Challenging Opinions with William Campbell

You’ve heard the arguments many times; pro- and anti-gun, or pro- and anti-immigration. You’ve seen the analogies and heard all the various statistics bandied about.

But have you noticed that both sides tend to play a bit fast and loose with what arguments and statistics are used or emphasized? William Campbell of one of my favorite podcasts, Challenging Opinions, laid out the case that both sides do it, and how it is done. When I heard it, I just had to include it here. I don’t entire agree with some of his individual points, but the commentary in general really hit me, so I thought that you, too, would like to consider this.

Mentioned links:

Challenging Opinions podcast

Challenging Opinions episode 67, Warren Farrell on Why Boys are Struggling

Challenging Opinions episode 25, Doug Payton on the Electoral College [not related  to this episode, but in case you were interested in the first interview I ever did]

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Show transcript

William Campbell is the host of the “Challenging Opinions” podcast at You can subscribe to his podcast there, and it’s one of my favorites. He likes to interview people in order to get them to challenge their opinions, and to challenge yours. He interviewed me once to defend my approval of the Electoral College, and I’ve been listening ever since. He’s left of center, but he’s done a very good job of challenging those he’s interviewing regardless of what side of the political aisle they’re on.

Sometimes, however, he starts his podcast with his own commentary. His commentary for the March 26th episode challenged opinions on both sides, and it really got me thinking. So here is a guest commentary by William Campbell, and then my thoughts after it.

There’s an uncomfortable parallel out there that some campaigners don’t like to acknowledge.

You’ve probably seen one side or other of the parallel on Facebook or other social media, depending on what type of self-confirming political views the algorithms think will keep you clicking on ads for as long as possible.

One side is a variation on the theme that armed toddlers, or lawnmowers, or insert other ridiculous cause of death of your choice, that all of these kill more Americans than Islamic terrorists posing as refugees. And it’s true. You are literally more likely to be killed by a toddler who gets hold of a gun. Murders by Islamic terrorists in the US have been vanishingly rare in recent years; that depends somewhat on definitions, but Donald Trump Junior’s Skittles bowl tweet was a good example of a misperception.

He compared accepting refugees from the Syrian war to eating from a bowl skittles, one of which is poisoned. In fact, as was pointed out, to represent the stats accurately, you would need a bowl of skittles far bigger than an Olympic-sized swimming pool. You would be certain to be dead of diabetes long before you found the poisoned skittle.

A rebuttal from the other side of the aisle is strikingly similar. The March for Our Lives was in Washington on Saturday, following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, among others; gun-rights advocates make the same point that advocates for refugees make whether they’re talking about school shootings or the shooting of black men by white police.

Despite the attention that these incidents get, statistically speaking, they’re irrelevant. It’s true that police kill black men proportionally more than white men, but both statistics are vanishingly rare compared to the overall homicide rate, and particularly compared to the homicide rate in the mostly African-American impoverished communities, where a big chunk of the fatal police shootings also happen.

If numbers are your only driver of concern, then the murder of black by other black men is, by a mile, what you should be most concerned about. And, by the way, if numbers are your only driver of concern about gun violence, you shouldn’t be talking about homicide at all. Most gun deaths are suicide.

It’s no accident that, depending on what side of the culture war you are on, you get much better about understanding statistics and proportionality, depending on which issue is being discussed. If you’re on the left you understand the remoteness of the threat of terrorism in the US, but not the remoteness of the threat of police shootings.

If you’re on the right, you can put police shootings in the context of tens of thousands of gun fatalities, and a white racist who shoots people at a black church is just a meaningless aberration, but a murdering jihadist somehow represents all Muslims.

And before I get too clinically driven by mathematics here, it’s worth asking, is the bodycount the only thing that makes these incidents important? Beds – yes beds – kill 450 people in the US every year, just by people falling out of them, and that’s not counting 1.8 million injuries serious enough to trigger a trip to the emergency room.

Does that mean that we should be less concerned about anything that claims less than 450 lives a year than we are about beds? Beds account for far, far more American deaths than terrorism. Should be we marching and saying Sleeping Lives Matter? Should we have War on Mattresses? Should we all sleep on the floor?

Maybe not.

First of all, it’s worth noting that charismatic causes of death get far more notice than others. That isn’t entirely irrational. The slaughter of children in their classrooms gets far more attention than random accidental deaths in the home.

