The Gun Debate: Too Much Emotion, Not Enough Data?

Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics fame thinks the United States would benefit from a National Firearms Safety Administration to collate firearms data, similar to how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration handles transportation data.

Stephen Dubner: One of the reasons that the gun debate in this country is so contentious is that there’s very little good data on who owns guns and what share of guns used in crimes are illegal guns. And part of the reason there’s not good data is because the debate is so contentious in the first place. But, you know, one proposal that I like a lot is to create kind of a National Firearms Safety Administration, something like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, which collates transportation data.

So if we want to know about what really causes, you know, there’s still 30,000 to 35,000 traffic fatalities a year. That’s a lot. Considering how much we drive, it’s not that much, but that’s a lot of death. The more we know about how every accident happens, the better we can do at preventing. Similarly with something like guns, the more we know about how guns are used, how they get in the hands of the people who use them for crime, the vast majority of guns are never, ever, ever, ever used in any crime. So, you know, that I think is a really useful way to look at what data can do.

I think right now we have people on one side of the gun debate saying, you know, we need our guns for whatever. And, you know, leave us alone. The other side is saying all guns are terrible and you need to take them all away. Both those arguments would seem to be a little bit naïve, but we can’t really get to a better place because we don’t’ have the data. You know I grew up in — I personally grew up in a gun culture. I grew up in upstate New York where most families had guns for hunting, target practice, whatever. The vast majority of people I knew never used their guns for any crime. Most laws that we make to protect people from guns are usually ignored by the criminals and obeyed by the law-abiding people. And so I think that if you had better data, there’d be no one more in favor of it than law abiding gun owners because they don’t want to be smeared and lumped in with the criminals who use guns. So that’s where data can be a kind of different tool in the arsenal when you’re trying to make better policy or public policy because otherwise you’re just kind of shouting at each other with your ideology rather than understanding how people actually behave.

There's arguably no more contentious debate in today's America than the one raging over firearms and gun control. Freakonomics author Stephen J. Dubner explains that the lack of good data on national gun trends is a major contributor to this contention. Dubner thinks the United States would benefit from a National Firearms Safety Administration to collate firearms data, similar to how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration handles transportation data.

"The more we know about how every accident happens, the better we can do at preventing. Similarly with something like guns the more we know about how guns are used, how they get in the hands of the people who use them for crime."

As for the gun control debate itself, it's too often dominated by extremists from each side shouting emotional arguments at each other without pointing toward empirical evidence... again, because there's a major hole currently where a whole lot of useful data could be. And if you've ever read a Freakonomics book, you know that data is the key to understanding trends, incentives, and best practices for a better society.

"Data can be a kind of different tool in the arsenal when you’re trying to make better policy or public policy because otherwise you’re just kind of shouting at each other with your ideology rather than understanding how people actually behave."


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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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