Unscientific American

The fastest way to destroy a brand is to do the opposite of the brand’s claim. Scientific American’s brand is now hopelessly corrupted by publishing the most unscientific of screeds.

A recent piece in Scientific American titled “More Guns Do Not Stop More Crimes, Evidence Shows” is a case study in the anti-science of cherry-picked data. Were I in a more charitable mood, I might assume the author, Melinda Moyer, of merely suffering from acute confirmation bias syndrome. However, the oversights were so vast and so egregious that I cannot bring myself to believe such. Hers was likely not a sloppily written article, but rather adroit agitprop.

My initial clue that Scientific American had devolved into a propaganda rag came in the first paragraph that wasn’t literary fluff (the same tired, suicide saturated misstatement about “guns took more than 36,000 U.S. lives …”). The next was when she cited …

“The Rarity of Self-Defense”

A central theme in Melinda’s missive is that guns are not often used to prevent crime. This will come as a surprise to the L.A. Times, The Police Foundation, Gallup Poll and any criminologist not financed by Michael Bloomberg.

Melinda launches her misdirection by stating, “Claims that people frequently need guns to defend themselves from criminals usually rely on one 1996 survey.” She then pairs that one study (Kleck and Gertz) with just one other opposing study (Hemenway). This handily ignores the dozens of others that largely cluster around the same rate of defensive gun uses (DGUs) that Kleck and Gertz estimated.

One oddity about Melinda citing Kleck is that she doesn’t cite his book Targeting Guns. We’ll assume she studiously avoided reading it, because such broad perspective would not help her arguments.

In Targeting Guns, Kleck included a table of a bunch of surveys – criminology, media, polling companies – and how many annual DGUs they measured. Discounting the notable outliers, we see an average of just under 2,000,000 DGUs, which is a shade below Kleck and Gertz’s 2,549,000. The notable outliers include the L.A. Times on the high end and the Ohio and Tarrance studies on the low end.

The box on the far right of the chart, the tiny little speck of blue, was not in Kleck’s book. This is the opposing piece Melinda included in Scientific American. As you can see, two things are obvious: no serious study of the subject of gun control would have omitted all these other studies, and Melinda Moyer is not a serious student.

But let’s dive into a critical issue. The low-ball study Melinda used to “refute” Kleck and Gertz’s work used a radically different and highly controversial source data, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). To give you an idea of how controversial this data is among criminologist, Kleck provided an entire discourse on the subject in Targeting Guns, the book I presume Melinda avoided reading. Kleck begins “The one survey that is clearly not suitable for estimating the total number of DGUs is the National Crime Victimization Survey.” Kleck then spends three pages noting that:

  • Respondents are not asked about DGUs unless they respond that they had been victimized. Defensive use of a gun prevents victimization, so the largest group of potential respondents is excluded from the survey.
  • It is well known that incidents of rape and domestic violence are underreported, so this triggers underreporting of DGUs for these events.
  • Respondents are not asked specifically about DGUs, which makes direct answers a hit-or-miss proposition.
  • The survey is not anonymous, which researchers well know induces response bias (people tend to be more forthcoming when their answers cannot be tied back to them).
  • The survey is conducted by the government, which changes the responses from many who don’t want to admit things that could become evidence. That the NCVS is sponsored by the Justice Department, and respondents are told this up-front, is a major wrinkle.
  • Creates a response bias for out-of-home defense by people lacking a CCW (since location specifics are noted).

The question then becomes “Did Melinda know about these other studies, and the major flaw in the one she chose to cite?” I cannot answer that and I suspect neither Melinda nor the editors at Scientific American will.

The CDC’s buried history

Melinda’s article is peppered with references to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and how Congress put an end to government disease research employees studying guns as if they were pathogens.

Before exploring the CDC’s rather sinister history on this topic, and Melinda’s misreporting of it, I need to note that gun control policy and the criminology of it is one of the most insanely over-studied topics there is. And you don’t have to take my word for it. The Bureau of Justice Statistics lists 31 publications on the topic of just “gun violence” along with 20 data sets and surveys. Google Scholar (broad search for scholarly literature) returns 6,440 responses to the search term “gun violence” criminology, and another 1,250 for “firearm violence” criminology. Amazon lists 29 books on gun/firearm violence in the “public affairs and policy” category.

Thus, Melinda’s parroted claims that research is being hamstrung is evidentially not based on research.

Questions about the CDC become quite obvious, yet go unexplained by Melinda or Scientific American. Those questions, and their answers are:

  • Did the CDC ever do gun policy research: Yes.
  • Was it any good: Sweet Jesus, no.
  • Why: Mix medical researchers with politicians to study criminology …
  • Why was the CDC research discontinued?

That last question has been answer by many, but Melinda answers it in rather odd ways. Most astonishing she quotes Mark Rosenberg, a former director at the CDC who several accounts claim was sacked from the agency. Mark was on record, while temporarily employed at the CDC, as saying “We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like we did with cigarettes. Now it [sic] is dirty, deadly and banned.” (emphasis mine)

There is a tidy bit to ponder there. First, it is an activist statement (“We need to …”), not a dispassionate discourse on data. Second, it is clearly opinionated (“dirty, deadly …”). Finally, it is a call for legislative action (“banned”) which most federal agencies avoid, because policy is Congress’s job. In short, Mark was attempting to set an agenda and using hyperbole to promote it.

