Science has proved itself to be a reliable means of understanding the universe and working with it to achieve our goals. Whether we’re talking about curing diseases, mapping out the existence of our planet and life on it, communicating with people around the globe, or taking pictures of other worlds, some branch of science has done what no other field can do. But can science answer all things?
Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, for example, has made the claim that questions of morality can be answered by science. His argument is that suffering is something that can be measured — rocks suffer not at all, while insects suffer a little, and primates a large amount more. Science has the potential to show us how to minimize suffering and maximize happiness. He uses the distinction between health and illness as a parallel. What he’s asserting here is subtle, and he acknowledges that there may be multiple approaches to achieving peaks in human well being. But it seems to me that he is glossing over an assumption. We can move from our desires to fulfillment through efficient or inefficient means, but justifying those desires in the first place isn’t so simple. Why is a long and healthy life a good thing? Because we want that. Whether or not such a life is always the best isn’t clear — what if it’s at the expense of others, what about soldiers who sacrifice their lives to save others.
As I said, that argument is complex. By contrast, Mike Weisser of The Huffington Post makes a claim that is as subtle as a runaway train in an article, titled, “Gun Proponents Aren’t Interested In Facts Or Science.” According to him, supporters of gun control base their beliefs on science, while we troglodytes who value gun rights are willfully ignorant deniers of science.
Weisser glibly tells us that “Gun-sense Nation” believes that there are more than 120,000 Americans who are injured or killed each year by gunfire. For one thing, he’s off by at least 20,000, and he ignores the defensive gun uses in the same period that at least match the number of people who are harmed. Weisser wants us to accept that he is basing his claims on facts, while leaving glaring holes in his body of evidence.
Another problem with what Weisser is trying to convince us of is that the social sciences — and in broader terms we should bring in history — do not offer the same order of certainty that physics or biology provide. This is because elementary particles and chemical interactions are subject to predictable rules, while human beings have a way of going their own ways. Weisser claims that the science is clearly in favor of gun control, but once again, he’s leaving out a great deal of complexity. For example, consider the work of Andrew V. Papachristos who shows that the gun violence in Chicago is not a simple matter of “guns are bad.” Perhaps he’s unaware of the work of Joyce Lee Malcolm that shows that English history contradicts the gun control doctrine that strict gun laws save lives. Perhaps he’s too busy rereading Arthur Kellermann’s work.
It’s no wonder that Weisser says in article after article that he sees no point in talking to supporters of gun rights. Facts have a way of shattering a poorly constructed narrative, and his schtick depends on maintaining the belief that guns in the hands of anyone but the approved few — himself included — is a bad idea.
He closes by wondering “what happens when you find yourself in a discussion about gun violence with someone who believes that Martins [sic] really did land in Area 51?” Did Lawrence, Sheen, and Short do a USO performance at one of the government’s bases that don’t officially exist? That would make as much sense as Weisser’s argument and would be a whole lot more interesting than his smug dismissiveness.
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