The Illusions of Understanding and Control

With the latest shooting in San Bernardino, it feels like our society is awakening to a new normal — one where the term active shooter becomes common parlance in our everyday conversation. While the senseless deaths are tragic in their own right, it is similarly tragic to watch the paralyzing and polarizing effects of fear unfold in our society.

We’ve heard frequently that mass shootings have become an almost daily occurrence in the US. This has once again catalyzed familiar conversations around gun control. Statistics propagate across social media among those in support of stricter gun control. Meanwhile gun advocates point to mental health as the foundational issue and staunchly defend gun ownership as a fundamental right.

In the face of fear and uncertainty, we rush to judgment. We rush to establish a narrative that provides a semblance of certainty, justifying the actions that will reduce our fears. Meanwhile the true complexity of the issue at hand remains out of view and unaddressed.

The next time you see statistics on a particular issue, ask yourself why you believe or reject the finding. Do you understand how a particular statistic was derived? Have you considered alternatives that might challenge the finding? How often are you embracing or rejecting a finding simply because of your prior beliefs?

Confirmation bias is a powerful force that takes significant cognitive effort to overcome. In our modern world, where attention is in dangerously short supply and information is overwhelming, it is far too easy to consume confirmatory findings without deeper, thoughtful engagement.

Consider my previous statement about the frequency of mass shootings. Is that true? This recent New York Times article suggests that statistics about the frequency of mass shootings vary wildly precisely because there is no accepted definition of what constitutes a mass shooting. Variations in the threshold on the number of deaths could lead to significant variations in the frequency depending on the underlying distribution. Yet how often are we thinking about that technicality when a finding feels right?

The paralysis that this can ingrain is very troubling. If gun control advocates subconsciously spread statistics that inflate the nature of the problem, it provides a reinforcing narrative for those that believe gun ownership is critical for the defense of their communities. In the end, similar fears mixed with opposing conclusions can lead to the worst outcome — increasing polarization and termination of meaningful dialogue.

Our modern world is wildly complex. Technology is accelerating us further into regimes we will never fully understand. To engage the challenges that come with this complexity, dialogue and collaboration are paramount. We must work together to assemble a larger view of the challenges before us. Each one of us possesses a perspective that, on its own, is limited. Yet it is crucial for each of us to show up humbly to offer that perspective which provides the necessary components for a broader view.

While so many herald the power of data as a force for change in the world, I believe a deeper, transformational force lies in the opportunities for collaboration. The Internet has shattered barriers of time and distance. We continue to bear witness to the implications of that change. At present, I believe we’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of the potential. The deeper questions that limit this potential lie within us. What are we afraid of? How open and vulnerable are we willing to be? Dialogue among those with differing views is imperative to build the perspective and define the actions that will ultimately lead to more inclusion and well-being for all. Only after we reflect on these questions will we have the opportunity to grasp the potential that lies before us.