Were he a lone propagandist at the CDC in that era, we could write off the CDCs unscientific skullduggery as a comical episode of bureaucratic hubris. But in the same year, Dr. Katherine Christoffel, the then head of the CDC-funded organization “Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan” said, “Guns are a virus that must be eradicated… They are causing an epidemic of death by gunshot, which should be treated like any epidemic…you get rid of the virus…get rid of the guns, get rid of the bullets, and you get rid of deaths.” (emphasis mine)

Like Scientific American, the CDC traded their brand as unbiased researchers in pursuit of the truth for the more tempting role of political zealot. Naturally, this did not end well. And what makes this a bit more amusing is …

Arthur the doctor, not the drunk (perhaps)

Melinda repeatedly cites the works of Dr. Arthur Kellerman, a fellow with a rather tarnished reputation. This was in no small part due to the CDC employing Kellerman to do research on guns, and criminologists laughing themselves silly when they read his work. Melinda evidently didn’t get the punchline, though she did echo his poorer conclusions.

Before going too far, just note that Kellerman’s premier work (Protection or Peril) once garnered two separate entries at JunkScience.com, and I used to be able to cite the top six methodology problems with his research off the top of my head. It is, in a word, horrid.

Right off, Melinda cites one of Kellerman’s original doozies that concluded “a gun in the home was associated with a nearly threefold increase in the odds that someone would be killed at home by a family member or intimate acquaintance.” What Melinda did not disclose was that:

  • 85% of the deaths in this tiny, tiny survey were suicides, well above the national average.
  • It only looked at deaths and not at the broader crime deterrence factors (in other words, only counted justifiable homicides).
  • Did not control for criminal interaction (such as a thug murdering another thug in the second’s home).

This last bit is painfully important. Kellerman and other alleged researchers never separate criminal actions from non-criminal ones. By obscuring these realities, and by routinely including suicides into the mix, they make simple and direct policy approaches disappear. Various studies show that intervention reduces criminal misuse of guns (see the California case) and better mental health care would reduce the 63% of gun deaths via suicide that occurred last reporting year.

Which brings us to Melinda’s focus on guns and suicides. Citing Kellerman and others, Melinda claims that “a gun in the home was tied to a nearly fivefold increase in the odds of suicide.” Yet at the Gun Facts project, we have noted there is no correlation between gun ownership and suicide rates. The odds of using a gun to commit suicide goes up if there is a gun handy, but the odds of a successful suicide don’t change (as noted in our suicide review, Americans use guns, Canadians use poison, and Lithuanians use rope).

Instances Ratio to DGUs
Suicides 22,018 1.1%
Homicides 12,979 0.7%
DGUs 1,988,136 100.0%

She makes similar claims about home accidental shootings, assaults and homicides being much more likely than defensive gun uses (DGUs), but does not directly cite the specific research. But let’s make the math simple. Taking the average of DGUs from the non-outliers studies listed in Kleck’s book, and comparing that to the most recent gun homicide and suicide numbers available, we see that in-and-out of the home, the odds are more in favor of gun ownership than not. Odds of “home only” gun use changing this huge disparity is, for practical purposes, bupkis.

But wait! There’s more!

I won’t dig deep any longer, but here is a brief list of other offenses to rational research in Melinda’s article:

  • Says guns are not a deterrence to violence, but never notes the multiple incarcerated felon interviews conducted by criminologists wherein felons say it does.
  • Holds up Donohue’s synthetic control analysis (which by its nature is assumption based) and the artificial crime numbers it creates to refute John Lott’s research using real crime numbers.
  • Notes that gun ownership is sometimes correlated with high homicide rates, but never contemplates which is the cause and which is the effect (many studies show gun ownership rises after the crime rate does).
  • Melinda litters her prose with irrational literary ad hominin, such as “wave their gun around during a bar fight” as an example of armed self-defense (our own analysis indicates that “allowing people to carry concealed weapons in bars was negatively associated with overall violent crime, murder, rape, assault and even firearm homicide.”)

Unscientific, Unsubscribe

I won’t pick on the publisher and editors of Scientific American any more. Everyone can be duped, and it appears that they were. Regardless of if they were, or if they were intentionally being propagandists, you should cancel your subscription. Scientific American is no longer a scientific journal.


Unscientific American — 7 Comments

  1. It is unfortunate that there are many magazines and journals which have fallen prey to this mentality and for “payment” are willing to fall in step with the progressives and the left and have sold their soul for ” a mess of pottage” thinking that some really think.

  2. “If you repeat a lie enough times people will begin to believe it”. J. Goebbels, Propaganda Ministry, Third Reich.

    • what is also as startling is the number of people willingly eager to believe the lies without even considering facts or the amount of information freely available for them to check it out. It is as if the public at large thinks their intelligence and understanding is exceptional and correct, while thriving on imaginary news. When asking anti-gunners if they’ve researched both sides for a clearer, more objective understanding, they are not interested in the rest of the story. The lies are sufficient to base their opinions on.

  3. Have you sent anything, such as this article to either the author or Scientific American? I’m curious as to their response.

    • Won’t bother. If I had to interact with every publication that got the facts wrong, I’d never sleep.

      • Please bother! It might be wasted effort but conversely it could just open the eyes of an editor who was duped into publishing bogus “facts”; there are a wealth of people in the publishing trade that don’t know jack about firearms.


    [Copyright © 1986 Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. Originally published as 9 Harv. J. L. & Pub. Pol’y 559-638 (1986).For educational use only. The printed edition remains canonical. For citational use please obtain a back issue from William S. Hein & Co., 1285 Main Street, Buffalo, New York 14209; 716-882-2600 or 800-828-7571.]

    A well cited treatise – rfh

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