Oct 09 2017

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Voltaire-quoteThis aphorism has been around since about 1600, originating with Voltaire in French. I have found it to be a useful concept – not an iron-clad rule, but an excellent guiding principle. The perfect is the enemy of the good (sometimes “good enough”).

What this means is that we should not be paralyzed into inaction because we cannot achieve a perfect solution to a specific problem. The idealized perfect solution becomes an obstacle to solutions that are adequate, or at least an improvement on what we have now.

In reality this can be a tricky principle to apply, however. Like the informal logical fallacies, or any informal guideline for clear thinking, there are no rigid rules or definitions. Judgement is required, which means that subjectivity and bias are also involved.

There are two specific ways this principle is either applied to not applied that tends to come up with skeptical topics. The first deals with our own activism – when should we apply this principle?

For example, over the years I and some of my medical colleagues have had a disagreement about how best to approach topics like vaccine exemptions. We all agree that non-medical exemptions decrease vaccine compliance and are a threat to public health. We all agree that in a perfect world states would not allow non-medical exemptions (only exemptions for children who medically are unable to be vaccinated).

What we disagree on is what our public position should be. Should we only advocate for the position of no non-medical exemptions (the perfect), or also advocate for lesser positions that are still an improvement on what most states have? For example, states may eliminate philosophical exemptions, but still allow religious exemptions, and they can make it more difficult to obtain religious exemptions (like attending a class on the risk of vaccine-preventable diseases). These lesser measures are also effective, but not as effective as completely eliminating non-medical exemptions.

We have the same dilemma when it comes to chiropractic – should our position be to reform the profession to make it science-based, or to oppose the profession as being inherently unscientific?

The conflict is often between moral and intellectual purism vs pragmatism. The purist position often feels better. We praise “moral clarity” and it’s easy to criticize someone advocating for compromise as being “mealy mouthed” or weak. Often extreme historical cases are invoked in order to justify the purist position, usually slavery. Should we have tried to restrict slavery and lobby for better treatment of slaves, or ban slavery outright as a moral outrage. Of course there is only one answer.

But not all social questions rise to the level of slavery. And further, banning slavery was the end result of a process that did involve half-way measures, such as banning the slave trade, and restricting the proliferation of slavery. Banning slavery itself was just part of a larger process of racial freedom (albeit the most dramatic one). Further, Lincoln himself had to compromise in the process of emancipating the slaves and ending slavery, to criticisms from the abolitionists. So even slavery itself is a complicated historical example in order to make the point for “moral clarity.”

What the example really is, is an attempt at transplanting the moral clarity on slavery that we hold today onto the past. This creates a contrived example that favors moral purity over pragmatism, because it removes all the context that makes pragmatism necessary.

At the same time, the morally pure position needs to exist and someone needs to advocate for it. The abolitionists needed to be there, making their strong moral case against slavery. But they would not have succeeded without the pragmatists (and even then it required a bloody civil war).

In the end it seems that there needs to be a delicate balance between our goal, the perfect morally pure position, and the good enough that we will accept along the way in order to compromise. Further, we need to judge each situation on its own merits. Some questions do require moral purity, others are more nuanced or require compromise among those with equally valid but distinct moral values. You can’t treat every political battle as if it’s slavery.

There is also a second distinct way in which this principle comes up in skeptical contexts. I often see the perfect held up as an obstructionist strategy. These types of arguments often are used to oppose a measure someone does not like because that measure is not a perfect solution.

For example, anti-fluoridationists will argue that fluoride does not completely eliminate tooth decay. They will also argue that people could simply brush their teeth regularly. Essentially what they are saying is that if everyone had perfect oral hygiene, we would’t need to fluoridate the water. So we should be putting our efforts into promoting oral hygiene.

The poor logic here is that public health measures should be judged on a risk vs benefit and secondarily return on investment approach. Does this specific intervention have benefit in excess of risk, and are the benefits worth the cost? It doesn’t really matter that there are more effective measures out there, especially if those perfect solutions are unobtainable.

That is really the strategy – to hold out the unobtainable perfect solution to obstruct lesser but still effective and practical solutions.

Similarly, anti-GMO activists argue that we don’t need nutritionally enhanced foods (like golden rice) or that we don’t need to increase food production. All we need is to completely fix poverty, have optimal food distribution, and eliminate food waste. These, of course, are unobtainable goals (at least in the foreseeable future) but are used to obstruct workable GMO solutions.

I also find this strategy is common in the anti-gun control camp. We don’t need to regulate guns, all we need to do is eliminate violence and suicide. Those are the “real” problems.

Often the answer to these obstructionist arguments is to say – sure, let’s work on those complex social problems. But meanwhile, we can mitigate the damage they do with some sensible regulations.

To reiterate – the notion that the perfect is the enemy of the good, like any logical principle, is not a formula you can simply apply to a question. It is a guiding principle that may help you think a bit more clearly about a problem.

