'Gun control' critique

It is arguable that the skill of critical thinking, the ability to analyse and question the truth of any statement or assertion, is fundamental to Theory of Knowledge, and indeed to the whole IB approach to education. Here is a text that exercise the full range of critical thinking skills.

Gun control

This text deals with an issue which is of perennial importance in the USA, that of whether access to firearms should be controlled in any way. If you wish to explore the issue in depth, it's useful to note the following :-

The 2nd Amendment of the United States Constitution reads : "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." The precise meaning of this wording has been debated extensively in the courts - see the Wikipedia entry 'Right to keep and bear arms in the United States' The difficulty (far too subtle for the text below) is whether the right applies to people organised into a 'Militia' only, or whether the right applies to all individuals in all circumstances.

The NRA (National Rifle Association) ... the Wikipedia entry seems as good a place as any for background

Firearm deaths : precise figures of deaths due to firearms in the US are curiously hard to find - or rather, there are lots of figures, but often contradictory or not consistent.

2015 deaths due to firearm violence = 12,912 (see http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/ )

2013 all firearms deaths = 33,636 ( see http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/injury.htm )

visualising firearms deaths - http://www.humanosphere.org/science/2015/10/visualizing-gun-deaths-comparing-u-s-rest-world/

Here is the handout containing the text - read it and see what you think.

Applying critical thinking

However, the real value of this text for our purposes, in my view, is that the text is a wonderful collection of all the tricks and techniques which are warning signs of unreliable and deceptive arguments - and which should immediately activate anyone's critical thinking skills. These elements of rhetoric, tone and style may be called Bullshit Indicators. To be specific, the text uses :

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Pomposity ... the use of 'elevated' language to make an argument sound impressive

Implication (fake) ... suggesting a conclusion without actually explaining the full logic supporting it; (aka Flawed logic )

Innuendo ... suggesting (without evidence) bad things about situations, especially people who have different points of view

Polarisation ... establishing a difference between two shades of grey, and then making it appear black and white

​Exaggeration ... taking bits of evidence and expanding/enlarging them so as to support one side of the argument (falsely)

Audience manipulation ... stimulating the audience's emotional responses to prejudice them in a particular direction

Selective (and inaccurate) facts ... picking only information which supports your case (without checking, whether or not it is believable, and if necessary inventing 'information')

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Using 'Presentation Mode', you may wish to project that list for students to study, learn and apply.

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The worksheet

The worksheet tasks focus one by one on the 'Bullshit Indicators' that I have listed, and are designed to make students exercise their critical thinking skills by analysing and interpreting precise elements of the text.

Here is a guide to the likely expected answers to the various questions.

Pomposity

> The first paragraph uses elevated phrasing - "student of the gun control issue" ... "genius in any one of us" ... "devoted efforts" ... "bear one to another". Notice also the long compound sentence (ll.2-5).

> The sixth paragraph uses very simple language and simple sentence structure.

> The first paragraph's style is intended to sanctify the statements, make the audience feel idealistic, principled, sophisticated and important. The sixth paragraph is the 'idiotspeak' paragraph, for those who can't cope with complicated language; but also for everyone to share simple blunt assertions. It represents argument by gut-reaction.

Implication (fake)

> The statement implies that the more guns there are, the fewer crimes happen - and that there is a direct causal relationship.

> Is this true? It would be stupid to make such an assertion if there was no evidence of any sort to support it, so we should accept that it is based on some statistic, somewhere. But is there a causal relationship? Imagine this alternative explanation: in a country area with a low population consisting of a few farmers, there might be a large number of guns per farmhouse (different guns for hunting different animals) but very few crimes - because there are so few neighbours on which to commit crimes!

​Innuendo

Here's the key example - place the cursor on the little icon to see detailed commentary.

"Of course, for reasons of their own , some of them still say that gun control is desirable. For these people we can only wonder, as would any good citizen, what it is that they have in mind for us that our possession of guns makes them so nervous." (ll.12-15)

There is no specific criticism here, let alone any evidence ... but the bad guys are indicated, and the implication is that they are not just bad but SINISTER!

Polarisation

​The key difference is that we move from "gun control is not going to have much, if any, effect" (ll.11-12) to the refusal to accept that "any measure of gun control equates with some measure of crime control" (ll.16-17) - in other words, from a world that has some degree of gray to a world of black and white. This is the classic progression of simplistic argument, moving towards ever more rigid dogma.

​Exaggeration

The basis of Polarisation is Exaggeration, making everything more than it actually, realistically, is. Consider the example at the beginning of the fifth paragraph - place the cursor on the little icon to see detailed commentary:-

"No group of citizens has ever struggled more conscientiously along the narrow pathway, between hope and moderation on one hand, and the cold facts of efforts to abolish our rights on the other, than the leaders of the National Rifle Association." (ll.20-22)

Audience manipulation

> The intended audience is evidently the readers of the magazine Guns and Ammo.

> We can assume that the readers are (very) interested in everything to do with guns, and that they are not in favour of gun control.

> Phrasing which panders to the audience's emotions:-

* to start with, the use of 'we'...

* ...regularly related to 'citizens' and especially 'good citizens' (e.g. ll.13-14); and ...

* ... "We are the decent people" (l.28)

These are all phrasings which suggest that we the readers are 'good' / 'decent' / 'heroic', even - but there is also an appeal to delicious feelings of self-pity, sense of persecution, even paranoia :-

* "... always losing a little here and a little there until finally nothing would be left us" (ll.18-19)

* "... We try to be reasonable and we are not fools even though we have so often made mistakes in the past 40 years" (ll.28-29)

Selective (and inaccurate) facts

Detecting misleading information is tricky, since you have to have background knowledge in order to detect such flaws of fact. So, I haven't included this Bullshit Indicator in the worksheet, since the students are unlikely to know about the following...

The final paragraph leads up to describing the 1974 attack on Princess Anne as conclusive evidence of defective crime control - i.e. stopping hanging people. In England, capital punishment for murder was abolished in 1965, although ... capital punishment for treason was only abolished in 1998: would kidnapping the Queen's daughter have been considered 'treason'?

The incident is described in lurid detail, which is actually exaggerated and inaccurate :

"armed Englishmen" ... in fact, one psychologically disturbed man

"hail of their own bullets" ... seven shots were fired, in total

"kidnap" ... it was planned as a kidnap, but so confused as to have been unworkable

"eldest daughter" ... Queen Elizabeth II has only one daughter

But, hey! let's not let the facts get in the way of a ringing conclusion.

You can read the background facts on the Princess Anne incident at these sites :-

Capital punishment in the UK - full details in the Wikipedia entry

Princess Anne kidnap - a short summary by the BBC ... OR ... a detailed account by Smithsonian.com

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