I had a difficult but illuminating interaction recently with a scholar who I like and whose work I appreciate. He posted a comment on Twitter in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting that I didn’t think reflected his best sociological imagination with respect to guns and violence. I responded by saying so. He did not appreciate me responding. Why? Because he was not looking to have a discussion or debate about what he said. He was just expressing an emotional response.
Re-reading what he wrote, I should have recognized this. He wrote “I never wanna hear anything about…” This is literally a true statement. He did not want to hear anything about it.
Moreover, it is probably the case that as a person in emotional distress in the wake of a mass murder at a school, he COULD NOT hear anything about it. He was literally unable to hear and process information in a useful way.
We already know that people’s existing cognitive frameworks shape their understanding of reality (data, statistics, probabilities) in relation to risk – whether from the perspective of cognitive psychology (e.g., the work of Daniel Kahneman) or cultural cognition (e.g., the work of Kahan and Braman). Under conditions of duress or uncertainty, those “heuristics and biases” no doubt are even more powerful.
So, providing information and argument counter to his position was of no use. This became even clearer when in a follow-up Tweet he mentioned, so as to close off discussion, “I’ve been to too many funerals.” Again, for personal, emotional reasons he did not want to and could not hear anything about it.
Beyond this one interaction, people being unwilling and unable to hear in times of distress raises a problem for me as an empirical social scientist. My trained approach to understanding the world is through systematically gathered data. But if you approach the issue from that perspective at a time when people are grieving and aggrieved, you run the risk of being seen as “deflecting” the issue or, worse, as not sympathetic to the victims of the horrific crime.
So, what is an empirical social scientist to do?