29 April 2015

If It Had Happened That Way Instead...

I think this might be backfire effect - actually writing down the words that I'm trying to let stuff go that doesn't affect me directly and that no amount of talking or writing is ever going to change has just had the effect of making me hyper-aware of people's biases and prejudices, misconceptions and irrationalities.

Partially rebound, also partially several conversations I've had lately, starting to pile up in the head.

If writing purges them, no harm in that, right?

One place I see an equivalent logical fallacy (to that which I'll get to after this introduction) that isn't evidence but serves as further "proof" to someone who has already decided the answer, is the debate over the efficacy of bicycle helmets.

A lot of people assume that its a given - how could an extra layer of protection not make you safer?
Of course, mistaken assumptions about complicated physics problems often seem obvious, (for example, that heavy vehicles are safer than lighter vehicles: both the physics AND the statistics show this is false)
Hell, it's intuitively "obvious" that heavy objects fall faster than light objects, and the entire human population accepted this without question for thousands of years, until the world's first scientist (Galileo) came along and actually tried it and discovered everyone was wrong.

So what does the independent evidence say about helmets and safety?
Nothing.  It is completely inconclusive.
You can show in a lab, under strictly controlled conditions, that styrofoam absorbs X lbs of force.
But when researchers look at actual real world results, helmet use seems at best to be neutral, and in many cases head injury rates go UP as helmet use increases. (Link  link  link  link  link  link).  There are lots of potential reasons, and you can read all the links if you want, but my point here is just that some things which are both intuitively obvious and universally "known" turn out to be wrong.

When I have mentioned that, for example, cyclist head injury rates are inversely proportional to helmet use (even after controlling for miles traveled), or that few if any places see any drop in per mile head injury rates after mandatory helmet laws go into effect, or that some researchers have found that both cyclists and drivers take more risks around helmeted cyclists, or that some neck injuries seem to be made worse with helmes -
the response I get is usually an anecdote: "I knew someone who got into a bike crash once" (and then it goes one of two ways) "...and they were wearing a helmet and they were ok" (or) "...and they weren't wearing a helmet and they had a serious concussion."

And then from there, they tack on part 2, the conjecture: "...but IF they hadn't been wearing it, it would have been a serious injury"  (or) "...if only they had been wearing it, they would have been fine".
In the mind of someone who has already decided on the answer, this somehow counts as evidence.
Even though it is obviously pure conjecture!
It uses the very fact its aiming to "prove" as already being a given.

How do you know, what "would have" happened, considering that it didn't!?!?!?

Of course, I can honestly answer that anecdote with either "my ex-wife fell off her bike, wasn't even hit by a car or another bike, just fell off, at a pretty moderate speed on flat ground, and she was hospitalized with a major concussion, even though she was wearing a certified bike helmet at the time.  It was so bad that she had no idea how she got to the hospital, and was in a fog over an hour later when I picked her up.", as well as "In high school I rollerbladed down a 15 foot, 45-degree angle, concrete ramp with a 5 ft vertical drop at the end, messed up the landing, and landed on the back of my head, while not wearing a helmet, and aside from a surface cut, I was 100% fine.  Of course everyone around me freaked out, and they made me go to the hospital, but I never for a second lost consciousness or had any memory lapse, and analysis at the hospital said I was - as I already suspected - 100% fine."
For some reason my personally experienced anecdotes never seem to counter the 2nd, 3rd, or sometimes 4th person accounts which confirm what the person I am talking to has already decided is fact.

Which is fine - anecdotes don't ever prove anything - but it should be enough to counter the assumed outcome of the hypothetical: it is at least possible that if your friend had or hadn't been wearing a helmet, the outcome would have been exactly the same.

I hear the identical line of reasoning used by people regularly, who have made up their minds about the personality of anyone who goes into law enforcement.
There are many variants of the details, but they all go something like this:
[liberal white person] "I got stopped by the cops one time for [fill in the blank]. Its just a good thing I'm white; if I was black I definitely would have gone to jail".
Or, sometimes, the last couple words are "...been shot" - depending on just how extreme this particular person's bias is.

There is also the black person's version: "I got stopped for [fill in the blank] - you know if I was white they wouldn't have stopped me for that..."

See the similarity?
There is no possible way you can know what "would have" happened, hypothetically, if every single detail was exactly the same, except for that one.

In the real world every single detail is never exactly the same, so you can't control for race with 100% accuracy.  The best you can do is factor in as much detail as possible, and then compare across as wide a sample as you possibly can.
And just like with bike helmets, when you look at zoomed out real world statistics (instead of just anecdotes), the assumptions don't hold up - if you control for things like crime rate, sex, age, income level and education level, there is no evidence of bias on the basis of race at the arrest level.
(note - there IS evidence of race bias at the conviction and sentencing levels, but there is an extremely significant distinction in that juries, made up of random individual citizens, are responsible for deciding convictions.  Which means society as a whole may very well be racist, but that doesn't prove anything one way or the other about "the justice system")
In fact, if you factor in crime rates, it appears that blacks may often actually have a small advantage - I wrote about one example not too long ago, regarding New York's stop and frisk:
70% of people illegally carrying guns were black, 70% of suspects in shootings were black, 70% of those who shot at cops were black, and yet only 40% of those shot by cops were black.
If the data shows any racial bias, its against white people, who made up only about 25% of those carrying illegal guns and suspects in shootings, and yet made up 35-40% of those shot by cops.

But, just like with bike helmets, the human mind doesn't usually accept statistics as evidence, so, like with my two (true!) helmet stories, I'll share some (also true) cop anecdotes of my own.
Which, (just like with the helmet stories), won't change anyone's mind on bit, because people hate changing their minds about things they feel strongly about.  But at least once I write it down, I can stop thinking about it. ;-P

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