Thursday, December 20, 2012

Gun Violence Is Not a Univariate Problem

The public seems to have a hard time debating multivariate problems.

I remember the Ford Explorer/Firestone Tires issue years back very distinctly.  Was driving a Ford Explorer the cause of the SUV flipping over?  Those who say Ford was culpable pointed to the fact that few other SUVs were flipping over.  Ford pointed out that there were Explorers that weren't flipping over... just the ones with Firestone Tires.

Firestone was saying that there were plenty of cars driving around on Firestone tires without issue and it was Ford's fault that their SUV sucked.

This debate went on and on.  What my boss when I worked at Genentech Vacaville, Jesse Bergevin, said to me at the time was that this was a classic multivariate problem with one interaction.

Likewise, gun violence in America is a classical multivariate problem: there are not one, not two, but many variables that contribute to these horrific events.  And like most complex systems, gun violence is many variables coming together (interacting) for a specific effect.

  • When it comes to gun violence, we know that guns are a factor... as in, were it not for guns, we wouldn't have gun violence. (Yes, we'd have some sort of other violence).
  • We also know that mental illness is a factor.  After all, not all gun owners are going around shooting up malls and elementary schools.
  • We also know gun-free zones are favorite targets for gunmen with bad intentions
We know of these factors.  And we know that they interact.  To treat this issue as a univariate problem will change the response.

The right thing to do is to model the system and optimize for least number of gun-related deaths.

In the meantime, I will be thinking often of the children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary.  When I think of them, there's this vacuous hole that fills my stomach and my skin feels numb.

We must solve the problem of violence in our society; but we can't afford to do it wrong and treat it as a univariate problem (i.e. ban guns and be done with it).

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