What is an Empirical Social Scientist to Do in the Wake of a Mass Murder?

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?


  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    The way that one handles situations such as mass shootings, is that separation from the emotional state must be made, and clinic detachment inserted.
    If we allow ourselves to become emotionally distraught, it will result in herd mentality. During my lifetime, I cannot place a number on what I have seen firsthand. It started with hunting with my father, then military, followed by employment in a slaughterhouse, and after that, on the streets as a cop. It bothers some people that I have the ability to detach emotionally, but someone must apply reason and logic at some point to get the job done or get through a bad situation. Only three funerals bothered me. My father’s, who was a real beloved guy from the WW2 generation. One of my brothers, he left behind babies, two weeks after his 41st birthday. My dog. He was like a son to me.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I hate to say it but Khal and Brittius both have valid points. I thing what Brittius is saying is reflected in, they may be an SOB but their our SOB. And to what Khal said keep your interactions within your peer group like us as far as GC 1.0 and 2.0 are concerned. We understand, and I for one support and applaud, what you are doing sir. However none of us are directly affected as in none of us had a family member or friend involved in this. That naturally gives a certain distance. Not to say that any of us are unsympathetic and do not have empathy with those effected directly by this tragedy. But we can talk about it in a rational and logical way. Unlike the vast majority of the MSM and the liberals and all there fellow travelers.

    Keep your powder dry, keep the victims families in your prayers and your faith in God.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. David
    Thanks for posting this. Helpful.

    I read Khanemans book when it first came out. I suspect I read it filtered thru the lens of Gary Kleins Recognition Primed Decisinmaking. Time to read Thinking Fast and Slow again

    Liked by 1 person

  4. POSTING FOR KATHY JACKSON (https://www.corneredcat.com/):

    Start by getting on the same emotional page as the person you’re talking to. Get in phase with them. Find, and point out, common emotional ground. (This can be incredibly tough when talking with people who think all gun owners are monsters who should be killed. Too many of those this week…)

    Point out the most important common ground: we all want safer families and communities. We all care about the security of our nation’s schools. We ALL care about keeping our children safe from harm.

    We only disagree about how to do that most effectively.

    Too often the debate has been framed — by all sides of the culture wars — as a fight between “civil liberties” vs “protecting the children.”

    But it’s not.

    As a gun owner, I am tired of receiving death threats. Really am. During every noisy public news cycle like this, I receive death threats from fanatical anti-gun people. They threaten to come find me and kill my children in front of me. They announce that they hope someone shoots me with my own guns — often in lurid and bloody terms. And they don’t just go after me, personally. They put up billboards that say “Kill the NRA” and they go on national TV to say things like, “Maybe it’s time we pull guns from their cold, dead hands”. They send poison pen letters to my friends and threaten to ‘out’ them so they lose their jobs and their livelihoods. And they react with glee whenever a gun owner accidentally shoots themselves.

    Why do I and my friends get death threats from fanatics during every news cycle like this?

    It is because of the horrible, horrible LIE that people tell each other: gun owners don’t care about dead children. Gun owners don’t understand how we feel, how we’re grieving, how we hurt, how scary this is …

    As if we, too, are not human.

    As if we, too, do not long for safer communities.

    As if we, too, do not hug our children a little harder and hold our loved ones a little tighter when something terrible happens on the news.

    Too many people assume that all it would take to get people to agree on stuff like this would be to get everyone FEELING the same way about violent child-murder.

    As if we don’t already.

    So start there. Put the frame on finding ways to protect children and save lives. And keep dragging it back there every time it drifts. That calm and rational approach with all the statistics ISN’T cold-hearted, and don’t make it so. It is the most warmly human reaction of all: an attempt to understand the problem so that we can find better ways to protect our families and communities.

    Because we have ALL been to too many damn funerals.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I agree with the above. We have to engage in a kind and calm way, and situationally appropriate way.

    We know from history that, politically, times like these are dangerous, particularly because we know, for a fact, those who would restrict our rights actively seek to shape honest grief from these tragedies into mob political action. Our system was designed to slow down the process. But given the lack of civics education, the weakening of our institutions, and the willingness of people who should know better to encourage those most affected to wallow in their grief, rather than experiencing it as part of the healing process, the rhetoric fed to the grieving by those agents provocateur has to be confronted and countered.

    Obviously, a journalist or activist should be engaged differently than an actual, directly affected party, but the lies of the antis can’t be allowed to stand unopposed. That grants them legitimacy, and any silence on our part is not seen as respect, but rather “guilt” or “hiding from the truth.” The anti’s are going to tar us either way, we might as well make them do it in the face of facts.

    Liked by 1 person

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