Police are the icons of protecting the community. When they appear to carelessly of vindictively kill an unarmed citizen, that provokes outrage. Gang members murder each other. That’s what they do. We are right to be angrier when police seem to act like gang members. And terrorist murders are designed to be spectacular, to attract our attention and to trigger us into over-reacting.

It’s also worth noting here that there is slicing and dicing of the stats done by all sides here. People who point out the relative rareness of terrorist deaths usually make sure to start counting at some point after September 11, 2001.

And gun-rights advocates are always careful to talk about small subsets of gun fatalities, such as school shootings, or murders with assault rifles, or mass shootings, as though people killed in other places or with other types of guns, or on their own weren’t just as dead.

But even when they are correct and valid, another reason that raw fatalities are not a good indicator is that we encounter some situations much more frequently than others. At 450 deaths a year, does that mean that beds are dangerous? Of course not, we spend a third of our lives in bed. It would be astonishing if it wasn’t associated with some deaths.

Also, a look at the raw figures would indicate that swimming with sharks is not as dangerous taking selfies. Eight people a year are killed by sharks, compared to 12 taking selfies. But that doesn’t make sense. Billions of selfies are taken each year; of people killed in accidents, some of those are bound to have died because of distraction; and of those, some will have been distracted by taking a selfie.

That doesn’t make swimming with sharks safe either, that’s eight deaths in a comparatively rare activity.

And here is where part of the outrage that seems to defy statistics is actually justified. The killing of people who never wanted to be in harm’s way is particularly egregious; even more so when it is someone who people think we should be particularly careful with. That’s why school shootings get all that attention, and are right to get that attention.

Those kids and their parents never did anything to even slightly put them in harm’s way. They did everything to keep out of harm’s way; but harm came to them.

Their deaths are so much more charismatic than just another gang murder over just another drug dispute. And most African Americans have nothing to do with crime and drugs, so they don’t see that as a relevant risk to them. But African Americans can’t stop being black, and if that is the risk factor that they see for getting shot by a twitchy cop, then that’s relevant.

And even if it’s vanishingly rare, violence from terrorists is terrifying partly also because of its randomness, it’s totally outside the control of the victim. There is a mountain of psychological research that shows people are much more scared of things that they can’t control. That’s why driving is much more dangerous, but far more people are scared of flying.

But what I’m really interested in here is the real reasons. Go back to Don Junior’s ludicrously wrong tweet about the bowl of skittles. Really, it didn’t matter that he was wrong about the proportions. Because he wasn’t talking about proportions. He wasn’t talking about the supposed poisoned skittle. He was dehumanizing all refugees by talking about people as pieces of candy. And the people who support him don’t care that he was wrong by so many orders of magnitude, because for them, he wasn’t wrong.

He, and they, don’t see refugees as individual human beings, they see them as an undifferentiated mass.

And, I think, for Black Lives Matter, fatal police shootings are a convenient hook to hang a whole load of other grievances on. In some cases they might be justified grievances about less serious, but still highly corrosive, way African Americans are treated by law enforcement. But they have a real blind spot for the effects of crimes committed by and against young black men.

That’s certainly something to think about. I can take issue with some things he said, like I think you can talk about groups of people as groups, and use some sort of analogy, without dehumanizing them. And I’m quick to note that not all terrorists are Muslims, and that I don’t think that even most people on the Right think that. But I would suggest that pointing out that what terrorism does happen in the world seems to disproportionately come from Muslims is not an example of blaming them all. Maybe I’m just relying on what I read, and maybe, as William notes, it depends on your definition of “terrorism”.

But all those objections are small side issues with the real problem he’s pointing out. And that is, yes, we do exhibit confirmation bias, not only in the opinions we’d rather read or listen to, but also in our use of logics and statistics when defending our opinions. William is absolutely right…in my opinion. And even if you, too, have some issues with his examples or some of his conclusions, it is absolutely something to consider.

My intention is to not fall into this trap, and I think it’s something we should have in the back of our minds before taking to the keyboard and responding to that tweet, or Facebook post, or talking to a co-worker over the cubicle wall.

Thanks William, for doing a great job challenging opinions.

Filed under: Gun ControlImmigrationPartisanship