A process failure

Some people are saying Joan Peterson is lying or that she simply doesn’t know how to avoid a question she can’t answer. I think there are alternate hypotheses that fit the facts better. First let’s examine what she actually said: Sean D Sorrentino:

“Joe- this is a new one. So, reduced gun deaths isn’t safer from the public? Please explain.”

he already did. Let’s do a thought experiment. there is a room with 100 people. in one room there is a gun, and one person will be killed with it. 1 death per hundred, 1 “gun death” per hundred. in another room there are no guns, just a knife. 2 people will be killed. 2 deaths per hundred, but 0 “gun deaths.” which is “safer?” Using the metric “gun death” doesn’t tell you the total rate.


Huh? totally missed this logic. I don’t think there is any there.

This was after I had tried, and failed, to get the point across several times with these comments:

I am interested in actualities not potentialities. My point is that we should, and probably can, agree on replicating laws that produce clear, measurable, results that make societies safer with no appreciable risk and low cost. If the goal of anti-gun activists is to improve public safety then they should agree, and would get agreement from the pro-gun side, that if a law cannot be shown to provide benefits with low risk and reasonable cost it should not be replicated and in fact should be repealed. Because it has been repeatedly shown that gun laws do not measurably improve public safety, and have non-zero risk and cost yet anti-gun activists do not agree to repeal ineffective laws we question the claimed motive to improve public safety. There must be some other motive for increasing restrictions on weapons.


You are avoiding the question again. The question is whether such laws made them safer. Not whether such laws reduced the “gun deaths”. This has been pointed out before here, if in response to firearms restrictions the criminal homicide using a firearm goes to zero but the total homicide and violent crime rate doubles then society has not been made safer. If more innocent life is taken or permanently injured I take no consolation in the fact that no firearms was involved. So again, where is the data that shows any restriction on person weapon ownership has made the average person safer?


just because there are fewer criminal uses of firearms does not mean the public is safer. Violent crime may increase even though firearms are not involved. The hypothesis to explain this unexpected (by some) results is that restrictions on the access of firearms may in fact enable crime because the victims are less able to defend themselves. To the best of my knowledge there are zero peer reviewed studies that clearly show increasing restrictions on firearms has resulted in decreased violent crime. There are indications that criminal use of firearms has decreased but violent crime without a weapon or the substituting of different weapons increased to at least equal the benefits of the decrease in the crimes enabled by the firearms. Hence, a decrease in the criminal use of firearms does not result in an increase in public safety.

Again, her response to Sean, was:

Huh? totally missed this logic. I don’t think there is any there.

The claim is that this insistence that she doesn’t understand the point we are trying to make is a lie. The supporters of this hypothesis claim, “she is either so incredibly stupid it’s a wonder she’s not in an institution or she’s just lying.“ Those same thoughts certainly go through my mind too. I think there are alternate hypotheses which fit the facts just as well if not better. One hypothesis put forth is cognitive dissonance. While this is possible I think that is unlikely. Cognitive dissonance frequently manifests itself in an increase in proselyting, as she has, but it requires social support. She does have some social support by way of her involvement with various anti-gun groups but I don’t think she is sufficiently isolated from the rest of the world such that the support from those organizations in sufficient. In an Internet world with dozens of people posting comments on your own blog that you cannot avoid the social support for false beliefs is going to be seriously undermined. I think a better hypothesis is a total lack of knowledge, and perhaps ability, on how to distinguish truth from falsity. This does not necessarily mean stupid. Some examples might help:

We would consider such a trial and execution of a thing as a demonstration of medieval ignorance. Yet the deodand law was not removed from England’s lawbooks until the last century. Medieval England was not the first place where the object was blamed for crimes. Anthropologist Joseph Campbell cites similar customs from Africa to New Guinea, to biblical times. Old habits die hard, and the deodand rule exists to this day.

Neal Knox
December 22, 1987
Deodand Law from The Gun Rights War, pages 112 and 113.

See also here.

From Guns in Hell:

The mother had come to watch the gun that was used to kill her son be sawed into pieces in an acrid plume of white-hot sparks. Ms. DeCambra’s act of witness was made possible by a law Maine enacted in 2001 that requires handguns used in homicides to be destroyed when they are no longer needed for evidence. Before that, guns were often sold or auctioned by police departments to raise money for other equipment. … Maine’s law came about because of Debbie O’Brien, a Kennebunk woman whose 20-year-old son, Devin, was shot to death in 1996. When she learned that the state police would probably sell the gun used to kill her son, Ms. O’Brien said her reaction was, “Oh, my God, the police are here to help you and the next thing you know they’re turning around and selling a gun, making money off my dead son.” Ms. O’Brien lobbied for the proposed law, saying that she told the state police, “Look, if you need money, let’s do bake sales.” “You’re in hell,” she said. “You’re just struggling to have a life, and then I realized that would include the gun.”