I also think that, while there is certainly a need to recognize and aspire to morally pristine positions, we should not denigrate the pragmatic middle. It is also often said that part of America’s greatness is our genius at compromise. Perhaps this is something we need to value more.

34 responses so far

34 thoughts on “The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good”

  1. SteveA says:

    Not sure about ‘1600’. Voltaire was born in 1694.

  2. SteveA says:

    Okay. I followed the link. Think I see what you’re getting at now.

  3. Ivan Grozny says:

    “I also find this strategy is common in the anti-gun control camp. We don’t need to regulate guns, all we need to do is eliminate violence and suicide. Those are the “real” problems.”

    If there ever was a “straw man” – this is it. I am really curious to meet a gun-rights activist who believes that we could ‘eliminate violence and suicide’. Maybe you can direct me to some of them.

    The arguments I hear from them is rather that gun control will not eliminate mass shootings, that those measures are ineffective (even some liberals like Diane Feinstein gravitate towards this view). The other argument is constitutional – that there is something called 2nd amendment that prevents many of the gun proposed control measures ( I am not dwelling here on who is right and who is wrong about the interpretation of the meaning of the 2nd amendment, just pointing out that gun rights people use the 2nd amendment as an argument, not the claim that violence and suicide could be “eliminated”).

  4. The way I try to frame the balance between idealism and pragmatism is by understanding that it can often simply be impossible to go straight from the present situation to whatever pure solution you have in mind. It’s akin to arguing that because your goal is to get to the top of a mountain, it’s wrong to climb halfway up first. You literally can’t get to the top of a mountain without traversing the entire mountain, so it’s nonsensical to oppose the “pragmatic” approach of climbing incrementally.

    Where people will object to this line of reasoning is by not understanding the analogous impossibility of their moral purity. That’s because morally pure solutions often amount to “if everyone believed or behaved like me, then problem X would go away.” And since the effort required to arrive at a particular belief or behavior is often invisible, we don’t realize that any particular belief we have is a result of history, environment, experiences, friends, other beliefs, allegiances, intellectual effort, and time. Instead we believe something because it’s “right,” so duh, why would we believe otherwise?

    Ultimately, this is an issue of what’s physically possible, because the brain is just not a mystical entity that can make untethered decisions. It’s a giant lump of cells that has to follow physical, chemical, biological, neurological, and psychological rules. If the solution to a problem is to have everyone change their beliefs, we cannot realistically expect that to happen instantly.

  5. NotAMarsupial says:

    Ivan,
    I don’t see gun rights advocates phrasing things the same way as Steve, but I frequently hear the argument somewhere along the lines of “knives kill people too” or “cars kill people too” etc. The argument being that there will be people with violent tendencies who will find a way to hurt people regardless of what restrictions there are on guns. They may not say, “All we need to do is eliminate violence and suicide” but the sentiment is certainly there.

  6. wellerpond says:

    I worked for a graphic artists who was his own worst enemy in just this regard. We were up against a deadline to choose a color for a public exhibit. Knowing he liked a lot of choices, I brought him eight samples of barely distinguishable shades of blue.

    He said, “How am I supposed to choose if I don’t know what colors are between those?”

  7. mufi says:

    In my experience, such conflicts often boil down to the purist’s assumption that pragmatists lack his/her moral clarity on the issue. In other words, if the pragmatist shared the purist’s moral clarity on the problem, then s/he would also share her more radical solution.

    That may be true to some degree in some cases – i.e. where the “pragmatist” is only pragmatic out of a wish-washy, noncommittal attitude (“split the baby in half”, to use a biblical reference) – and there may even be cases where the “pragmatist’s” values really are corrupt (e.g. certain advisors of “realpolitik”, some of whom are accused of war crimes, come to mind here as suspects).

    But, insofar as the purist generalizes from exceptional cases like these to *all* cases – even where the values (priorities/interests/goals) are more or less the same and only the strategy or tactic is different – I think we have a few fallacies and biases at work here (e.g. overgeneralization, no true Scotsman, and a belief bias about conclusions).

  8. Dan Dionne says:

    I’ve definitely seen this logic applied to the US gun debate. As recently as last week someone on Facebook argued that there’s no point in regulation because we can’t achieve a nearly gun-free society like in the UK, and that there would continue to be murders anyway. I replied, if fair and improved gun regulation reduced yearly gun deaths by just 10%, 3,300 fewer people would lose their lives each year. To those people, it wouldn’t matter how small the effect was on total gun deaths–it made an infinite amount of difference for them.

  9. MosBen says:

    Agreed. Steve’s phrasing may be a bit more stark than what I see from conservatives online, but the result is awfully similar. Gun control won’t end violence, the argument goes, so why even bother. Instead, let’s talk about funding for mental health programs for a few weeks but do nothing about it and drop the issue when the media has moved on.

