That Reminds Me of a Story

"You're going to tell one of your stories! I can't stand to hear another one of your stories!" (Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln)

For a good chunk of my life, I was a preacher.

Preachers use stories to illustrate. It's a practice that goes back millennia. Jesus told many a parable, as did Buddha. The points made by the stories are not always obvious, and in fact, it's often best if there's not a simple, one-to-one correspondence between the story and the lesson. Parables, in particular, are stories that come at a teaching from an odd angle, and may contain multiple lessons, some of them not even intended by the storyteller. The sign of a great story, as with any work of art, whether performed or visual, is the life it takes on independent of its creator. A truly masterful story will have a different meaning for every person who hears it.

This can be frustrating for people who would rather have something simple, declarative, to the point. When someone comes to me with a specific concern, and I respond with a story, even if that story has obvious relevance to the issue at hand, it will come up wanting in the advice department. "What does this have to do with my concern?" I will hear; or, "Are you saying that because X happened to this person you know, I should do Y?" No, not necessarily, maybe not at all. The story was not told to give you a narrative how-to manual for solving your problem. It could illustrate a point I will make if you'll give me a little more time; or maybe I'm just trying to defuse the tension, as is the case in the scene from Lincoln that leads to Edwin Stanton's explosion. Lincoln goes on to tell his very funny story at that point, about Ethan Allen visiting England after the Revolutionary War. The Situation Room bursts into laughter, interrupted by the rattle of a telegraph bringing the war news everyone was anxiously awaiting.

I say all this to demonstrate that, as powerful as stories can be, they are rarely useful as tools of debate. There is nothing logical about an illustration. Its meaning in a given setting depends on far too many variables for it to be a useful tool of argument.

The same is, sadly, all too true of anecdotal evidence, experiences or news stories rolled out to defend arguments that are logically lacking in strength.

I grew up hearing such evidence. It's my mother's favorite way of settling an argument:

"Don't go to the Gresham Hospital; they'll make you wait two hours, and then overcharge you." Sometime in the early 1970s, we were traveling from Idaho to Oregon to visit my grandmother, and stopped for lunch at a rest area. We had lunch in our travel trailer. At some point, the screen door slammed on my little brother Jon's finger. We rushed him to the nearest emergency room, somewhere in Gresham, and apparently my mother was not satisfied with the experience. Ever since, Gresham is the place that mistreats ER patients. Mind you, I've had similar experiences in almost every ER I've ever been to, regardless of its location. It could also be true that this just happened to be a bad day at the Gresham ER. It might even be the case that changes have been made to ER procedures since then at this very hospital; but because something happened there 40 years ago, that's what this place is like.

I've heard many such anecdotes from my mother. They're always solidly grounded in an experience she had, and they all make the logical leap from "happened to me" to "will happen to everyone else."

We travel now to the year 2013, and the astounding realization that many internet commentators have, apparently, learned to debate at my mother's knee. Witness the following:

The UK: Gun Control = Safety?

Written by on Tuesday, May 28, 2013 at 6:06 PM EDT in Articles
“You people will never be safe. Remove your government, they don’t care about you.”
These words rang true on May 22nd 2013 in Woolwich, UK. 20 minutes is how long it took a unit of armed police officers to arrive on the scene of a brutal murder committed in broad daylight by two men. So who said those words?
One of the murderers.
They made no attempt to flee, and they made members of the public watch powerless as they literally butchered a man on the pavement using two machetes and a meat cleaver. Afterwards, they calmly stood around boasting about what they had done. One of them was filmed saying this, whilst holding two of the weapons, covered in blood, with both of his hands covered in blood:
“I apologise that women have had to witness this today,
but in our land our women have to see the same. You
people will never be safe. Remove your government, they
don’t care about you.”
Fortunately, they didn’t attack anyone else, and were taken down when the armed police EVENTUALLY arrived. But who could have known that would happen? They could easily have turned it into a bloodbath, since nobody else in the country can be armed except government agents and criminals. They had a full 20 minutes in which the law abiding public were at their mercy.
In the UK it is illegal to carry ANY object in a public place with the intent of using it as a weapon, offensive or defensive. Never mind the right to keep and bear arms, daring to carry a rock in your pocket is a criminal offence.
America, please take a good long hard look at the UK. When lawmakers want to take your rights away, they will do it slowly. “Just an inch” makes a fuckton of difference if you keep taking inches. Running a marathon starts with the first inch of the track. Less than 100 years ago, Britons could keep firearms for self defence, and the rules were probably less restrictive than in the US at the time, certainly less than the US is now.
Gun control advocates frequently cite the high profile spree shootings in the USA as why our gun laws “work”. Yet they ignore the fact that these ALL took place in “gun free zones”. Don’t let your entire country turn into a gun free zone like the UK.
So there you have it: something horrible happened in England, nobody had a gun to take out the offender, therefore gun control is evil.

Here's a statistic: in 2010, there were 11,078 deaths by gunfire in the United States, 3.6 per 100,000 population. That's the figure from the Center for Disease Control. That same year in the United Kingdom, there were 155, or 0.25 per 100,000 population, according to the World Health Organization. The rate of deaths by gunfire in the United States is 1400% higher than it is in the United Kingdom. So yes, overall, I'd say the strict gun laws in the UK are working just fine, and the US could learn a lesson from them.

Unfortunately, we Americans are an anecdotal people. If we used science and statistics to inform our public policy, we'd be spending far more money on schools, infrastructure, and public health than we do on arming ourselves for the next war, whether it's as a nation or as individuals. We'd also stop trying to make the argument that school shootings prove the need for gun control. Statistically, they're a tiny percentage of the overall body count. Much more pressing is the high volume of gun deaths in inner cities, not to mention home shootings, whether they are accidental or brought on by domestic violence. I'd feel much safer with the UK statistic of 0.25 than our gobsmacking 3.6.

Anecdotal evidence features strongly in the continuing clamor against policies designed to alleviate climate change. One hard winter in Washington, DC is enough to convince deniers that it's all a fiction. And yet the ice caps continue to shrink, winters overall grow milder, and one has to be living in a refrigerator to claim that summers are not getting longer and hotter.

A single contradictory case does not make an argument. Bringing up counter-illustrations is little better, as it lends weight to the practice of logical ping pong. When debate becomes binary in this fashion, the better stories win. It doesn't matter if they represent flukes, while the counter-stories illustrate the norm. A couple of creeps in Britain commit murder using machetes. That story literally has a visceral impact. It doesn't matter that the statistical argument overwhelmingly demonstrates the fallacy of the writer's conclusion; you're still left with the thought that maybe a concealed handgun could've put a stop to that incident. That's exactly why the NRA continues, even in the face of the grieving parents of Newtown, to trumpet the need for more guns in public life.

More Americans have died of gun violence in the six months since Newtown than in the entire ten-year invasion of Iraq.

Stories prove nothing. They illustrate beautifully, but they do not, cannot, prove anything. Stories of bureaucratic inefficiency are regularly rolled out to counter arguments for a single-payer health care system, though the same inefficiencies can easily be found in private health insurance practices. Stories of children losing the family homestead are used to defend the repeal of "death taxes," though such "reforms" are generally aimed at protecting multi-millionaires rather than middle class homeowners, whose estates likely fall below the threshold of having to pay any estate tax at all.

They prove nothing, and yet in the minds of those that hear them, they trump many a better argument. So I, for one, pledge to never again use a story to prove a point. Henceforth, all my stories shall be used solely for the purpose of illustration--or better yet, amusement.


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