Haruspex from Wikipedia:

Human sacrifice has been practiced on a number of different occasions and in many different cultures. The various rationales behind human sacrifice are the same that motivate religious sacrifice in general. Human sacrifice is intended to bring good fortune and to pacify the gods, for example in the context of the dedication of a completed building like a temple or bridge. There is a Chinese legend that there are thousands of people entombed in the Great Wall of China. In ancient Japan, legends talk about Hitobashira (“human pillar”), in which maidens were buried alive at the base or near some constructions as a prayer to ensure the buildings against disasters or enemy attacks.[6] For the re-consecration of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs reported that they killed about 80,400 prisoners over the course of four days. According to Ross Hassig, author of Aztec Warfare, “between 10,000 and 80,400 persons” were sacrificed in the ceremony.[7] Human sacrifice Wikipedia This test typically required that the accused walk a certain distance, usually nine feet, over red-hot plowshares or holding a red-hot iron. Innocence was sometimes established by a complete lack of injury, but it was more common for the wound to be bandaged and reexamined three days later by a priest, who would pronounce that God had intervened to heal it, or that it was merely festering – in which case the suspect would be exiled or executed. Ordeal of fire Wikipedia In Roman and Etruscan religious practice, a haruspex (plural haruspices; Latin auspex, plural auspices) was a man trained to practice a form of divination called haruspicy, hepatoscopy or hepatomancy. Haruspicy is the inspection of the entrails of sacrificed animals, especially the livers of sacrificed sheep and poultry. The rites were paralleled by other rites of divination such as the interpretation of lightning strikes, of the flight of birds (augury), and of other natural omens.

It’s not just ancient people either. More recently:

There is on earth among all dangers no more dangerous thing than a richly endowed and adroit reason… Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed.

Martin Luther

I asked them, “If a belief you held was shown to be irrational would you abandon that belief?” Any rational person would only find one answer to this question, I was sure of it. One by one my classmates shared their answers going around the circle. They would speak in quiet voices and talk in circles as if they didn’t have any determination behind their words. It was clear I had made them very uncomfortable and that they weren’t sure what to believe. I was proud of my question, maybe I had finally managed to get these students to think and question their own beliefs. Then it came time for my teacher to answer, he sat up straight in his chair and spoke in his soft but wise voice. I only remember one sentence that he said in his answer, it is forever etched in my mind. “Just because something is irrational doesn’t mean you don’t have to believe in it.”

Jaime Huffman
Summer of 2002 Manuscript Speech Comm 101

No one has the right to destroy another person’s belief by demanding empirical evidence.

Ann Landers
Nationally syndicated advice columnist and Director of Handgun Control, Inc.

These people do not know, and perhaps are incapable of knowing, how to distinguish truth from falsity. Furthermore, as evidenced by that last quote by Ann Landers and the quote by Martin Luther, they are sometimes of the opinion that empirical evidence and reason are counterproductive to valid belief systems. You cannot dismiss these examples as things that happened a millennia or three ago by ignorant superstitious people. These examples include a law passed in Maine in 2001. I realize how crazy this sounds to most people, but it is my hypothesis that some people who appear to be normal functioning members of society simply do not or cannot determine truth from falsity. Even through repeated application of the evidence and the reasoning supporting falsification of their beliefs these people continue to hold onto ideas that are conclusively shown to be false. I believe Joan Peterson is one of those people. For example, she apparently cannot distinguish a hypothesis from a conclusion. When I repeatedly asked for evidence that some law restricting weapons resulted in a safer society, she responded with this:

We do know that the Brady Law has prevented about 1.7 prohibited purchasers from buying guns.

[Please substitute “1.7 million” for “1.7”. I’m giving her a pass on this error.]

The hypothesis is that prohibiting people who fail background checks from purchasing firearms will make people safer. She concludes that some large number of failed background check is success. But a failed background check is actually part of the hypothesis. Paul Helmke and others at the Brady Campaign do the exact same thing. It is also what is done by gun control advocates in Canada in regards to the long gun registry. The unspoken hypothesis is that frequent access of the registry will benefit society. The gun control advocates proudly claim frequent access of the registry is proof of it’s benefits.   Peterson’s sloppy thinking continues:

To me it proves that if we require background checks on all gun sales, we can prohibit people who shouldn’t have guns from getting them.