  10. Obviously no one literally says we need to eliminate violence and suicide. But that is essentially their logic.

    Why, just last week on this very blog in response to my article on gun control a commenter wrote: “This strongly suggests to me that in the United States we have a murder problem, not a gun control problem.”

    Keep in mind what I am saying – they are being obstructionist. They say – we really need to address violence, murder, crime. etc. And also, these things are never going away, “you can’t legislate away evil”, so why bother.

  11. Johnny says:

    “Some questions do require moral purity, others are more nuanced or require compromise among those with equally valid but distinct moral values.”

    The premise of this sentence seems to me to be that among moral values, there are those that are valid, and those that are not. But is that really a philosophically justifiable position?

    Now, there are values that certain groups adhere to that I consider abominable. Those include Hezbollah, the Islamic State, the Workers’ Party of Korea, the KKK, among others. But can I really say that their moral values are invalid, even as I completely reject them and would like for them to disappear?

  12. Johnny – you are talking about ethical philosophy. But sure, some moral positions are philosophically invalid, they are either internally inconsistent, or they violate basic principles. Of course, this judgement is also based on what philosophical system you are using to evaluate moral positions.

    The bottom line, though, is that I think we can come to a consensus as a society about certain moral positions, enough so that we can treat them as valid moral premises.

  13. Art Eternal says:

    Many societal problems continue when no speech is allowed. For example, current gun advocates say the 2nd Amendment is the beginning and ending of all thoughts on Constitutional Rights. If you say the word, control, in any legislation, the NRA will lobby to stop it. There are real citizens in parts of the USA where you are expected to own a gun to prove you are a true American
    Often the best practice is more speech for speech which is offensive. If we dislike what a speaker has to say, can we expect his profession or ideas to disappear? If we shout at the same time as the speaker and block the speech, are we better for it?

  14. exoheuri says:

    for me it comes to how well grounded one’s idea of “good” and “good enough” is. i have studied “good people” for 35 years, and allow that they are in fact “ideal” humans. while each has at least one flaw, collectively they embody the “ideal”, and each is “good enough”.
    i accept them as a guide to my improvement, and am happy with “good enough”, while pushing on to “good”. that allows me more time to help others and improve the general environment.
    if we each reach “good enough” then we will have little difficulty in navigating vaccination, etc., and might even show daring enough to tackle slavery in its modern form: authoritarianism, privilege, secrecy, competition, and punishment. that would help eliminate anxiety, depression, violence, and suicide.
    perfection? a small part of deliberation?

  15. Kabbor says:

    “We don’t need to regulate guns, all we need to do is eliminate violence and suicide.”
    And accidents and create perfect safe storage compliance.

    In a folksy voice “Yeah I reckon that 7 year old would have killed his classmates another way if he didn’t have access to his fathers arsenal.”

  16. Donna B. says:

    Well… this is interesting. I’m gonna say about half y’all got your idea of “gun rights folks” from Facebook memes and another quarter of ya got them from more “thoughtful” gun control sites. What this hick is seeing is ain’t none of ya got it quite right. However, the virtue signalling is quite well done. (Now let’s see if I can do mine!!)

    Neal Knox was a 2nd Amendment purist — he suffered from the same perfect is the enemy of the good ideals. He influenced quite a few people, but… didn’t he sort of get kicked out of the NRA?

    I suspect that “control” is not the word that makes NRA people advocate against a law, but the possibility of registration of gun owners. That silly idea of registration has even allied the NRA with the ACLU. There’s this whole thing about government surveillance that just strikes a lot of citizens as wrong. As does the idea of tracking a citizen’s ideological or religious or whatever affiliations. (WHAT — you joined the PTA??)

    As for “eliminating violence and suicide”, I think perhaps the NRA has a better grasp on human nature than they are given credit for. What is wrong with the idea that existing laws should be enforced more routinely in the name of – at least – reducing violence? Suicide… now that’s a whole different matter and it’s not one that is completely about mental illness. There’s an overlap there with the physician-assisted version, isn’t there… where sanity isn’t questioned?

    Though I can’t quite bring myself to believe in God… or gods… I can believe in Evil. My belief is along the lines of evil is the absence of humanity. What I don’t believe is that humanity is “God-given”. It could be argued that my belief is that insanity is evil, but I believe that evil requires at least partial sanity — ie, the legal argument that one knows the difference between right and wrong, but chooses wrong because it pleases or excites them. Insanity can’t tell the difference. Of course, I may be insane…

    I get quite annoyed with the NRA at times. But I also get annoyed with the ACLU. And the NAACP and every other advocacy group. What they all have in common is a narrow-minded view of life and the pursuit of happiness. They’re all examples of the Puritan stereotype (which is likely unfair to Puritans).

    But I also think every one of them have at least a few good points. What pisses me off is that it seems I’m not “socially” allowed to pick and choose what points I wish to agree with — if I think the NRA is right about something, I’m bad all over to some people. If I think PETA is right about something, I’m bad all over to another set of some other people.

