Gas Prices in and out of Context: Hi and Lois need a Fact Check

On October 18 2014, the comic strip Hi and Lois comic strip looked back with fondness on a time when gas prices were just 35.9 cents a gallon.  At the present day, the middle-class character Hi grimaces as he pumps gas costing $3.99 cents a gallon.  In a meta-analysis of existing research, social scientist Michael R. Hagerty found that people tend to view their own lives as getting better but at the same time tend to look backward in time and conclude that the lot of the average person is getting worse.  In other words, we use rose-colored glasses to view our own lives, but gray-tinted glasses to view trends in the world in general.

Hi’s view of the world is certainly tinted gray in the strip you see below, but is this pessimist funk merited?  I don’t think so; the way out of the trap of our psychological biases is to check for sociological context.  Doing that, I’d alter the Hi and Lois strip from the original into a more realistic new version:

Put Hi and Lois in Context -- are gas prices in 2014 really that bad?

Correction 1: Gas hasn’t had a price of $3.99 per gallon in the United States since July of 2008. The average price per gallon of gas in the United States was down to about $3.10 in the middle of October 2014, and they’re getting even better a month later. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank Economic Research Database.

Correction 2: The last time gas cost 35.9 cents a gallon in the United States was the year 1969, but that literal price doesn’t tell the whole story; those 35.9 cents were worth a whole lot more in 1969 than they are worth today. If we adjust for inflation, paying 35.9 cents in 1969 had the same punch to our wallets as paying $2.32 today. Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics and

Correction 3: Why do we put gasoline in cars? To go somewhere. Chance Brown forgets that the fuel efficiency of cars was far different in 1969 from the fuel efficiency we experience nowadays. In 1969, passenger cars traveled 13.6 miles on a gallon of gas, on average. In 2013, the last full year for which data is available, passenger cars traveled 36.0 miles on a gallon of gas, on average. Sources: U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration.

If we put all these pieces of information together, it turns out that on average and adjusting for inflation, it took 17 cents to travel a mile in a car in 1969. In contrast, it only takes 8.6 cents to travel a mile in a car today.  The depiction of gas prices as a rising social problem doesn’t match the cheaper cost of transportation today.  There may be other social problems associated with fossil fuel transportation, but economy is not one of them.  Unless Hi is driving an extra-large SUV and driving his fuel efficiency far below average, he should be smiling, not frowning.  Even and especially when trends seem obvious, it’s important to put them in context.

Gun Violence Fact Check: the New Normal is Lower than the Old Normal

On Bill Moyers’ website, Cliff Schecter asks readers to “Say No to ‘The New Normal’ — Five Things You Can Do About Gun Violence.” This headline implicitly asserts that the level of gun violence being currently experienced is new — a “new normal.” The first paragraph of Schecter’s article implies that gun violence is not at a “new” low, but rather a “new” high:

“Some days it can seem like we should just give up. You’re just processing one senseless mass shooting in Las Vegas when you find out there has been a mass killing in Florida. But there’s no time to think about that because your television is saying that there’s a shooter on the loose in North Hollywood, and there has been another high school shooting in Oregon. It can lead to despair.”

Notice that Schechter’s claim about a rise in gun deaths to an unacceptable “new normal” is based in the way things “seem” to citizens based on reports in the news media. But perceived changes in reports in the news are not the same as observed changes in the event itself. To uncover the latter, let’s consult historical data from the FBI’s compilation of police reports in the 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Crime in the United States publication. Although police reports are not a perfect measure of actual levels of crime, homicide is perhaps the one crime most transparent to police reports and is most likely to gather data regarding the mode of death. The Crime in the United States publication brings us close as possible to charting the actual trend in the number and type of homicides in the United States. Counts of murders involving firearms from 1992 to 2012 (the last year for which data is available) are presented below:

Number of Murder Victims Killed by Firearms.  Source: FBI, Crimes in the United States reports

According to these records of police reports, there has been a decline rather than an increase in murder by gun in the United States. That decline in numbers is striking considering that during the same period the U.S. population rose. On January 1, 1992 the United States population was 254,782,555. On December 31, 2012 the United States population was 315,073,604. If the rate of gun deaths per person remained absolutely the same from 1992 to 2012, we would have seen an increase in the number of gun deaths of 23.7% simply because in 2012 there were 23.7% more people. Instead, the UCR figures show a drop of 42.8%, from 15489 murders by firearm in 1992 to 8855 murders by firearm in 2012.