Read that sentence a time or four. Perhaps she really meant “prevent” instead of “prohibit”. Even giving her the benefit of the doubt on that her “proof” has holes in it that Mexican drug traffickers can (and perhaps do) drive semi-trucks through.   And I don’t think we should give her the benefit of the doubt on using the wrong word in that sentence. Here is another example from the same post:

4. Do you believe that I and people with whom I work intend to ban your guns?
5. If yes to #4, how do you think that could happen ( I mean the physical action)?

As pointed out by Joel (via Tam):

The question is incoherent. “Banning” requires no physical action at all, and is quite simple to do. Even Clinton managed it. If you mean confiscation, well, there you’ve got a problem. Were you really coming to me for suggestions?

Now read a half dozen or more of her posts. Her thinking is filled with things like this. She is frequently incoherent. She cannot distinguish the difference between intentions and results. If she is a liar she would not repeatedly make these kind of mistakes. Or if she is a liar then she is very very smart and skilled to consistently use the same sort of tool without ever slipping up. I claim it is not necessarily and in fact probably isn’t stupidity. If this were stupidity then this sort of faulty thinking would not continually show up throughout human history even with people that are exceedingly well respected. Every age and society has stupid people in it and they are easily recognized and the instances of them being well respected are exceedingly rare.

This is some other type of mental disorder. This mental disorder can be, and has been, easily detected. Ask the question, “What is the process by which you determine truth from falsity?” People suffering from this mental disorder not only won’t be able to supply an answer but frequently cannot even understand the question. The question is nonsensical to them.

They are lacking a thinking process. Hence, by necessity, they fail to process information. Asking them to supply a process when they are totally unaware of the existence of such a concept results in the same sort of difficulty as asking a person blind since birth what color the walls are. They have no common basis with the questioner such that they can even understanding the question. This is the same sort of response we get from her. She cannot understand concepts that to us are intuitively, blindingly, demonstrably, obvious. It is nearly impossible for us to believe that she does not understand what we are saying.

But if she were blind you would not claim she was stupid or a liar if she did not know the color of the wall. With all due respect to those that claim she is being “coy”, has poor arguing skills, or is a liar, I think this is unfair and unjust. She is lacking a thinking process or has a process failure.

Update (October 13, 2010): A name has been given to this mental defect. In honor of Ms. Peterson it is now called “Peterson Syndrome“.

Update (June 14, 2012): Cognitive distortion is probably the term used by psychologist to describe this mental problem. There may be some therapies which offer some hope for these people. But from talking to a therapist about this the patients tend to be very resistive and insist there is nothing wrong with them. Also of interest is that she told me these sort of problems are worse or may only show up in close personal relationships. It would be very interesting to talk to Ms. Peterson’s husband about these things.


17 thoughts on “A process failure

  1. That reasoning would also explain nonsensical ideas in general. If you can’t tell truth from falsehood then any idea that sounds good and anyone with good intentions must be ok.

    I think you’ve just explained the useful idiots.

  2. Yep. The banners have extremely unclear and poor thinking, which is even evidenced in the laws they create. AB962, which attempts to regulate handgun ammo in CA is quite vague, for example. A Mack Truck has been driven through our AW ban.

    Hopefully, the lack in logic for the laws created on the East & West Coasts will bring about their swift destruction if we get Strict or Intermediate Scrutiny in a few of the current cases.

    Then we can smile at people like Joan, pat them on the head, and say “Isn’t that cute. Did you think of that all by yourself?”

  3. I think the failure to think rationally is based in the “Fight or Flight Response”. Some of the time People get into the “Deer in the Headlights” function, wherein, as their brain tries to process something that they fear, it “Locks up” with a “This can’t be happening to me!” signal, and they literally “Freeze”. It may be genetic. But no matter how you approach them on the subject, as soon as the their brain receives the “Threatening Signal”, it blocks out all other rational thought, and runs into a Circular Logic Fallacy. Too bad for the rest of the Human Race these people tend to get into positions of Power and Authority.

