Tuesday, September 10, 2019

When doing nothing is better than something - especially if the something is Trump's support of pseudoscience solutions for gun control

Will Fitbits and Apple watches predict mass shootings? Why in hell would we even ask that question? This is a crackpot scheme to let the Pettydent appear to be doing something about gun control even though he opposes everything that most Americans want. Judd Legum in a Subscribers Post, The dystopian solution, at popular.info explains how “Trump seeks to avoid both real action and the appearance of doing nothing. ” Might following the money have something to do with it? Read on.

In the wake of mass shootings that took the lives of dozens of Americans last month, Trump does not want to take basic steps, like expanding background checks, that are supported by nearly all Americans. Trump also opposes slightly more aggressive efforts, like banning military-style assault rifles, that are supported by solid majority of Americans. And Trump wouldn’t even consider steps that would put a real dent in gun violence, like using buybacks and other policies to reduce the total number of guns in the United States.

Trump briefly seemed open to taking action during a particularly deadly August, but quickly reversed course after a phone call with NRA president Wayne LaPierre. Instead, Trump has latched onto a controversial proposal “to study whether mass shootings could be prevented by monitoring mentally ill people for small changes that might foretell violence.”

The plan was reportedly created by The Suzanne Wright Foundation in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton mass murders at the request of Ivanka Trump. The foundation was established by Bob Wright, the former chairman of NBC who is a friend and major donor to Trump. The proposal, known as Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes (SAFEHOME), would explore “whether technology like phones and smart watches can be used to detect when mentally ill people are about to turn violent.” It’s part of a larger proposal pushed by Wright called HARPA, which seeks “to come up with out-of-the-box ways to tackle health problems.”

This is just plain nuts at so many levels.

A major problem with the idea is that mental illness is not a significant predictor of mass violence. A 2015 study of “235 people who committed or tried to commit mass killings” found “only 22 percent of them could be considered mentally ill.” That’s similar to the rate of mental illness in the general U.S. adult population (19%). A separate 2015 study found “only 4 percent of American gun deaths could be attributed to mental health issues.”

And, of course, there is zero evidence that monitoring information from the Apple Watch of someone with a mental illness will predict anything. Nevertheless, the proposal has gained steam as Trump seeks to avoid both real action and the appearance of doing nothing.

Mass surveillance, powered by the government and Big Tech

The details of the Wright plan are disturbing. According to the draft proposal, SAFEHOME would “advanced artificial intelligence to try to identify changes in mental status that could make an individual more prone to violent behavior.”

How will this happen? The proposal suggests employing “a number of widely used technologies…including Apple Watches, Fitbits, Amazon Echo and Google Home.”

These technologies would then have to be deployed at scale, with the data being sent through large technology companies to the government, with the goal of predicting mass shootings. The vision is a massive surveillance system of an undetermined subset of Americans deemed to be mentally unstable. (The initial proposal is to spend $60 million on a pilot program using volunteers.)

"The proposed data collection goes beyond absurdity when they mention the desire to collect FitBit data. I am unaware of any study linking walking too much and committing mass murder. As for the other technologies, what are these people expecting? ‘Alexa, tell me the best way to kill a lot of people really quickly’? Really?” George David Annas of SUNY Upstate Medical University told Gizmodo.

There is no mystery

Geoffrey Ling, the lead scientific advisor to Wright’s project, defended the plan. “To those who say this is a half-baked idea, I would say, ‘what’s your idea? What are you doing about this?” Ling asked.

It’s not a mystery how to reduce the number of mass shootings in the United States. This country has a lot of mass shootings because it has a lot of guns. The United States has just over 4% of the world’s population but more than 40% of its guns.

A New York Times analysis found that the United States has 270 million guns and 90 mass shooters (defined as a shooter with four or more victims) between 1966 and 2012. No other country had more than 46 million guns or 18 mass shooters over the same time period.

Manufacturing guns
Making All Guns for America

The same kind of analysis again demonstrates that America’s mass shooting problem is not a symptom of mental illness.

If mental health made the difference, then data would show that Americans have more mental health problems than do people in other countries with fewer mass shootings. But the mental health care spending rate in the United States, the number of mental health professionals per capita and the rate of severe mental disorders are all in line with those of other wealthy countries.

Wright and wrong

SAFEHOME is not the first time that Bob Wright has been involved in pushing pseudoscience and outright misinformation. Wright also co-founded the organization Autism Speaks after one of his grandchildren was diagnosed with the disorder.

While the organization finally abandoned discredited anti-vaccine science in 2015, Wright himself is still publicly pushing a potential link. This is what Wright said in an appearance on The Today Show in 2016:

Wright, who co-founded Autism Speaks with his wife, Suzanne, said “there is no definitive answer” to whether vaccines cause autism…

“We have not been able to determine that autism is caused by vaccines. However, there are lots of issues having to do with the vaccine safety program that I got into very deeply, with no agenda, early on in autism,” he said.

He said vaccine companies pay out tens of millions of dollars worth of damages each year in lawsuits, although not specifically tied to autism cases.

Vaccines do not cause autism. But suggestions to the contrary by Wright and many others, despite the scientific evidence, have convinced some parents not to vaccinate their children. That has lead to outbreaks of measles and other preventable diseases.

Other bad ideas

SAFEHOME is not the only idea the Trump administration has that won’t curb gun violence. It has also floated legislation that would “expedite the death penalty for people found guilty of mass killings.”

Most mass shootings are not prosecuted federally, so this legislation wouldn’t even apply. Further, many mass shooters die during the crime, either by shooting themselves or in a firefight with authorities.

More broadly, the punishments for murdering multiple people are already quite severe. It is not realistic to think that making a seldom-used federal penalty for mass shootings harsher would do anything to deter potential mass shooters.

That’s not the point, however. It’s another proposal that seeks to give the impression that Trump is doing something about mass shootings.

And that is why doing something is worse than doing nothing, especially if the something is being pushed by the Pettydent for the sake feeding his narcissism, his hatred of real science, and one of his rich donors.

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