It could be reasonable to argue that 8855 gun-related killings in the United States are still too many, and it could be reasonable to discuss what might be done to reduce the number of gun deaths even more. On the basis of nationally-collected data, however, it is not reasonable to assert that levels of gun violence are on the rise to some unacceptably high “new normal.”

School Shootings and the Thomas Theorem: Real in their Consequences

“If men define situations as being real, then they are real in their consequences.” — W.I. Thomas and Dorothy Swain Thomas, 1928, The Child in America

The Thomas Theorem is a staple of sociological insight, asserting that beliefs have a force of their own, whether those beliefs are factually accurate or not. If people believe something to be true, and act on the basis of that belief, then that belief can have observable consequences in the world, even when a belief is false.

As a case in point, consider our beliefs about the risk to children from school shootings. A regular Gallup Poll of the parents of school aged children shows that a significant portion of Americans with school-aged children have consistently expresed fear for their children’s safety in school, and that the share of parents expressing such fears has increased in recent years:

Gallup Poll Question: Thinking about your oldest child, when he or she is at school, do you fear for his or her physical safety?

We are particularly worried about our children being shot and killed by aggressors packing guns. A typical Facebook discussion not only characterizes the current level of school shootings as “too many” but asks, “How many more innocent people are going to die before they actually do something worthwhile to stop this?” Tennessee resident Kali asks, “Are our children safe at school? School shootings are everywhere with no school exempt. Where or what security measures have been taken to ensure our child’s safety?”

In American culture, we believe that our children are at significant risk in school. But at the same time that parents’ concern runs high, the actual count of children killed in school shootings runs low and, if anything, sunk even lower in recent years. As the latest report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows, the in-school homicide rate in 2010-2011 was 0.00002 percent, which means a child’s chance of being killed in school was 1 in 4.5 million.

In response to these kinds of calls, Hardwire Armor Systems LLC has been marketing bulletproof whiteboards to schools. Its 18×20 model is meant to be used as a standard handheld whiteboard, but features handles on the back and is designed to protect a teacher facing a school shooter from “multiple magazines of ammunition from handguns or shotguns without ricochet or injury.” The most basic 18×20 bulletproof whiteboards Hardwire offers costs $399 — $383 more per whiteboard than a standard whiteboard of the same size.

Is this extra expenditure in every classroom worth it? Hardwire Armor Systems LLC says so, and offers glowing testimonials from students like 9th grader Tori Barros to explain why:

“Recently, there has been a lot of heartbreaking and frightening news about school safety. School is a place to think and be safe. The thought that someone can just walk into my classroom and take my life away is terrifying. My father says, ‘We can’t predict the future, all we can do is be best prepared for uncertain events.’ No one has a crystal ball that can tell us if a bad person is coming to our school. But knowing that Hardwire is providing my classmates and I with the protection that may someday save our lives is a huge relief.”

Some schools are buying.

In comparison to the 1 in 4.5 million risk that a child will be killed in school during a year, in any year 1 out of 60 thousand schoolchildren aged 5-14 die from heart attacks. If a 1 in 4.5 million risk is enough to place a bulletproof whiteboard in every classroom, is a 1 in 60 thousand risk enough to place a defibrillator in every classroom? Although defibrillators are being bought by schools, they’re being placed at the rate of just 1 or 2 per sprawling school, not within arm’s reach of a teacher. Why, when the risk of a student dying from heart disease is 75 times as great as the risk of a student dying from a school shooting? The answer is that we have collectively decided to pay more attention to some childrens’ deaths than others. Measured in terms of our focus on the issue in the media and measured in terms of our efforts to implement a solution, the death of a child from a shooting is more socially meaningful to us than the death of a child from a heart attack.