  4. Joe – I think I’ve mentioned this here before, but in a study released recently (When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions, Brendan Nyhan & Jason Reifler, in Political Behavior (2010) 32:303–330) it was shown “…that responses to corrections in mock news articles differ significantly according to subjects’ ideological views. As a result, the corrections fail to reduce misperceptions for the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases.” While there are methodological issues that I would want to see addressed in further research, it is an interesting piece.

    I’ve found their conclusion borne out numerous times – when you provide correct factual information to someone who is genuinely committed to their position they simply repeat their own beliefs as if they somehow refute the facts and become more and more vehement in their defense.

  5. You make a very strong case, at least in this instance.

    I still have a hard time accepting that someone of reasonable intelligence and education can’t grasp the simple concepts we were trying to point out to her, but I have to admit that my only evidence that she is lying about it is my own personal biases. The case you make is compelling and I may have to rethink it.

  6. Joe,

    I’ve struggled to identify the causation of the defective thinking, your answer became the pointer to cognitive distortion which is a coping or defense mechanism. She lost a sister to a gun related crime and the resulting dissonance cannot allow the concept of the person(criminal) as being the actor but the gun itself as an actor, or what some call magic thinking.

    I now pity her as she has engaged a discussion she cannot resolve for herself as the answers cannot be accepted. I also view her as dangerous as this level of unclear thinking will lead to actions that are likely futile but annoying and possibly outright unacceptable.

    At this point we know the pig can’t sing, stop the training.


  7. The word ‘solipsism’ comes to mind. Though I don’t know if it is accurate…

    I am also reminded of the Classical idea of education beginning with Grammar, moving on to Logic, and finally arriving at Rhetoric.

    This case (and at least one other that you’ve found on the web) appears to be Rhetoric without Grammar or Logic.

    Sadly, they seem to be unaware-of or uncaring-about this shortcoming.

  8. It’s not just gun banning, it’s MOST left wing causes.

    The problem is a literal inability to distinguish reality from fantasy in certain contexts.

    In their world, there is no distinction between intention and result. No distinction between symbol and reality. No distinction between attempt, and accomplishment.

    These idiots who go to meetings to “raise awareness”, genuinely believe they have accomplished something; because in their distorted reality, there is no difference between talking about something, and doing it.

    To a liberal it doesn’t matter if what they do doesn’t work, because the INTENTION was to do something good, and intentions are the same as reality.

    You can show them all the numbers, all the facts, all the reality of it that you want, they just don’t care.

    They hate us, passionately, because we cause injury to their world view. We negate their sense of accomplishment. We prevent them from feeling the enhancement to their self esteem and self regard they wish to feel by “doing” whatever it is they are talking about.

  9. “Can you demonstrate one time or place, throughout all history, where the average person was made safer by restricting access to handheld weapons?”

    She’s not intentionally lying or being deceitful. Different words mean slightly different things to different people. Obviously, locking up and executing criminals and winning wars keeps Americans safer. Keeping kids and mental defectives away from guns (and anything else too dangerous) keeps them from hurting themselves (and others). Those are, for most people, examples of making average Americans safer by restricting access to hand-held weapons. This example doesn’t meet Joe’s standards because they are examples of keeping bad guys away from good guys. Joe wants examples where keeping good guys away from guns keeps good guys safer (hint – there are no such examples). For Joe, his question is like a ‘living constitution’ that shouldn’t be strictly interpreted according only to the exact wording.

  10. Steven Den Beste posted on Hot Air’s Green Room last year on the difference between materialistic and teleological thought (as applied to governance, not gun control, but the parallels are still there): Government by Wishful Thinking.

    Iit’s easy to see that those of us on the side of civil rights are the materialists; gun banning doesn’t work, has never worked, and it’s plain that it never will work. The gun banners are teleologists; it doesn’t matter that banning guns hasn’t worked before, because a world without guns would be pristine and beautiful and it’s just the way things should be!

  11. dustydog,

    Part of the point of the question is that, historically, there is no evidence that such laws ever in practice do prevent bad guys from getting guns. However, there is plenty of evidence that good guys are prevented from getting guns, and hence left defenseless.

  12. Hello Joe Hoffman.

    This posting reminds me how important it is to load your brain before you shoot off your mouth. Whenever I reach into my ammo bag I keep looking to see if I have any ammo for Ignorance and lo and behold I do. So when I load up an shoot and the Quarry is hit dead centre and does not fall, then I KNOW my aim was true as well as my ammo was deadly. So what went wrong with my shot? Did I load up for Ignorance with the an Express Round of KNOWLEDGE? I did hit the target with the TRUTH of KNOWLEDGE and yet it sill stands.

