Jeb Bush’s 650% Markup

Sad to say, Americans have become so used to politicians lying that fact checkers now classify claims based on the level of deception involved. We not only expect our leaders to lie to us, but we cheer when their lies match our beliefs and boo when they don’t. The long ago hope that the Internet would improve our ability to separate fact from fiction has died. Lies gain even more credibility when they are so easy to spread via technology. The Internet, like all tools, is only as good as the skills of the person using it. And most people are closer to Homo Wrecktus  than Homo Habilis when it comes to tools. When you throw into the mix the fact that Americans struggle with math, it opens the dam for a flood of lies, deception and outright mendacity. Often in the form of statistics.

Exhibit A is Jeb Bush’s claim at the 2015 NRA convention that “Every year, law-abiding gun owners are forced to defend themselves with a firearm more than 2 million times. That’s a proven fact – and it’s the kind of evidence that we need to remember and repeat.” Now any man who brags about legislation that gave George Zimmerman legal cover for murder is someone whose statements deserve closer scrutiny. But what really piqued my interest was Bush’s use of the term,” proven fact.” First of all, what is an unproven fact? I always thought something unproven couldn’t be factual in nature. It seems that Bush is acknowledging Colbert’s “truthiness” meme. That he is admitting that real facts are hard to find in the political arena. And sure enough, research reveals a swampy foundation for his “proven fact.”

Before we get on board the air boat of truth, however, I think it only fair to fully disclose three things. First, I am progun / 2nd Amendment but anti-NRA. See my essay “When the Tide Goes Way Way Out. . . .” if you want to know why. Second, what I want to highlight is the use of facts in a political campaign not the NRA or gun control. Third, if any readers want to fact check me, I used the “Defensive gun use” entry in Wikipedia as a jumping off point to look at the different studies and their authors.

As a science and math teacher, the use of the term “proven fact” is always a red flag for me. A proven fact is something everyone should agree on. For example, you might think the room is too cold, while I think it is too hot. But it is a proven fact that the thermometer reads 72 degrees. The second thing that set off my BS detector is the 2 million figure. My number sense tells me that’s a really high number. I mean, in 2009 there were 2.6 million people in jail. And since each criminal tends to be responsible for multiple crimes two million seems too high. Furthermore many crimes, such as prostitution and drug possession are victimless; while others lack physical confrontation such as identity theft. If flashing a 9 mm could prevent credit card fraud, sign me up. Just what crimes is he referring to?

It turns out there are many studies that try to estimate how many times guns are used to prevent a crime. Note the use of the word estimate. Estimates do not fall into the category of “proven facts” by any accepted definition. A little thought shows us that gathering and verifying such a statistic can’t be easy or straight forward and therefore must be an estimate. How many times does somebody use a gun to scare off a criminal and then fail to report it to the police for example? We don’t know nor can we accurately find out. Therefore, actual police reports are supplemented by surveys. And it is here that the fog of deception creeps in.

Surveys are very tricky to do accurately. There’s a reason one can get a PhD in polling and survey design. It’s damn hard to do right. Just ask Mitt Romney whose polls said he won the election. Jeb Bush probably used the survey by Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz to come up with his two million figure. But he said it was a “proven fact” that we should remember and repeat. But if it is a fact, like the thermometer, then every survey / study should come up with the same answer. But of course, they don’t. To understand the debate over the different numbers, it helps to consider just the single factor of survey population. If Kleck and Gertz used NRA membership rolls to conduct their survey (they probably didn’t), they would get very different answers than if they only phoned Quaker households. The demographics and truthfulness of the population being surveyed is just one small part of the difficulty in obtaining polling accuracy and reliability.

Using actual law enforcement data, the Federal Bureau of Justice found 67,740 cases of defensive gun use per year. When experts in the statistical field examine the different studies, surveys, and reports, they settle on a figure of around 310,000 a year. These figures are significantly less so let’s do the math. Bush claimed over two million cases. The majority of experts say 310,000. Dividing the two numbers gives us a factor of approximately 6.5. This means Bush’s figure is 650% higher than the number generally accepted by experts. Would you buy a car, house, or shirt with a 650% markup? I certainly wouldn’t.

But Jeb knew that no one at the NRA convention was going to argue with him. He also knew that reporters wouldn’t confront him because math doesn’t sell ad space. And he asked the audience to remember and repeat the lie because he knows Americans hate real math but for some reason remember and repeat numbers that are totally false. Everybody knows the “we only use 10% of our brain” fact. They even made a movie out of it. Only it’s not true, and we’re not even completely sure of its origin. What we do know is that if you only used 10% of your brain, you’d be dead. Even Terri Shaivo, another accomplishment Bush likes to point to, was using 50% of her brain. And that’s a fact proven by the measurements in the autopsy.

Some would argue that voters punish politicians who tell the truth. But I don’t think so in this case. If Bush had simply said, “Some studies say that over two million. . . ,” he would have been telling the truth, and the crowd still would have loved it. But the truth isn’t as powerful as “a proven fact.” So he lied, demonstrating his cynicism. And because Americans are both impressed by and scared of math, politicians and marketers continue to use numbers to lie. Why change something that works? Our entire political system is driven by the actual currency of people / corporations and the false currency of “proven facts.” No wonder over half the population doesn’t bother to vote. What’s the point when everybody lies? And that’s a proven fact.