Even if we ignore other causes of child deaths and limit ourselves to child murders, we can still ask why school shootings attract as much attention as they do. After all, children are killed in much greater numbers in other contexts. Indeed, as the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ recent report shows, only 8 out of every 1,000 child murders occur in the context of school:

Where are children typically killed? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathers information on child homicides from 17 states in the U.S. using its National Violent Death Reporting System, and the results can be browsed suing the CDC’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (also known as WISQARS). During the last year for which data is available (2011), the following are the places where children were murdered:

Place of Injury Percentage
All 100.00%
House, apartment, including driveway, porch, yard 47.32%
Residential institution, including shelter, prison <3%
Transport area: public highway, street or road 27.13%
Transport area: other, including inside motor vehicle 8.52%
Recreational area, cultural area or public building <3%
Commercial area (non-recreational), including medical service area, farm, industrial or construction area 3.47%
Natural area/countryside 4.42%
Other specified place, including school, sports or athletics area 3.47%
Unknown 3.47%


If nearly half of all murders of children take place inside the home (many times more than take place in school), then shall we invest in bulletproof doors or suffocation-safe pillows? If more than a quarter of the murders of children occur on the street, then mightn’t we consider detachable bulletproof street signs as a security option?  Such solutions sound absurd to our ears, but these absurdities are an artifact of how we define the situation: if we were strictly interested in preventing the greatest number of child murders, we might want to consider in-home or on-street changes much more seriously than we consider in-school changes.  The fact that we devote our concern to security in schools despite the relative safety of schools tells us that our concern is a consequence of the way we construct social reality and the stories we tell about danger.  The stories we tell, based on our out-of-proportion beliefs, have real consequences: as teachers hoist bulletproof whiteboards in their classrooms, children die in their homes.

School Shootings in Government Statistics and News Headlines: A Dose of Social Reality

As University of Delaware Professor of Sociology Joel Best reminds us in his latest text, social problems don’t come into existence on their own. Instead, social problems emerge as part of a process in which institutions and groups select some kinds of information and ignore other kinds of information to tell stories about risk, danger and trouble. Claims about the existence of a social problem don’t have to match observable reality if they serve some other purpose. When news media create a story, for instance, grabbing attention and sustaining dramatic “human interest” tension can be as important or even more important than accuracy.

With this in mind, let’s consider the latest release of data on violence against children by Bureau of Justice Statistics. Just yesterday, a new report containing the latest available statistics on youth violence in and out of schools was made available to the public. The very first figure of this report shows that the number of homicides and suicides in schools has been declining (even as school enrollment in the U.S. has been growing):

Latest BJS statistics: School shootings have been decreasing, not increasing

Furthermore, the second figure of the BJS report indicates that homicides and suicides of children in school are strikingly rare compared to homicides and suicides of children out of school. The danger for children is largely in the park, on the street and at home — not at school:

Bureau of Justice Statistics: More than 99% of child murders and suicides happen outside of school

And yet, here is the headline that USA Today chose for its news story discussing the new BJS report:

USA Today Headline of Hype on June 11 2014: Despite Beefed-Up Security, School Shootings Continue

The images USA Today chose to accompany the article were not representative photographs of safe children going about their business. Instead, USA Today showed the extremely rare exceptions to the rule: grieving children comforting one another after school shootings. Regardless of the actual trends, USA Today failed to focus on the environment outside of school, where more than 99% of violent child deaths occur. Instead, the text of the news article focused on the need for new school policies to confront the “problem” of school shootings. The social problem of school shootings is socially created rather than an objective reality, but nevertheless the story of that problem strongly influences what we do. This is one way in which constructed social reality can be real in its effects.