The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

The Shooting of Congresswoman Giffords & Skepticism When It’s Needed Most

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 12, 2011

I’ve waited a few days before making this post, partly because I wanted to give myself some time to reflect and partly because I wanted to see if cooler & more rational heads would prevail.  Of course, from the title, you can see that I’m making some remarks concerning the horrific shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona this past Saturday.  As we all know by now, the shooter – Jared Loughner – not only shot Giffords point-blank in the head, severely wounding her, but others were killed (including a 9 year-old girl & a federal judge) and many more were wounded.

Events moved fast on Saturday, and – in some cases – the media moved even faster, sometimes to the point of even getting major parts of the story wrong in a misguided effort to “get it first.”  For example, you can see how some outlets, such as National Public Radio, mistakenly reported that Rep. Giffords had died in the attack. But that isn’t the most unnerving thing…

Like many, I was shocked & dismayed when I heard the news, and I immediately went to the Internet to read more… and what I read shocked & dismayed me even more.  Within an hour of the reporting of the event, I saw all manner of accusations being slung around.  This pointing of fingers had a decidedly political slant on it, with some liberals blaming the Tea Party rhetoric and “loose gun laws” for the actions of the shooter, while some conservatives insisted that the killer “must have been an illegal immigrant” or that it “had to be a set up to make Republicans look bad.”  Not only that, but I saw that conspiracy theories were being spun faster than you could say “9/11 coverup”.

I decided to go to one of my favorite skeptical online forums – the JREF Forum – to discuss the situation, and I was sadly disappointed to find that the behavior among many of my so-called skeptical colleagues was no better than that which I saw elsewhere online.  Take a look at the JREF thread on the topic, and you’ll see what I mean.

One of the things which seemed lacking during the chaos of my Saturday afternoon, much of which was spent in online discourse & surfing the Web for news of the incident, was a willingness to step back, apply some basic critical thinking, and wait for reliable information from the proper authorities to come to light.  It was, and still is in many ways, a time of great fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, and – unfortunately – in such times all too many of us will succumb to extraordinary arguments from ignorance in an attempt to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.  I lost my cool a bit and said some pretty rough things, some of which I share here:

… Especially in this politically charged environment, the last thing we need to go doing right now is jumping to conclusions, pointing fingers at “the other side”, and basically engaging in rampant & irresponsible confirmation bias. From what I’ve seen on this thread so far, there are way too many so-called skeptics displaying blatant irrationality in this regard – you should be better than that. …

In addition to other criticisms, some people mentioned a very dubious argument in response.  They stated something to the effect that “when a politician gets shot, what reason for it is there besides politics?”  Of course, facts can be stubborn things, and I responded with a very important fact: that when President Reagan was shot in 1981 by John Hinckley, Jr., Hinckley’s motivation wasn’t political; instead, he was attempting to assassinate the President as a way of gaining the attention of actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was disturbingly obsessed.  Therefore, it is well within the realm of possibility that what motivated Jared Loughner’s actions is entirely non-political.

What this shows is, in my view, the fact that there is nothing inherently special about those who label themselves as “skeptics”.  We are irrational & emotional creatures just like the rest of humanity, and in times of great stress we also feel the sometimes overwhelming pressure to dismiss our better, more rational natures in a desperate attempt to grab onto something, anything which seems like it might provide us with some measure of comfort.  But, as we skeptics are wont to say, simply because something feels right doesn’t mean it’s real.  And thus, simply because there are those who view the world through an overly-political lens doesn’t mean that reality conforms to that view.

And now, as I write these words, it seems that we still don’t have any idea exactly why it is that Jared Loughner went on a rampage, spilling blood and scaring a nation.  The suspect himself isn’t talking, early indications from the investigation point to Loughner having some kind of mental instability.  Unfortunately, without more information, we may never really know why he did what he did.

In closing, I want to share with you some very important words from Jon Stewart of The Daily Show regarding this tragedy and how people are reacting to it. These are the most mature, rational, and – yes – skeptical words I’ve heard uttered on the matter, and I hope that we all take them to heart:

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5 Responses to “The Shooting of Congresswoman Giffords & Skepticism When It’s Needed Most”

  1. Phil Plait said

    Nicely put. I said essentially the same thing in my own post on this topic. I was astonished, and still am shaking my head, over how some people who call themselves skeptics reacted to this.

  2. Grant Whitesell said

    That’s about where I’m at as well. There seems to be a real earnest effort on both sides to make this tragedy ‘fit the pattern.’ And as Jon Stewart so rightly put, “Boy, wouldn’t that be easy.” Unfortunately, the evidence that Loughner was politically motivated rather than a fringe sociopath with a personal vendetta against Giffords just keeps not coming in.

  3. Bill Ravdin said

    I find it sad but not surprising that many self-identified skeptics on the JREF forum would not exercise critical thinking in this situation. The politics section is where critical thinking goes to die, even with far less emotionally charged events than this one.

  4. Kimbo Jones said

    People highlighting Sarah Palin’s gun sight ad aren’t necessarily arguing that she (and her Tea Party politics) was directly responsible for what happened. That ad with the gun sights was reprehensible and it’s unfortunate that a lot of people (including me) didn’t take much notice of it before because it was just more crazy being spewed among the rest of the chaff. I agree with Jon Stewart (Canadian link here btw) that there should be a difference between every day lunacy and what elected politicians ACTUALLY say to/about each other on TV. This toxic climate in the US is difficult to deal with even when living in another country!

    So in criticizing people’s responses, everyone should make sure that people were actually making an argument as opposed to just finally taking notice of some of the crazy that had already been said.

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