Steven Pinker: Are guns to blame for America’s homicide rate?

We need to enact policies founded on solid research — more importantly, though, we have to stop suppressing research into hot topics.

STEVEN PINKER: One of the big puzzles when it comes to understanding violence is why the American rate of violence is five to ten times higher than that of other wealthy democracies. There are countries that have spectacularly high rates of violence mainly in Central America and North and South America and in Southern Africa. But it's funny to see the United States not quite up there but much higher rates of homicide than our peers in the British Commonwealth and in Europe.

Now the ready answer is well, that's because we have all those guns. And that is part of the answer but it's not the total answer. Because even if you subtract out all of the gun homicides in the United States and you just look at all the murders committed with ropes and candlesticks and knives and so on. The United States still has a higher rate of homicide.

But and we also don't know for sure whether the favorite remedy of many people on the liberal left, namely tougher gun control, would have an effect in lowering homicides given how many guns are already out there. The United States has more guns than people so restricting the sale of future guns is a small measure. Maybe it does but no one really knows for sure. And we do know that the United States itself had quite a spectacular reduction in violent crime starting in the 90s and again in the 2000s. It certainly wasn't because massive numbers of guns were taken off the streets. Quite the contrary. So there's a lot we don't know but tragically and boneheadedly the U.S. Congress passed a law that the Centers for Disease Control was not allowed to study gun violence as a public health problem. Now that is insanity. That is an example of political interference with conductive research.

In the United States gun rights are a sacred cause of the right and anything that might compromise the right of everyone to have a gun is squelched. I've talked about many of the threats to academic freedom from the campus left but the political right is far more pernicious because they actually have power. I mean academics, it's often said that academic debates are fierce because so little is at stake but when it comes to government a lot is at stake and the suppression of research on gun violence is an example of how the right is also guilty of suppressing freedom of inquiry and it's one of the reasons why we really don't' know how best to reduce gun violence in the United States.

  • One of the reasons we don't know whether limiting access to guns would effectively decrease the homicide rate in America is because the Congress passed a law that bars the Centers for Disease Control from conducting such related studies.
  • In the United States, gun rights are a sacred cause of the right and are protected vehemently. As Steven Pinker says, "anything that might compromise the right of everyone to have a gun is squelched." The word "anything" seems to even include research.
  • A lot is at stake — people's lives — by not conducting research to find out how to control gun violence in America. We need to keep politicians accountable to the people, and pressure them to enact policies founded on solid research. This first means though that such research is no longer suppressed.

Top-down power: Hierarchies thrive on the internet

The internet was built to resist an Orwellian future. Now it's being weaponized.

Videos
  • Research shows hierarchical groups are more likely to use the internet as a platform.
  • This might be counterintuitive, as the original rise of the internet coincided with events like the toppling of top-down structures.
  • Despite the strong belief that the internet is horizontal, these hierarchical systems achieve high levels of online participation.
Keep reading Show less

10 great physics courses you can take online right now, for free

Here are 10 physics courses you can take now with some of the best experts in the world.

Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • You can find numerous physics courses currently available online for free.
  • Courses are taught by instructors with amazing credits like Nobel Prizes and field-defining work.
  • Topics range from introductory to Einstein's theory of relativity, particle physics, dark energy, quantum mechanics, and more.
Keep reading Show less

This nerd fight could wreck or cure our way of life

It's economists vs. climate scientists in this facet of the climate change debate.

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.
Surprising Science
  • What climate scientists have called a Hothouse Earth emergency, has been called "optimal" by a leading economist.
  • That optimal scenario is based on "the most unrealistic and dangerous assumption in the history of economics."
  • Leading scientists warn strongly against the methods that economists use. "No amount of economic cost–benefit analysis is going to help us. We need to change our approach."
Keep reading Show less