    And then I’ve got my damned white privilege to deal with. Thank goodness, I’m female so I get one or two points somewhere. I think…

    I’m thoroughly pro-vaccine. And that causes me an occasional social problem too.

    I’d really like to figure out which virtues to signal when, where, and too whom.

  17. BillyJoe7 says:

    “That silly idea of registration…about government surveillance that just strikes a lot of citizens as wrong”

    Yeah, I think people should be allowed to carry loaded guns with the safety catches removed if they damn well want to.

  18. RickK says:

    Donna B: “There’s this whole thing about government surveillance that just strikes a lot of citizens as wrong.”

    We don’t seem to have much problem with registering our children, registering our cars, registering to vote or to fish. With a few colorful exceptions, most of us see the need for our kids to be “in the system”, we see the need to set a minimum level of skill and ability to operate a car, we see the need to limit the number of times a person can vote or the need to preserve our natural resources.

    But when it comes to a person’s right to own and operate tools designed to efficiently destroy fellow citizens, suddenly registration is “government surveillance”. Even the companies that manufacture and distribute guns have special legal protections (Tiahrt Amendment) to avoid any possibility of “surveillance”.

    There are no easy answers, but surely the right answer can’t be to hide the data. Shouldn’t we be able to ask questions of a gun distributor whose weapons keep showing up in he hands of gang members, or of a guy who buys multiple semi-auto rifles and multiple full-auto conversion kits?

  19. BillyJoe7 says:

    Yeah, and I don’t want to have to bother with no damn car registration and drivers licence, or to memorise some damn road rules if I don’t want to.
    Damn government.

  20. Donna B. says:

    Take up that surveillance/registration thing with the ACLU. They filed the suit, the NRA just submitted an amicus brief.

    I’m not even sure what this means: “With a few colorful exceptions, most of us see the need for our kids to be “in the system” ”

    And again with the assumptions and virtue signalling and a little quiff worthy of a facebook meme: “Yeah, I think people should be allowed to carry loaded guns with the safety catches removed if they damn well want to.” Who said that… other than BillyJoe7?

    The Tiahrt Amendment does not prevent data from being queried or used by law enforcement agencies. If the law enforcement agencies find evidence of trafficking, it certainly can be used for criminal charges. You make it sound as if it protects criminal activity and it does not.

    And let’s not get into whether the data is good. Databases are almost always corrupted in one way or another. It usually begins with data entry and snowballs from there. I’m definitely including the ones kept on driver’s licenses, vehicle registrations, fishing (and hunting) licenses, credit reports, and the IRS.

    The argument that we register/license/track other activities so that means it’s fine for government to track gun ownership is muddied by the existence of the 2nd Amendment. Anyone who is serious about eliminating “gun violence” will be advocating that it be repealed. Just remember it says “bear arms” and that “arms” are not limited to guns. Your pocket knife and a baseball bat might also be included. And bows and arrows and any other instrument or tool that is used to defend oneself against any threat, not just human threats. Or used to obtain and prepare food. Frankly, machetes scare the hell out of me. All of these arms are legal if they are used legally.

    By the way, in 2007, I had 3 assault weapons in my carry-on bag that went through security checks at 2 different major airports. Not a single mention of them, although my cigarette lighter was confiscated.

    Is fencing OK as a sport? I mean, what possible use is there for learning how to kill someone with a long sharp blade? Duels are illegal now, aren’t they?

    The best argument for legislative efforts to regulate guns is that NO right is absolute. For the 1st Amendment that has meant that words used for unwarranted harm are not protected — libel, slander, fighting words, etc. For the 2nd Amendment it means the same thing — arms used for unwarranted harm are not protected. The arms and the words and their use are all tied together. Actually, the restrictions on the 2nd Amendment are stronger — one convicted of a violent crime cannot legally purchase or retain possession of a firearm. The penalties for libel or slander do not include never using or publishing words again.

    But we’re gonna be fine, because rapier wit, BillyJoe7 style, is protected by the 1st Amendment.

  21. RickK says:

    Donna said: “The Tiahrt Amendment does not prevent data from being queried or used by law enforcement agencies. If the law enforcement agencies find evidence of trafficking, it certainly can be used for criminal charges. You make it sound as if it protects criminal activity and it does not.”

    The anti money laundering (AML) department in any bank has unfettered access to client transaction data. The AML team spends its time sifting that data with ever more sophisticated models to find patterns that might indicate the use of money for illegal activities. The Tiahrt Amendment is designed to protect against exactly that kind of analysis of firearms sales and distribution. You may think that protection is a net positive for our country – far and away the largest manufacturer and distributor of firearms. I don’t think it is positive to give an industry defined by its lethality such a free pass.

