Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about evidence-based policy.
*Interview conducted on June 22, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, you’ve been doing some reflection on evidence-based policy making and some research on the numbers of guns in the United States. What is your general reflection on evidence-based policy making? What are some of the numbers cropping up in the midst of the research on the staggering number of guns in the United States and the fallout from that?
Jonathan Engel: In the United States, there has been an outcry, of course. It has been well-known and publicized about police and policing with force and about black people. There has been a lot of thought and talk about restructuring policing in this country. It seems like a good idea. Many things don’t seem to be working. We have too many people in prison in this country. We have, obviously, crimes rates, generally, speaking, that are too high.
People do not feel protected by the police. In fact, there are many people of colour in this country who quite understandably feel afraid of he police. So, we have a situation ripe for rethinking policing. What are we going to do? What will do differently? What changes can we make to public safety? Again, not just policing, even public safety as an idea: What do we do to enhance our public safety?
Now, there are a lot of ideas going around, e.g., defund the police. It seems like a slogan meaning different things to people. One of them is taking resources used for policing and see if you can take some of those resources and put them in other areas, e.g., mental health resources, social service delivery, mental health delivery, substance abuse delivery, housing, and see if this can enhance public safety.
I’ll tell you something interesting. I saw it. I want to do some research on it. I find it fascinating. One way to reduce crime is to ameliorate lead paint in housing. We know that lead is one of the most poisonous substances on earth and affects the mind. There is some research indicating that one of the reasons why the crime rate has been slowly but steadily down in the United States is that we’ve worked, but not enough, to ameliorate lead paint. If we put resources into that, it could be successful.
It is important that what we do is evidence-based. You can’t just think about what you want to see, what feels right. To say, “It sounds like a good idea.” An example is a lot of the police departments in the last 10 or 20 years have had mandatory racial training in terms of racial sensitivity training for the police. It doesn’t appear to be working. Recent research shows that it doesn’t work.
We really need to make sure that whatever it is that we do is consistent with the evidence. You mentioned firearms in this country. It is one of the things that has to be looked into in terms of de-escalating confrontations between police and citizens. Right now, I am talking without having done the research, but I would like to do it. I run this as a hypothesis, not as a fact.
I would think that police in this country, when they stop somebody; when they interact with the citizen, there’s a legitimate concern of them being armed. The reason for this being legitimate: There are almost 400,000,000 firearms in public hands in the United States, which is incredible [Laughing]. It is over 120 firearms per 100 people.
So, what are the odds that when a policeman stops someone that they are armed? Pretty good. What happens? Again, I am not saying this from research, but research should be done on this. I would think that this would result in police in being a little more fast to reach for their own firearm. If you are thinking, “This person is quite possibly armed,” and in this country, it is true.
I recently saw a letter to the editor saying, ‘The U.S. should be more like the U.K.’ In this sense, many of the police officers on the beat in the U.K. do not routinely carry a firearm. It seems like a great idea. At the same time, the populace does not carry firearms for the most part in the U.K. In the U.K., there are a lot of people who own shotguns. There is a lot of hunting in the U.K. Apart from the shotguns, there are only 500,000 or so for 67,000,000 (500,000 firearms). Whereas, in the U.S., there are 400,000,000 for 320,000,000 or so people. It is a much higher rate.
It doesn’t seem realistic to ask the police to not carry firearms. Until, we start enforcing and enacting real guns laws that will reduce the umber of firearms in private hands to lessen the need for police to carry firearms.
Jacobsen: How is this conversation taking place in the secular society? What were some of the responses to some of the policy changes and plans until April of next year by Cuomo?
Engel: People are taking a “wait and see” approach. People do want change. That’s out there. I caution myself, “Let’s make sure the changes are evidence-based rather than knee-jerk and only sounds good.” Most seem pretty open. Some are more radical than others. I hear some people, ‘Defund the police,’ meaning, “Defund the police, no more police.” I think that’s the type of thing that is not going to be accepted by most citizens in this country.
You are walking towards your car at night and someone walks towards it. You don’t want to send a social worker.
Engel: And I have a lot of respect for social workers. It makes sense to look at the research and take some police resources, for the police too, so the police do not have to deal with situations in which they shouldn’t and aren’t trained for, e.g., mental health issues with a mental breakdown or something like that. It would be good for them too – to not be in a situation in which they were not trained for.
Cuomo has put forward some proposals. However, New York has a strange legislature – let’s see what gets enacted. I think this has really been a real time for rethinking. I hope we do it right, use evidence, use evidence-based research to make decisions; I do think that for a lot of people, certainly people of colour, the policing and public safety are not what they should and could be. We can do better; we can use the research to show us what we can do.
I do think that you’re making a mistake if you’re leaving anything that might have an effect off the table. One oft hose is the ubiquity of guns in private ownership. Also, the lethality of the guns and the assault rifles. It is all kinds of issues related around gun ownership. If you are going to rethink public safety, then this has to be on the table.
Jacobsen: Last question, is the policy here with a focus on evidence-based reasoning completely at odds with the proposals around faith-based reasoning? In that, as we talked about before, the “thoughts and prayers” culture is taking a whooping.
Whereas, the evidence-based stuff is becoming more and more accepted because people pray, unfortunately people die, and the reality test of death of those around oneself simply comes to the fore, whether one is watching the Floyd video or the Trayvon video or in some critical ward with coronavirus ravaging the lungs. A reality becoming more unavoidable for citizens in developed societies who take more faith-based reasoning in America on average.
Engel: Yes, I was talking to someone about this in the morning. I saw an article or a front-page article in The New York Times on the Trump supporters who went to his rally in Tulsa – the few [Laughing] – on Saturday. There were interviews with some of thee people who are saying things like, ‘I don’t believe this Covid stuff. I think it is all done to hurt President Trump,’ etc.
One of the things that came to mind, ‘Where did these people learn to believe things for which there was no evidence?’ In church, you are taught when little to believe things without evidence. It is the highest virtue that you can have to believe stuff without evidence. Faith, the belief in something without evidence. People are taught from when they are little kids in church and synagogue, and mosque, and Hindu temples, etc.
It is one of the greatest virtues to believe something for which there is no evidence. It is a very difficult chain to break. Hope springs eternal, I am hopeful that we can turn a corner. Are there people out there who pray for aunt Mary or someone who winds up dying of coronavirus anyway who will say, “The evidence shows, it doesn’t work”? I hope we’re moving forward.
However, civilization is not a straight curve upward. It zig-zags around. I would hope one of the results of this terrible pandemic is that there prayers simply didn’t work and, therefore, based on that evidence, “Let’s try something that the evidence does show works,” for example, wearing a mask.
Jacobsen: Sir, as always, thank you.
Engel: Thank you, Scott, you take of yourself! I’ll speak to you next week.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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