Swamp Water Jurisprudence: When a fact’s not a fact


by Judge Dennis Challeen

A recent edition of “THE WEEK” carried an unnerving statistic: “More people have been killed at American schools this year than have been killed while deployed in the U.S. military.” The numbers are shockingly true; however, when we compare statistics, a basic rule must be that we compare “apples” to “apples” — not to oranges. In this case there is a vast difference in numbers and areas of risk; statistics must be carefully perused.

During my college years I needed some course credits for a particular time slot and reluctantly chose the boring study of statistical analysis. To my later surprise, I’ve used this area of knowledge more than any other I can recall — particularly in today’s world when we hear about false facts, “fake news,” dishonest journalism, etc.

It’s only human nature to want to accept statistics as the truth if they agree with our bias, and we tend to ignore statistics that don’t fit. (Examples: political and global warming statistics.) It took us years to accept that tobacco was poisonous and not really good for our “T-Zone” (throat and more) when we sent our WWII soldiers off to kill our enemies; then we showed our gratitude by giving them free carcinogenic cigarettes. Sometimes our total society, well meaning but wrong, bases conclusions upon faulty assumptions.

In early American colonial times we didn’t dare eat love apples (tomatoes) because they were “known” to be poisonous. Nowadays we’ve been warned of the dangers of consuming bacon, eggs, and alcoholic beverages; however, more recent studies indicate we may consume them in moderation.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently released some national data on gun violence that may shed some light on why we have such strong feelings and view gun violence so differently: The study concludes “In Democratic regions of the country, which tend to be cities, people are more likely to be murdered with a gun than they are to shoot themselves to death [suicide]. In regions of the country won by Republicans, which tend to be rural areas and small towns, the opposite is true — people are more likely to shoot themselves to death than they are to be murdered with a gun.” If you are a Democrat you will probably ignore any homicidal tendencies and if you are a Republican you will probably refrain from being suicidal.

You note that statisticians use the word “likely,” which researchers often substitute for what common folk call “the fudge factor,” “wiggle room,” “within the law of averages,” and “margin of error.” Each or any of us might be the exception to the rule. Can we rely upon and believe these conclusions that are also part of the CDC study? Here are some more conclusions:

• Suicides far outnumber homicides per year, and suicides are much more prevalent in rural areas and small towns.

• Guns kill or injure more children and teens, and mass shootings occur more often in populated districts usually won by Democrats.

• Democrats tend to have fewer guns per gun owner.

• When people attempt suicide by one of many different methods, only one in 10 will die in the attempt; when they use a gun to attempt suicide they’re successful 90 percent of the time.

• Republicans view suicide as a personal decision and Democrats view it as a mental-health issue.

The problem for our polarized modern-day politicians is to compromise and amalgamate these viewpoints into acceptable laws for all. Maybe the solution is for each state or congressional district to have its own law and post it on the boundary, leaving the law-abiding traveler with the decision to leave his or her weapon home or not proceed — similar to when Americans enter Canada or decide to board an airplane. We grumble, but live with it, acknowledging that each state has its own traffic, taxes, and specific fishing and hunting laws.

Then there are times when politicians speak up in public when they should’ve studied some history first. A state legislator of Texas in a floor debate on whether English should be made the state’s legal language, to the exclusion of Spanish, rose to speak, attempting to put an end to the debate by advising everyone that if English was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for all the people of Texas. (The beginning of the English language came about five centuries after the life of Jesus, and historians assume that Jesus spoke Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language prevalent in his day.)

Which brings us to the wisdom often attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt.”


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