  22. RickK says:

    “With a few colorful exceptions, most of us see the need for our kids to be “in the system” means that with the exception of some fringe groups, most people have little problem with the government recording the births of their children and assigning social security numbers.

  23. CKava says:

    And let’s not get into whether the data is good. Databases are almost always corrupted in one way or another. It usually begins with data entry and snowballs from there. I’m definitely including the ones kept on driver’s licenses, vehicle registrations, fishing (and hunting) licenses, credit reports, and the IRS.

    This sentiment seems rather relevant to Steve’s article. All databases have issues and errors sure but it is still much better to have an imperfect database than no database at all.

    The argument that we register/license/track other activities so that means it’s fine for government to track gun ownership is muddied by the existence of the 2nd Amendment.

    Why? Even if you take the second amendment as fully entitling individual’s rights to carry any arms they like, there is nothing in there that states the government should not keep a register.

    Anyone who is serious about eliminating “gun violence” will be advocating that it be repealed.

    Why? There are plenty of sensible interpretations of the 2nd amendment that do not define it as ensuring the unfettered rights to individuals to bear arms but rather to referring to ‘well-regulated’ militias and ‘the people’ that compromise it. Why should people waste their efforts on something which would be exceedingly unlikely politically, e.g. repealing part of the constitution, rather than focusing on much more pragmatic goals like insuring better regulation.

    Just remember it says “bear arms” and that “arms” are not limited to guns. Your pocket knife and a baseball bat might also be included. And bows and arrows and any other instrument or tool that is used to defend oneself against any threat, not just human threats. Or used to obtain and prepare food. Frankly, machetes scare the hell out of me. All of these arms are legal if they are used legally.

    You complain about facebook caricatures but here you provide an almost textbook illustration of the slippery slope fallacy. If regulations are placed on guns, soon they will be coming for your baseball bats and cooking knifes! Take a look at the other countries that have prohibited gun ownership and see if archery and baseball are prohibited too. If this is one of your major concerns then you should rest assured that it is possible to make laws that have enough nuance to control access to guns and still enable you to use sharp knives for cooking and learn archery. There also seems to be a lot of *whataboutery* in your comments. Well if you want to regulate guns, what about bows and arrows!?! Are homicides and suicides by archery a major issue for American society? If so, I would agree with you this should be addressed, and if not, then maybe it isn’t worth focusing on that over gun laws…

    Is fencing OK as a sport? I mean, what possible use is there for learning how to kill someone with a long sharp blade? Duels are illegal now, aren’t they?

    As above, are there thousands being killed each year in fencing duels or committing suicide using fencing foils (which are a lot less lethal than you suggest)? If not, I think this probably isn’t the best analogy. And no, I can’t see anyone arguing for a prohibition on fencing alongside gun control, again look to countries with stronger gun control laws and note that generally fencing continues unmolested and yet swords typically have not replaced the lethal role of guns.

    I’m not really seeing that much in your arguments that contradicts my expectations for American gun advocates. There are certainly lots of very nice and intelligent people in the US that are super attached to their guns and treat the 2nd amendment as a a sacred value but the quality of the arguments presented by them in support of gun ownership is fairly consistent with the level rhetoric employed by the NRA.

  24. Donna B. says:

    RickK — intriguing comparison to money laundering. I’m giving that some thought, but I’m not sure it’s a valid comparison. Frankly, I need more information about both systems. My initial thought is that they both track transactions but one is much more static than the other. It’s my understanding that the money-laundering tracking essentially “samples” and searches for anomalies in a fast-moving environment. The trace database is more historical and attempts to track a physical item after the transaction as well. It seems the anti money laundering department of the bank is similar to law enforcement so their access seems comparable to me… so far.

    CKava – thanks for the reply. It’s tedious to do a good old-fashioned fisking, so I know you put some thought into it.

    As for data — bad/corrupted data is relatively useless. Missing data is completely useless. Ask a scientist. Way way back in the 80s, I did data entry as a temp job. Maybe it’s different now, but then it was “piece work”. You got paid for how much you entered, not whether it was correct. And it is not really all that easy to get corrections made to a database… Tricare inexplicably turned my husband into a woman, and then refused to pay for his prostate cancer treatment. The military treatment center where I was a patient “lost” all my electronic medical records. That was interesting and I’m still dealing with it. And that’s not even getting into the issue of whether the database is “mined” correctly. Targeted ads generally make me laugh, for example.

    My comments about knives and baseball bats as weapons are based on what my UK relatives tell me about the laws there. (ie, if you use a baseball bat to defend yourself, you’d best be on a baseball team because to possess it with self-defense in mind is not allowed.) The same reasoning applies to swords and bows and arrows in the UK. You can have a Swiss Army knife though. A chef may transport his knives to his workplace and back home. Best not stop by the pub on the way, though. It’s also based on comments from several Canadian internet friends talking about attitudes toward self-defense in Canada.

