To the Editor:
Natalia E. Pane is on the right track in her recent essay (“We Are Willfully Ignorant About Ending Gun Violence,” October 31, 2018), but we don’t just lack data, we lack a common hypothesis.
Pane argues that the absence of data comes from a lack of federal funding and from funding restrictions on health agencies’ ability to collect data on gun injuries. Her observation that a search for “guns” on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site returns data about nail guns reminded me of what John Dewey says about the purposes of language.
“A man,” writes Dewey in his 1916 book Democracy and Education, “must take into conscious account the experiences of others [and] find a standpoint which includes [others’ experiences and his own]. Otherwise his communication cannot be understood.” Thus, Dewey would say that we cannot collect data on gun violence until we agree on the terms “guns” and “violence.”
Dewey would likely also be critical of why authorities would collect data. Pane argues we can solve gun violence by funding experimentation and collecting data in states using different policies. Dewey would like this impulse toward experimentation, but he believed data collection and experimentation must be connected to a hypothesis. It is only by collecting data attached to hypotheses that we can hope to effectively solve problems. And to have hypotheses, states must know what they want to accomplish. Datasets stripped from hypotheses risk being used nefariously. One can easily imagine the National Rifle Association using that new data about gun violence to convince legislators that the data supports making schools safer by arming teachers.
Perhaps arming teachers best supports a hypothesis seeking to end school shootings, but are we prepared to accept a future with more guns in schools? Teacher and student reactions to President Donald Trump’s proposals for arming trained school staff suggest we are not. Maybe we need a clearer hypothesis as well as clearer language.
Spencer J. Smith
Philosophy and History of Education Doctoral Student
Ohio State University
A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as We Need More Than Just Data on Guns