    With that said, I now know that my bag of AMMO has just one round for the former misidentified Ignorant Target, now known as the Arrogant Target. Really can not reach in and pull out Proverbs 6.19 to load up nor can I chamber the 17.4 Round for this one. All I have left is the HERBERT SPENCER ROUND. This round takes a long time to pull out, load and fire off. Caution is needed in adjusting for Range and a bit of Kentucky Windage is always needed. Remember you only get one shot with the Spencer round, have your safety off and your set trigger pulled because the Target is only open for this venerable shot on rare occasion and sometimes not at all….HERBERT SPENCER ROUND as follows:

    “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man(woman in Joan Peterson’s case)in EVERLASTING ignorance – THAT PRINCIPLE IS CONTEMPT PRIOR TO INVESTIGATION.

    Well Joe, thank you for taking the time to load your brain and helping me remember that I can tolerate ignorance. Just don’t have the time to argue with a arrogant person lost in the world of contempt.

    Good luck Joe and happy hunting,

    Jon Huettl…in Palm Springs, Located in a State west of Nevada

  13. I was educated by nuns in primary school. Truth was absolute, authority was not there to be questioned but to be obeyed, and falsity was identified very exactly, usually with a bright red pencil and a lower grade. Self esteem was not taught, nor encouraged, nor thought a valuable thing. Self respect, and respect for others, was taught, and encouraged, and the nuns demonstrated to us that earning and giving respect was a very valuable thing.

    I was educated by research scientists in college. Truth and falsity were identified through testing of the null hypothesis. If there was no null hypothesis, truth and falsity were recognized as indeterminable for the issue under discussion. Pretty simple, really, and hard as heck to argue with unless a better hypothesis could be developed and tested. Polywater, cold fusion and room temperature superconductors all arrived in a blaze of excitement during my years of study and work, and all fell into disrepute after failure upon testing. During this time, Jim Jones also lost his cult following due to to a poorly chosen Flavor-Aid color.

    I thank my lucky stars for the nuns and the professors I have had in my education. I don’t try to teach pigs, sheep and goats anything beyond simple math, and I don’t try to argue with people holding irrational beliefs.

  14. I wish I could be more charitable, Mr. Huffman. The picture painted – to me, at least – is that of someone who is either constitutionally incapable of acknowledging objective conditions, or is knowingly, deliberately, and willfully ignoring objective conditions. In other words, Ms. Peterson can either be delusional, or lying – forgive me, but your assertion that she has a blind spot regarding blaming an inanimate object for the actions of its user strikes me as giving her a cop-out.

    Now, I don’t know if Ms. Peterson is an insane person or a liar, and, frankly, I don’t care – neither condition is acceptable for preserving and restoring our Republic. Ideally, she would be confined to a mental institution, where her insanity would be discredited by her public record if irrationality, or imprisioned for Fraud, where she would be discredited by her public record of dishonesty, but those aren’t available options, are they? To make matters worse, I know of no way to introduce a sanity test for voters that would not be abused by a government, just as literacy tests and poll taxes were in the South under Jim Crow laws.

    So, we’re stuck with Ms. Petersen and her ilk. The only way I know of to fight them is ridicule – lead them down a garden path until they’re defending a position so utterly ludicruous that even the voter possessed of the minimal degree of acumen to get himself registered to vote describes that position as, “Didn’t I hear about a nutjob saying that sort of thing? Better not vote for this guy – he’s saying the same thing the nutjob did about this issue, and who knows what he might believe on other issues that really agree with the nutjob”

  15. I thought I had commented on this already last night. But I guess I have to attempt to retrace my train of thought on this.

    The most simple way to describe their disconnect is that this is a religion for them. Just like the environmentalists, these people “believe” in this. Just take the passion behind terms like “global warming denier”, and that’s what they are thinking when they call us “gun nuts”. We’re blasphemers.

    Imagine you have the most fervent believer in God, regardless of religion, though your stereotypical Southern Baptist works well for this. Just picture someone that has to make sure everyone else believes, and pushes for all those blue laws to be sure of it. Now picture being able to prove, with 100% certainty, that God does not exist. That type of believer will not be capable of grasping anything that proves that. To consciously acknowledge those facts undoes their entire belief system.

    You will never sway them. You will never make a crack in their belief structure, and any time you overwhelm them with facts, you’re just being mean. Just remember that, in any argument with them, the audience you’re reaching are the silent readers/listeners observing the discussion.

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