    And you mistake me for a “gun advocate”. I’d like to see restrictions already in place enforced and I’d like to see some new ideas for better laws. I’m not an NRA or GOA member. But I cannot see how registration of gun owners accomplishes anything. It would only be useful after the fact, if at all.

    That said, I think your “interpretations” of the 2nd Amendment won’t hold water, legally or logically. (If only legal and logic were more closely related!)

  25. BillyJoe7 says:

    Donna,

    “I’d like to see restrictions already in place enforced and I’d like to see some new ideas for better laws. I’m not an NRA or GOA member. But I cannot see how registration of gun owners accomplishes anything”

    Oh, I see, you were equating “surveillance” with “registrations”.
    Maybe you would have benefited from substituting clarity for volume.
    I might not then have been reduced to replying with “assumptions”, “virtue signalling”, “facebook memes”, and “rapier wit”!
    All in the space of one short sentence!

    (And, I will have you know that I was runner-up in the Christopher Hitchens’ best put-down competition)

  26. RickK says:

    Donna said: “It’s my understanding that the money-laundering tracking essentially “samples” and searches for anomalies in a fast-moving environment.”

    Actually, AML mostly involves fishing for patterns in historical data: companies with many small accounts, patterns of money transfer, large numbers of transactions under $10,000, geographical movement patterns. It’s all about open access to historical data to look for patterns. Some of the tests and rules can migrate to being real-time checks, but the vast majority is historical data analysis.

    The Tiahrt Amendment allows access IF there’s evidence of illegal activity with a firearm. It specifically prevents fishing for patterns of gun distribution to criminals, geographical movement of weapons, correlation hunting, etc.

    So we exercise more oversight of activity that results in loss of money than we do in activity that results in loss of life. I think those priorities are backward – do you disagree?

  27. Donna B. says:

    “So we exercise more oversight of activity that results in loss of money than we do in activity that results in loss of life. I think those priorities are backward – do you disagree?”

    Trick question!

    AML most certainly deals with activities that can result in loss of life. If the goal was to only prevent loss of money, I’d agree. But isn’t the goal to find criminal activity such as… funding terrorism? Perhaps funding terrorism through arms purchases? Suspicion of that would certainly warrant using the trace database as well as other resources. Drugs are deadly also, so finding evidence of money-laundering there might also save lives.

    How the two databases were/are created is important too. Banking records, as a whole, are probably the most accurate databases we humans have created. Aren’t they among the first type of records to have been automated? Haven’t they required some sort of periodic balancing for… ever? Manufacturing and retail records? Not so accurate. On top of that, much of the historical data the trace database has was extracted from hard copies. Two chances there for error — the extraction and the entry.

    Also, AML is tracking only one easily quantifiable thing — money. Firearms come in so many types and manufacturers/distributors/retailers come and go so much more often that any fishing would be in very murky waters.

    I don’t think that accessing the trace database after there is evidence elsewhere is necessarily prioritizing money over life. I disagree with your premise that only one of the data sources deals with activity that results in loss of life.

  28. CKava says:

    Donna,

    Never heard of ‘fisking’ before, you learn something new everyday!

    As to your other points:

    I don’t think you’ve established that registration databases are useless. You’ve just provided some anecdotal problems you’ve experienced but, being a good skeptic, I’m sure you’re well aware of how useful it is to judge things based on anecdotes. You might think targeted ads are laughable, for instance, but I’d be willing to bet that a) you aren’t aware of all the targeted ads you see or their influence on you (in fact you probably only really notice the ones that are poor matches) and b) they clearly are effective enough to warrant their widespread use by marketers.

    I also don’t need to ask a scientist about bad data, since I work with databases most days myself. So I know from my own experience that while corrupted or poorly entered data can be problematic, as long as it is not a systematic error, it generally doesn’t invalidate the usefulness of ALL the data. So there you go, there is one anecdotal counterpoint to your anecdote that all data entry is shoddy and makes databases worthless. Ah, the joy of relying on anecdotes over actual research….

    My comments about knives and baseball bats as weapons are based on what my UK relatives tell me about the laws there.

    Your UK relatives are exaggerating. I grew up in the UK, never played baseball in my life and yet owned a bunch of baseball bats without any problem. Similarly, I’ve never had any problem purchasing camping and cooking knives. If I was carrying them around, concealed, and threatening people, that would be a different story but you seem to have the unwarranted impression that you can’t own anything more than a Swiss army knife. I can assure you that isn’t the case. If you beat someone to a bloody pulp with a baseball bat, or stab someone with a concealed knife, you will indeed have to explain your actions though. Imagine that, a society where it is illegal to carry concealed weapons! Sounds like a hellscape!

    And you mistake me for a “gun advocate”.

