Docsplainin' -- it's what I do

Docsplainin'--it's what I do.
After all, I'm a doc, aren't I?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Scientific Literacy

I teach Introductory Psychology as a general education course on a campus populated mainly by engineers--which is to say that few, if any, of my students in a given section are psychology majors. It is therefore my goal to teach, above all else, the practical uses of psychology in everyday life. I want them to learn how their minds work, how others' minds work--how to make better decisions, how to understand attempts to influence them by advertisers and politicians. 

To that end, after the Las Vegas shooting we had a big discussion on guns in America, using data from the American Psychological Association's report on gun violence. (It's available on their website, here, free for anyone to read.)

I originally made the decision not to carry my gun on campus based, in the end, on this one simple consideration (see previous post): To walk into the classroom with a gun on my person is a statement that I am willing to shoot a student under whatever circumstances I believe, in the heat of the moment, justify it. Which I most definitively am not. It also seemed weird to me to carry a gun to defend myself against my own students: What kind of a world. . . ? etc. And I've never thought arms races were a good idea.

However, as I read studies and considered the material in the text while preparing my lectures, I found support for this stance from entirely other than a philosophical point of view. To wit:

1. We make certain cognitive errors in locating the dangers in our world. For example, we are more likely to perceive a person of another race as a threat or to interpret their actions (especially if ambiguous) as a threat than we are a member of our own race--even if the latter is in fact more dangerous. This speaks directly to the point often insisted upon that the only answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun: We don’t have a clue who the bad guys are and aren’t, nor do we always act “good” ourselves. There are several separate but related research streams that have all come to the same conclusions: The data that Harvard University researchers have collected, for one, showing how common implicit bias is and how it drives behaviors like shooting unarmed people; a study showing that white people can't accurately gauge Black people's potential for violence, for another; and shoot/don’t shoot research.

2. The media and advocacy groups like the NRA perpetuate the myth that it is The Other who is dangerous to us when in fact (especially in the case of women) it is most likely that if you are going to be assaulted, raped, or murdered, it’s going to be by a member of your own family or someone trusted like your boyfriend. This is easy to do as the media tends not to report routine everyday domestic violence, suicide, or accidental shootings: They do, however, report Stranger Danger type crimes and due to the representativeness heuristic we, the public, believe these are, well, representative. This speaks directly to the argument advanced when Campus Carry was in the legislature that students need to be able to protect themselves at school just as they are legally able to elsewhere. No, it seems, they do not. Here or elsewhere.

3. The NRA (and gun manufacturers) perpetuate the myth that a gun is a good tool for self-protection, protection of your family, or to safeguard your property. One of the ways that they do this is by reporting individual cases where someone did use a gun in self defense: We seem to be hard-wired to use heuristics that leave us thinking these incidents are representative even though they are tiny in number compared to gun violence statistics overall. In fact, owning a gun actually increases the odds of someone in the household being shot and killed whether by suicide, accident, or domestic violence.

So I decided that, like anyone else within one and a half standard deviations of the means, (1) I don’t need my gun at all, never mind on campus; (2) It is actually a risk to me or to anyone who might be visiting my household--or classroom, God forbid--especially to children and teens; (3) If trained police officers can’t exercise judgment untainted by unconscious racism in a shoot/don’t shoot scenario, I can hardly expect that I, a civilian, would. 

Bottom line, I am less likely to use a gun against a Caucasian to save my own life, and more likely to use it against an African American or Hispanic or whatever when that person is innocent of any evil intent toward me. Statistically speaking, really, I’m more likely to accidentally shoot myself or someone else in the household or use it to kill myself than I am to use it in self defense.

And so I decided, based on science, that there is no mythical "Good guy with a gun." There are only idiots with guns. 


Friday, May 12, 2017

Could I? Should I? Would I?

"We discuss sensitive and highly charged topics in my classroom," wrote a professor who's just resigned his tenured position, "concerning anti-religious bias, racism, sexism, classism and many other indexes of oppression and discrimination. Students need to be able to express themselves respectfully and freely, and they cannot do so about heated topics if they know that fellow students are armed. . . ."

Something I'm seriously pondering as I half-heartedly look for another job this summer. Because I do teach social justice--in fact, have joined a social justice learning community at KSU in order to hone my skills--and this is a consideration for me, too.

Is it going to be safe this fall for me to challenge students to think, to question their assumptions, to analyze their prejudices? Will it be safe for me to confront cheaters? To fail people who cannot or do not do the work? Is it going to be safe for students if I encourage them to challenge each other in classroom discussions and exercises as I have done in the past? Can they still speak up about their own experiences as racial and sexual minorities? And don't tell me that it's always been a small risk: I know that. I also know that if the single best statistical predictor of death by gun is presence of a gun, then campus carry laws can only elevate the risk.

Should I spend $5-800 on a bullet-proof vest, if only to guard against accidental discharge? (That's a month's salary--or more--for one class.) I'm only half joking here: These are kids we are talking about, after all, people of an age at which rates of accidental injury and death are higher than for any other group. And this is Georgia we're talking about, where no training at all is required for permitting.

You can't take a loaded gun into a range or a gun store or show on your hip or in your purse or any way other than in its case. You have to show that it's unloaded, and at shows they even tag it to show it's been inspected and put a plastic thing through the trigger guard to prevent it firing. Why should I not take the same precautions in my classroom? Because unfortunately, under the law, I will not be allowed, that's why. And would I want to start every class by checking guns at the door, even if I could? No. It's ludicrous. I am not Wyatt Earp.

Should I carry a gun of my own? Could I, would I, shoot a student, even in self defense? (Probably not: It is a central tenet of Buddhism, according to my admittedly limited understanding, that my life is not inherently more valuable, for any reason, than that of any other sentient being. And as the effects of my late husband's NRA-induced paranoia wear off with the passage of time, I am progressively more and more inclined to just "peace out".) Would I, could I, shoot a student to protect a whole classroom full of innocent kids? Possibly. Probably, even. Do I want to place myself in such an ethical quandary? That would not seem wise. "If you don't want a slip, stay off the ice," advise AA old-timers.

And how would my kids feel about a professor with a gun on her hip? What would it be like for them to know that I, by even bringing one onto campus, have thus publicly stated my willingness to kill one of them or one of my colleagues under whatever I judge, in the heat of the moment, to be the "right" circumstances? What the hell kind of message is that sending? Especially to Black students, given what I teach about implicit biases! Would any of them, Black or white, feel free to challenge me? To question me? To argue with me? No. I can't imagine that they would: It's already enough of a challenge, given the power differential between professors and students, under normal circumstances. As it is, most of the challenges directed at me only come from white males.

No, the idea of going into the classroom or even into office hours armed is ludicrous, appalling even. And ultimately unacceptable. Carrying one in the van for personal protection on campus is only slightly less objectionable. It's like Mutually Assured Destruction. I can ramp up my defenses, thereby increasing the danger to us all, or I can start the disarmament process. It's got to start somewhere; might as well be with me.