Belmont Club

Making the Connection

What do all three of these have in common?

A lot really. All of them are American citizens. All of them committed crimes using firearms. All of them were highly educated products of the best academic institutions. All of them were, or were training to be health science professionals.

Amy Bishop. “At the University of Alabama in Huntsville in Huntsville, Alabama, three people were killed and three others wounded in a shooting on February 12, 2010. During the course of a routine meeting of the biology department attended by approximately 12 individuals, a professor stood up and began shooting those closest to her with a 9-millimeter handgun. Amy Bishop, a biology professor at the university and the sole suspect, has been charged with one count of capital murder and three counts of attempted murder; under Alabama state law, she could be eligible for the death penalty if convicted.”

In March 2009, Bishop had been denied tenure at the university and was beginning her last semester there per university policy. Due to the attention Bishop has attracted as a result of the shooting, previous violent incidents that were somehow related to her have been reevaluated. She previously drew the attention of law-enforcement officials in 1986 when she shot her brother to death in Braintree, Massachusetts, in an incident officially ruled an accident. She, along with her husband, were questioned in a 1993 pipe-bomb incident directed toward her lab supervisor.

Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood Shooter. “Born in Virginia to parents who moved to the United States from a Palestinian town near Jerusalem, Hasan joined the Army while in college and became a psychiatrist at Fort Hood, Texas. Prior to the shooting, Hasan had expressed extremist views which had been brought to the attention of his superiors and the F.B.I. Hasan was discovered to have exchanged emails with Imam Anwar al-Awlaki asking for spiritual guidance regarding violence. Al-Awlaki has since been linked to other attacks by radical Muslims, and he quickly blessed the Fort Hood operation because it was against a military target.

The attack was described by a Senate report as “the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001.” General Jack Keane testified before a Senate committee that his first reaction was “…just how unacceptable the military’s failure to deal properly with Major Hasan’s radicalization to violent Islamist extremism was.” He also agreed with “…the report’s conclusion that Hasan’s open displays of violent Islamist extremism was .. a violation of military rules calling for good order and discipline.” He listed what he believed to be “…some of the obvious signs that Hasan should have been discharged…”

James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado shooter. “Holmes was born on December 13, 1987,  the son of a registered nurse, and a mathematician working as a senior scientist … In the summer of 2006 Holmes worked as an intern at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies where he was assigned to write computer code for an experiment. Holmes, who was described by his supervisor as stubborn, uncommunicative and socially inept, presented his project to the other interns at the end of the internship, but never actually completed it.”

In June 2011 Holmes enrolled as a Ph.D. student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. He received a $21,600 grant from the National Institutes of Health according to agency records. The grant was from July 2011 to June 2012. Holmes also received a $5,000 stipend from the University of Colorado, Denver.

In 2012, his academic performance declined, and he scored poorly on the comprehensive exam in the spring. The university was not planning to expel him. However, Holmes was in the process of withdrawing from the university. Three days after failing a key oral exam at the university in early June 2012, Holmes dropped out of his studies without further explanation.

What links the three persons together is America’s lax guns laws right? Or are there other possibilities? Why guns in preference to other factors? Wouldn’t it be possible to say, for example, that higher education causes mass murder sprees? The problem with that theory is that there are lots and lots of people who attend higher education and never go on to become killers. But on the other hand, there are lots and lots of people who own guns who never go on to become mass murderers.

Wikipedia describes the phenomenon of illusory correlation. A small minority in a large group commit an offense. What they have in common is membership in the larger group. Therefore their membership in the larger group is responsible for the offense, which is a fallacy. Which group you pick depends on your agenda.

Illusory correlation is the phenomenon of seeing the relationship one expects in a set of data even when no such relationship exists. When people form false associations between membership in a statistical minority group and rare (typically negative) behaviors, this would be a common example of illusory correlation. This happens because the variables capture the attention simply because they are novel or deviant. This is one way stereotypes form and endure.

Let’s see what Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly have to say about what knits the whole thing together.  Maybe the causality is what you want it to be.

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