Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Life is Not a Narrative

A recent Ezra Klein post on gun control opens,

I’ll tell you what scares me: I don’t think we know how to prevent a tragedy like the Newtown massacre. The more information that emerges on the killings, the less effective any of the potential policy remedies appear to be.

It then goes on to detail how each of the individual proposals for gun control, from assault weapon bans to better mental health care, would have done little to prevent this specific crime.

Something about this rubs me the wrong way. Specifically, it's the tendency to look at an individual's life as if it were a narrative in a novel, inevitably culminating in an earth shattering conclusion.

But real life isn't like this. Life is just one thing after another. Public policy doesn't work at the micro level by directly interrupting the chain of events that leads to the conclusion we want to change. Instead, public policy changes the context within which an action occurs.

What this means at the micro level is that any or all of these policies could have shifted the probability that Mr. Lanza took the actions he did. This is because Adam Lanza's life as experienced was not a novel culminating in his horrific action. Not to trivialize it, but if something like better mental health care was in place, perhaps this action could have been slightly delayed. Then a new game release could have captured his attention at the LAN parties he was said to attend in one article, which could have led to something else and so one, until this particular crisis was passed (it may be possible that this individual was so disturbed that a similar crisis point would have been reached in the future, however, it is also likely that several crisis points were already successfully navigated on the way to this individual attaining 20 years of age). The key element is to create space within which life can happen, the more space we create the more likely an action like this can be thwarted, with no one being the wiser. Similar things could be said about gun control, perhaps the high powered weapons in his home provided a focus of obsession, weakening this just a tiny bit could have changed things. The complexity of an individual's decision making makes it impossible to identify any particular intervention that would have prevented this, however, this complexity also means that most any intervention would have decreased the probability as the context for his decision making shifted.

The key thing to avoid here is treating these events as if they were the dominating feature of the individual's life. This is a flaw in our thinking that we apply all the time, some signature, newsworthy event dominates our perception of a public figure at the expense of that individual's much more complex and nuanced inner life. We can't prevent a tragedy by trying to use public policy as a novelistic plot device to thwart the protagonist's dominating motive; instead we create delays and obstacles that work by creating space for an individual's other priorities to dominate over the one that we want to discourage; unlike a novel individual's rarely have powerfully defining motives that overwhelm other characteristics. This is far less satisfying than the narrative we use to explain these things, but it is far more accurate to treat these things as probabilistic outcomes rather than as the outcome of a narrative.

[Alan Jacobs has a post at American Conservative talking about uncertainty in the context of this event. Where I differ from him is that I see this uncertainty as creating an opportunity for intervention in the aggregate, if not in specific cases. We have statistical evidence on factors which make these events less or more probable, and we can influence these factors. Trying to work backward as if an outcome was inevitable simply makes us powerless where we aren't. To use his example, if Israel had detected Syrian and Egyptian plans early and responded strongly, the 73 war would have been a false positive as well. What we need are policies that make actual events less likely, and this is possible]

1 comment:

  1. "We can't prevent a tragedy by trying to use public policy as a novelistic plot device to thwart the protagonist's dominating motive." You have written a sentence more lucid and instructive than the vast - vast - majority of discussion going on right now about this.