    I doubt that I am mistaking you for a gun advocate. You are presenting the stereotypical gun advocate positions, with a selection of the usual caveats. Didn’t you recently recommend that people serious about gun control should focus on repealing the 2nd amendment? And aren’t you currently diverting the discussion to address the real important issues, such as whether you could lose your ability to carry bows and arrows or practice fencing? You don’t need to be a member of the NRA or some right wing lunatic fringe to be a gun advocate.

    I think your “interpretations” of the 2nd Amendment won’t hold water, legally or logically.

    As far as ‘my’ interpretation of the 2nd amendment goes- it isn’t mine. It is a common legal interpretation and one that has at various times in the past been upheld by the US supreme court. In fact, the issue was still under significant debate until the 2008 Heller decision. The fact that you find this to be such a kooky view suggests a certain bias to your sources. There is a lengthy section on the wikipedia article on the 2nd Amendment discussing the debate, if you want to learn more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution#Late_20th_century_commentary

  29. RickK says:

    Donna,

    Thank you for a wonderful example of motivated reasoning.

    Are you seriously suggesting the $13 billion firearms marketplace is more complicated (because there are many models of guns) than the $2 trillion financial industry? Do you really think the product list for guns is somehow more complicated than the product list for financial instruments? I’ll leave you to rethink that line of reasoning.

    Now, please explain why gun sales and distribution records are not important enough to be accurate? If they’re as bad as you say, why do we allow it? I can say with a high degree of professional authority that banking records are more accurate as a result of being audited and analyzed. Yet you seem to be arguing against doing so for firearms records. Why?

    I’ll grant that much money laundering supports terrorism and drug dealing. Approximately 3400 Americans have died from terrorism since 2000. During the same period approximately 600,000 Americans have died from drug overdose. And approximately 450,000 have died from firearms.

    So…. if lethality is a measure of relative importance of data, shouldn’t we put nearly as much energy into analyzing and improving gun records as we do into financial records?

  30. Donna B. says:

    CKava, I was not trying to establish that bad data is completely useless, but rather… as you say, problematic. Addressing the problems of bad data (which is often accompanied by bad statistical analysis) doesn’t seem to me to be taken quite seriously enough. There’s a lot of gray area between “useless” and “reliable”. Somewhere on that continuum, basing policy on the results becomes a bad idea. Where… well, that argument will go on for a while.

    One of my favorite blogs (other than this one, of course!) is https://graphpaperdiaries.com/

    It’s not just targeted internet ads. The oldest ad databases are probably direct mailing lists. My 40 & 50 year old offspring still get mail here in their maiden names. As for the internet ads, I actively manipulate them and casually track the results. IOW, I corrupt the data. It’s really quite easy to tell which ones I’ve triggered, when, and how, especially on Facebook. Yahoo is somewhat more opaque and generic. Anecdotal? Not quite. A pattern over time, that’s been tested (even if casually) and for which a plausible explanation exists is something that need more research.

    I won’t argue that my UK relatives are not exaggerating. They are, however, genuinely afraid of running afoul of the regulations there. They won’t even drive 5 miles over the speed limit when visiting here, or drive after having one beer or wine. They don’t balk at riding with a driver who’s had one or two, so it’s not a fear of impairment. They spend enough time in “the states” to be quite comfortable driving on the “wrong side of the road” so that’s not a factor. They describe themselves as ambidangerous.

    Well, go ahead and call my arguments “stereotypical” of a gun advocate. I’ll get over it. I’ve spent enough time with actual gun advocates (those who are frothing at the mouth because the NRA isn’t opposing regulations on bump thingies) to shrug off the attempted insult. What you didn’t pick up on (or chose to ignore) is the emphasis on individual self-defense and food provision. I do not believe that the 2nd Amendment refers to military arms or a collective right. I think it refers to an individual right of self-defense which can scale to the defense of the collective.

    I think that all powers of the collective must have roots in the rights of the individual, else there is no right or power at all. That stems from taking all the words of the Bill of Rights into consideration. I am certainly not into anarchy.

  31. Donna B. says:

    Side note on the mailing lists. I’m moving to a different state soon and I’m looking forward to finding out what will get forwarded. I already know that the postal service sells forwarding data that is mined to create “relationships” so I think it will be interesting. But not trustworthy. I’m leaving envelopes and postage for the new owners of this house to mail certain important documents to me. I’m not relying strictly on the forwarding service or the buyers. I’m doing all I can think of to make sure my address is updated with individual companies also. However, I make mistakes and overlook things.

    And I am not planning on ever moving again. Actually, I never planned on moving this time, but I made the mistake of saying I’d never move again. Now I’m just saying it’s not in my plans.

    I hope somebody here is old enough to get the reference…

  32. CKava says:

    Donna B.,

    I agree bad data is ‘problematic’ but like the article says ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’. I do agree with of the dangers of bad statistical analysis bundled on top of bad data but all of that seems to me to be arguments in favour of making a robust registration system rather than abandoning the concept.

