Confusing Relative and Absolute Risk

firearmThe age of the internet has created an explosion of information, both good and bad. Popular media accounts of a recent study by the University of Nevada-Reno and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health provide a classic example. The result is a misleading headline that confuses relative and absolute risk. It shows the media bias that exists with gun control.

Reviewing the Study

The researches analyzed mortality data provided by the World Health Organization. Their analysis led them to the conclusion that American mortality caused by firearms is ten times that of other developed countries. But what does that mean? Let’s crunch some numbers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 33,636 deaths from firearms in 2013. That figure translated into 10.6 deaths per 100,000. Put another way, your chances of dying by a firearm are 0.01 percent. The implication from the popular media headlines of 10 times the risk means you’re going from 0.001 to 0.01 percent. Call me a skeptic, but that doesn’t sound like a much greater chance of being gunned down.

And that is a clear example of irresponsible reporting by the media. The 10 times figure sound scary; the 0.01 percent figure does not. To get the page views, the media opted for the more sensational headline. It relies on the fact that the average reader doesn’t have a handle on statistics.

The Agenda

But, wait, there’s more. The study was founded by an award from The Joyce Foundation. The foundation has admirable goals of better education and a clean environment. However, a mission for gun violence prevention should not include blatant misleading information. It rests on an agenda by popular media to sway public opinion through deception.

I find this aspect especially hypocritical. The anti-GMO sector is quick to point out a study funded by Monsanto as evidence of bias. However, making such a claim commits its own logical error via the appeal to motive fallacy.

Granted, there is a fine line between biased and unbiased reporting. In the case of Monsanto, federal law requires manufacturers to conduct studies of their products. They cannot opt out and wait for a third party to do the testing required of them. The fact that they publish studies isn’t an immediate accusation. They have no choice but to publish.

In the case of The Joyce Foundation, the award was a choice based on the foundation’s own publicly-stated mission. And yes, it cannot control how the media will report its findings. However, the misleading nature of the headlines suggests an attempt to deceive. But, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, some reporters have admitted being light in the stats department.

The Final Point

There’s one more point to add about the absolute risk of firearms violence. I quoted a figure of 33,636 deaths. However, that figure includes all firearm mortality, including suicide, hunting accidents, accidents when handling/cleaning, justifiable homicide (self-defense), and any other way a firearm could harm. Your chances of dying from gun violence are in reality much lower than 0.01 percent. Let’s all relax.

By Chris DR/

photo credit: Sig P226 via photopin (license)

false balance fallacy debate

The New Face of the False Balance Fallacy

You’ve likely encountered the false balance fallacy. If you read or watch any kind of news, you’ll know it straightaway.  It often occurs in discussions of hot-button topics like climate change and GMOs. Here’s a classic scenario.

A news show (or story) wants to present both sides of an issue. They pick a vocal proponent of each side of the issue to debate the validity of each one’s argument. Seems legit? Absolutely not. The problem lies with the issue itself.

With a topic like climate change, there is no debate in the scientific community. The debate exists with the general public, many of whom don’t understand the science. Instead, it boils down to a matter of beliefs. The same is true of GMOs. GMOs are safe—and necessary.

By creating a “debate,” the media gives equal weight and voice to each viewpoint. Unfortunately, it elevates the wrong view and legitimizes it. This action creates doubt where none should exist. We end up wasting time arguing about an issue that is settled.

The New Face of Fallacy

Welcome the new spin on the false balance fallacy, renewable energy. Let me say outright that I haven’t any grudge against renewable energy. Based on the evidence I’ve read, I believe that several serious problems exist with implementing large-scale renewable wind or solar power plants.

All lives matter, especially birds and bats. We can’t forsake major pollinators and dispersal agents, to say nothing of biodiversity and ecological impacts.

The new false balance fallacy gives equal weight to renewable energy sources like wind and solar to put them on the same level as fossil fuels. As much as we hear about it, it sounds like the evil corporations of fossil fuels are refusing to let up their stranglehold on the Earth’s future. This scenario could not be further from the truth.

All sources of renewable energy provided 13 percent of our electricity in 2014. Fossil fuels supplied just over two-thirds, with nuclear contributing 19 percent. What about wind and solar, you ask? Wind power came in at 4 percent and solar with less than 1 percent.

Yet, if you listen to the debates about wind and solar, you’d think that they contributed much more. Just like the climate change skeptic, they are given an equal standing on the energy debate forum. It’s another misleading example of the false balance fallacy.

Fallacy Risks

In this case, the fallacy encourages hate against legitimate industry. It clouds our judgment about the serious impacts of wildlife loss on the environment.

It also engages in its own version of astroturfing or fronting. By putting out a message of being safe for the environment, it ignores the devastation needed to bring those power sources to market. All energy is dirty and environmentally destructive. It’s the price we pay to live our lives as we do.

By recognizing the misleading nature of the false balance fallacy, we can view the energy debate with a more informed understanding. The burden of electricity generation may even out. However, for today, the reality is fossil fuels. Chris DR

photo credit: Great Debate, “Wah wah, wah wah, wah, waaah.” via photopin (license)