources,” “non-credible sources,” and “potentially credible, but with a distinct bias/agenda/perspective.” I was then able to apply that categorization to give different “weights of credibility/importance” to each particular viewpoint. I also was able to recognize which organizations would be more likely to have  credible information because of previous experience looking up credible information in other domains (for me, political science).
  3. Because of skills that I have learned in my academic training, I was also able to critically evaluate reports of academic studies related to the procedure. I understood what it meant when an article reported whether or not there was a “statistically significant difference between the control and treatment groups” and what that might imply for my daughter receiving the particular treatment.
  4. Yes, my academic training enables me to be a better political scientist, but it also has equipped me with skills that are easily transferable to other issue domains. Thus, I was able to make a more informed, evidence-based decision about how to best care for my daughter. Yesterday, my academic training directly helped me be a better parent.

What is the point of all this?

To my students: the skills you learn in higher education have widespread and important applicability in almost every facet of your lives. This is why it’s important to get an education that teaches you how to “think critically” and evaluate evidence. Sure, it helps you better understand the political (economic, sociological, physical, etc.) world, but it also helps you to better interact with the world around you and make a positive contribution to it.

But on a more practical level, this is why I make you learn how to read academic research articles, compute levels of statistical significance between variables, and do your own empirical studies of political data. Even though most of you won’t go on to be professional political scientists, you will always be able to use these skills, whatever your responsibilities or opportunities may be.

The growing coalition on immigration reform

Since I do research on the intersection of religion and immigration attitudes and policy, I am encouraged to see things like this coming out in the news:

Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Tuesday at a news conference here that immigration was a “moral issue.” He warned Republicans that “if they want to be a contender for national leadership, they are going to have to change their ways on immigration reform.”

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the largest organization of Latino evangelicals, portrayed the Republicans’ dilemma in biblical terms. “They must cross the proverbial Jordan of immigration reform,” he said, “if they want to step into the promised land of the Hispanic electorate.”

Also this:

Former President George W. Bush weighed back in to the discussion on Tuesday by calling on policy makers in Washington to revamp the law “with a benevolent spirit” that recognized the contribution of those who moved here from other countries.

When a majority of Republicans in Congress are not on the same page as 1) national religious leaders, and 2) George W. Bush, it’s likely that something is going to eventually give somewhere. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in 2013. It might finally be the year that some progress is made on comprehensive immigration reform.