    I’m sure you can f*** with targeted ads too, but colour me skeptical that you are completely in control of how marketing impacts you. I like to think of myself as savvy too, but I still recognise there is lots of marketing I’m being influenced by everyday that I don’t register.

    I can’t speak to your UK relatives, but would highlight you are operating from a rather circumscribed sample size. I know a lot of people from the UK and there is substantial variation in their risk taking behaviour. The lack of guns in society has not quite converted the population into subservient cattle.

    I also don’t think you should take my label of ‘gun advocate’ as an offence. As I said, there are plenty of intelligent, perfectly nice people who are pro-gun- their arguments might be extremely unconvincing but that doesn’t make them ‘bad people’. I think it’s a mistake for people who are in favour of gun regulation to portray all gun advocates as frothing NRA neo-Nazis. I have no doubt that in comparison to such people you would be classified as a wishy washy anti-gun pacifist, but like I said that’s not what I mean by ‘gun advocate’.

    Finally, on the 2nd amendment issue, you implied ‘my’ interpretation was outlandish but as the wikipedia article indicates, it is neither ‘my’ interpretation nor particularly unusual. That you would interpret the text as referring to individual rights is not a shock to me, but I remain as unconvinced as before that you (or the Heller judgement) have proven your case.

  33. Donna B. says:

    RickK — no I’m not suggesting that the firearms industry is more complicated than the financial industry. I’m saying they are very different and therefore it’s not useful to use the same tracking measures for each. I also did not say that sales and distribution records of guns are not important enough to be accurate — I said they weren’t as accurate. I say that with very few exceptions (pharmaceuticals, perhaps?) that manufacturing and retail records are never as accurate as banking records. Note, I said banking — not financial. Though I am having difficulty imagining using IRAs for money laundering.

    You and I are in agreement that banking records are more accurate because they’ve been audited and analyzed. For many years. I’m not arguing that any firearms records are less important, I’m simply stating that accurate historical auditing for them does not exist and it can’t be created after the fact. It is my understanding that the ATF destroyed many paper records after either digitizing or extracting data from them.

    I’m not saying the trace database is useless. I am saying it’s less complete and less reliable than financial data and that therefore it’s use as a secondary resource, especially historically, is reasonable. Even the 1890 census is still useful.

    I’ve also got absolutely no argument against tracking manufacturing and distribution of guns currently. I would say that guidelines, parameters… whatever are needed (banking has these too). This can all be accomplished without the sort of registration that is so controversial.

    One thing I do agree with most “gun advocates” on is that background checks are de facto registration. I may wail about the inaccuracy and corruption of databases in general, but I’ve also got this thing against destroying records in a database. Eliminate some from queries, flag some for review and/or update — but destroy them? Nah… sorta hurts my head to think of that. Thus, I am reluctant to believe that records of background checks have been deleted/destroyed. Projecting perhaps, but I’d have found a way to preserve them somewhere.

  34. Donna B. says:

    CKava — “robust” is a triggering word for me as I’ve read far too many Microsoft marketing descriptions.

    My comment to RickK probably passed yours in the ether, but I think there already is a gun registration database. It’s not “legal” but it’s there. Of what use it might be, I’m not sure. And it is the individual nature of it that bothers me. Tell me where I’m wrong, but how would any fishing or analysis in this database (assuming it was complete and accurate for all who had background checks) have flagged any of the mass shooters?

    Just for kicks, let’s say it flagged 500 people. Among those 500, it snagged all the mass murderers, a few other murderers and 300 other people. How does it rate them? Who gets investigated first? Or last? I don’t see this as a practical means to prevent violence. Of course, it didn’t flag anyone who bought a gun on the black market (and the black market includes private sales between sane and safe people who would have passed a background check with flying colors.)

    The problem is that registration of this sort focuses on individuals. What sort of query is going to sort out the few who are the problem?

    What RickK wants (I think) is the ability to query for distributors and retailers whose sales end up being used criminally more than would be expected. That certainly has more potential, but could also cause massive manhours spent investigating data deadends. Especially on the retailer end of it.

    I still think those manhours would save more lives if spent in AML… but perhaps some of them should be allocated to the distributor segment. Lots to be cussed and discussed on that topic. Y’all might be surprised how many people are willing to do so.

    As for the marketing, I’m sure you’re right that I’m being subliminally and serially seduced in several ways. According to my children, my taste in clothing and furnishings suggests I’m still in thrall to the marketing of the 60s & 70s. It will all come back in style some day, I tell you! http://www.lileks.com/institute/interiors/BHG/index.html

    Thank you for thinking I might be intelligent and nice. I’ll take a survey of my neighbors and get back to you… (the 6 closest neighbors to me all own one or more guns and somehow I’m not even afraid of the one that I know despises me. He’s a little bit scared of me though… I told him to stay off my lawn six years ago and he has. In my defense, it was his fault I hadn’t had any coffee that day. <– that's an anecdote.)

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