Gun crime: not like flu at all

Thanks to a new study in the Internal Medicine publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) we now know that gun violence is just like a flu epidemic.

Oh really?

The study emanates from academics at Harvard and Yale universities.  They pose the (possibly rhetorical) question: “Does gun violence spread over social networks through a process of social contagion?”

‘Modeling Contagion Through Social Networks to Explain and Predict Gunshot Violence in Chicago, 2006 to 2014’ (the article’s title) concludes: “An epidemiological analysis of a network of 138,163 individuals in Chicago, Illinois, determined that social contagion was responsible for 63.1% of the 11,123 gunshot violence episodes that occurred between 2006 and 2014.”

Note: social contagion was responsible. This implies a cause and effect. As the authors say, “Gunshot violence follows an epidemic-like process of social contagion that is transmitted through networks of people by social interactions.” Simplify the academic jargon and what this really amounts to is little more than an assertion that, if you live around gun-crime people and places, you have a higher risk of being shot.

It’s a neat idea, that gun crime is somehow ‘spread’ like a virus. It’s an idea that the conventional media will pick up on and happily reprint without much question.

The problem with this study – as with all such studies – is that all it does is amass a set of statistics, and then use those statistics to posit a causal link where none can really be scientifically established. In other words it’s the old problem for social studies of any kind: you can establish a correlation, but you can’t establish a causal effect.

Sociologists are perpetually envious of their colleagues in more rigorously scientific fields. They often resort to metaphors or similes to disguise the big problem they have: proving that X causes Y.

So in this study the researchers say: “Taken together, the results of these studies suggest that the diffusion of gun violence might occur through person-to-person interactions, in a process akin to the epidemiological transmission of a blood-borne pathogen (eg, HIV).” Hey – gun violence is a disease just the same as HIV! Nope. That “akin” is a simile.

They mean well, no doubt, when they say: “We postulated that a person becomes exposed to gun violence through social interactions with previous subjects of gun violence: someone who has been shot may be more likely to be embedded in the networks and environments in which guns are present and gun violence is likely to erupt. Therefore, associating with subjects of gun violence, and specifically co-engaging in risky behaviors with them, may expose individuals to these same behaviors, situations, and people that in turn increase the probability of becoming a subject of gun violence.”

But strip away the academic language and all you get is – gun violence begets gun violence.

Picture source: Wikimedia