In one of the more spectacularly fatuous recent displays of why formal public debates are a complete waste of time, Ken Ham (creationist promoter of Kentucky’s financial albatross “Noah’s Arc” theme park) and Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) “debated” the question of evolution versus creationism. Now, for there to be a debate, there first has to be something TO debate and, in this instance of course, there was not. While there are many scientific issues of deep perplexity still to be found in the theory of evolution, there is no reasoned question as to the FACT of evolution. Creationism, on the other hand, lacks even the abstract possibility of scientific – or even logical – content; not even amounting to a fabulous “just so story,” creationism is nothing but childish hand-waving, and it is incapable of being anything other than such hand-waving. (Detailed scientific texts on evolution can be downloaded for free from the National Academies Press HERE.)
Still, one of the stand-out moments of this exercise in wasted time, which thoroughly demonstrates why the entire exercise was a waste of time, came at the end, when Ken Ham and Bill Nye were both asked what would suffice to lead them to change their mind regarding their position. Ham’s reply was an immediate and unqualified, “Nothing.” Nye, on the other hand, responded almost as instantly, saying, “Evidence.” Ham perfectly exemplifies the pointlessness of “debating” with people such as himself; there is no discussion to be had with the willfully impenetrable. Nevertheless, current events have me thinking once again about the role of evidence and denial in our society today. So this seems like a good opportunity to return to the subject, albeit in contexts other than that of creationism.
Most anyone who has visited this blog in the past will likely recall my mantra of the hierarchy of inquiry: logic, principles, evidence and facts, which moves from the universal, to the general, to the specific, to the individual. Individual facts by themselves do not comprise evidence, any more than a pile of bricks is the same as a wall or a house. Indeed, individual facts can be used as a smokescreen to undermine genuine inquiry, rather than as a foundation for supporting it. Thus a favorite method of creationists, flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, conspiracy theorists, and many other anti-scientific ranters is the “Gish Gallop.” Named after Duane Gish, the tactic involves spouting so much tripe all at once, that one’s interlocutors have no chance to address all of the points raised. Many of those points will be complete, infantile fabrications, but many others will be nominal facts that are presented in the absence of any kind of context or systematic relatedness. And while it takes only a single (short) sentence to spout a lie, it takes an entire paragraph to refute that lie. And when there are genuine facts embedded in the tsunami of twaddle, then the effort to address them is magnified. This is because evidence is not, as already mentioned, a mere pile of facts; it is a collection of facts that have been selected, sorted, and arranged according to valid and justifiable criteria of logic and principles, into a systematic whole.
It is this concept of evidence I want us to bring to the forefront of out thoughts, in the light of a contemporary event, namely the massacre in Las Vegas.
Already there are conspiracy fools gravitating around this, making up facts where none exist, and claiming these constitute evidence. Anyone who has ever taught a college level class in Critical Thinking knows that conspiracy theories are trotted out to serve as comedy relief, in between those times when you are studying forms of cognitive vacuity that actually deserve attention. So I’ll waste no time on this infantilism here. Rather, let us turn to those cherry-picking Gish Gallopers who will continue to insist that gun control serves no possible role in reducing the destruction of these endlessly repeating catastrophes.
What EVIDENCE can be offered that, having semi-automatic weapons that are easily modified to pseudo- or full-auto (bump stocks are only one method) leads to a freer, safer, more democratic society? Sweden is sometimes held up by gun fetishists as an example where a free society has not only permissible, but mandatory possession of military grade firearms by civilians between the ages of 18 and 50 (I’m a little unsure of that upper limit, and I’m too lazy to look it up.) But this is a fact without evidence. The reality is that those people between 18 and 50 are all members of Sweden’s reserve military (the “well trained militia” that our own Constitution unequivocally identifies as the basis for the right to bear arms, but which the gun fetishists never bother to mention.) Furthermore, while those civilians hold on to their military grade weapons, they are not permitted to keep any ammunition for those weapons. Evidence vs. “facts”; systematic reality vs. answers to a single Trivial Pursuit question.
One might also wonder why the fact that Paddock (the white terrorist (who was really only a troubled individual, being white and all) who perpetrated the massacre in Las Vegas) could purchase a couple dozen+ firearms in the course of a year, and this would NOT count as evidence of a larger purpose? (Law enforcement declared there was never any sign that Paddock might be dangerous.) One might also inquire after the evidence justifying the sales of high-capacity magazines, such as Jared Lee Loughner used in his attack on Gabby Giffords in Tucson, in 2011. Six people died, including a 9 year old girl, and Loughner was only stopped when he paused to reload his weapon. Had his weapon held “only” the already substantial 15 rounds instead of the 30 rounds of his extended clip, he’d clearly have been stopped sooner. Since Loughner, it should be added, was also white, he too was merely “troubled,” rather than a terrorist.
Systematic evidence of violence on massive scales and ongoing destruction are, however, rejected wholesale, in favor of this or that cherry-picked fact indicating some person who protected his family or property (with only one bullet, and one weapon, but disregard that evidence) as justifying the promiscuous availability of instruments of mass slaughter to anyone even remotely related to a featherless biped.
Other questions begged by gun fetishists positions include: what possible, legitimate reason does any person have for owning 30+ firearms? This obviously connects with, but is slightly different from, the point above regarding Paddock’s stampede of purchases in the year prior to his act of terrorism. The difference here is that the time frame of purchase has been dropped. To qualify as a collector, shouldn’t the weapons have some substantive historical significance? Simply because they can spew an unimaginably large number of bullets (that have no other purpose than slaughtering human beings with promiscuous abandon) in a shockingly brief period of time, hardly seems to qualify. For another, why doesn’t the “well regulated militia” part of the 2nd Amendment ever play a part in the fetishists’ claims of Constitutional legitimacy? (Recall, again, that evidence is about systematic wholes, not cherry-picked bits and pieces.) For the self-proclaimed “original intent” ideologues, how can the framers’ “original intent” include weapons that they were altogether incapable of imagining?
What these gun fetishists hold in common with Ken Ham is an imperviousness to evidence. Both forms of imperviousness are predicated upon a form of “identity politics” in which the “self” is identified with something that is external to that self, thus leaving that self fragile and subject to dissolution at a moment’s notice. Hence one’s identity, the very possibility of one’s existence, is tied up with that external thing. In the case of the gun fetishists, it is their childish infatuation with their pop-guns; in Ham’s case, it is his childish interpretation of the Bible.
Now, make NO MISTAKE: not every gun owner is a gun fetishist, any more than every religious person is a young earth creationist. These latter – very large! – groups comprise many people, many of whom you or I might disagree with, but with whom anyone capable of an intelligent conversation would be able to have such a conversation. But that is because these are people who do not reject evidence for ideology.
So ask yourself: What would change your mind about gun control? If the answer is “evidence,” then ask the next question: why aren’t you demanding that the CDC and other government agencies begin seriously gathering that evidence (they are not)?