I give a dozen or so talks each year to college students and the public. I discuss critical thinking, logical fallacies, misleading arguments and more than a few cases of simple stupidity. Sometimes coming up with new material is difficult; there are plenty of classic examples of logical fallacies, but the most interesting ones are real-world cases, not moldy stuff like "If all men are mortal and Socrates was a man …"
Sometimes the mayor of your city provides a textbook example of stupidity, a case study that not only illustrates gloriously flawed reasoning and poor logic, but raises questions about the judgment of our elected officials.
Mayor Martin Chavez banned sex offenders from Albuquerque libraries about a month ago. According to a March 5 Albuquerque Journal story by Dan McKay, " 'The city received two or three reports the past year of adults making inappropriate comments to children at libraries,' Chavez said. The city also wants to ensure that sex offenders can't use library computers to contact youngsters online. 'Libraries should be safe havens,' Chavez said."
At first glance—and if you don't know anything about sex offenders and child predation, as Chavez clearly doesn't—this might seem like a reasonable policy, perhaps even a good idea. Why not ban sex offenders from libraries if it will make children safer?
The answer is that it will cost taxpayer money, drain resources and be wholly ineffective. Let's look a little closer at the facts and logic of this case.
According to Chavez, there are two reasons for the ban: 1) there were reports of inappropriate comments made to children last year; and 2) barring sex offenders from library computers will keep children safer online.
Anybody see some flawed logic and faulty reasoning here? Let's take them one at a time.
Wow! A sea of hands! Yes, you in the back?
That's right: What were these vague "inappropriate comments"? Were they sexual in nature, or just "inappropriate"? We don't know. How big a problem is it really if, over the course of an entire year, out of all of Albuquerque’s 17 libraries and more than 100,000 patrons, there were "two or three" reports? (And if Chavez is so concerned about the problem, shouldn't he know the number?)
Why should murderers and armed robbers be allowed in public libraries? They might kill and rob children!
More to the point, what is the link, if any, between the "inappropriate comments" and sex offenders? Is Chavez assuming the comments were sexual and were spoken by registered sex offenders? If so, why? What is the basis for these assumptions? Without better information about the comments, they can't be used as a reason for anything.
OK, let's move on to the second point …
If Chavez could cite evidence that sex offenders had been using the city's libraries to victimize children, his case for banning them from the libraries' computers—though not the libraries themselves—would be much stronger. Yet, as far as we know, that has never happened. So he's banning all sex offenders from even entering the buildings to prevent something that has never occurred? Library computers are already monitored; inappropriate use is already reported.
There's also the hidden assumption that sex offenders are likely to attack again; otherwise, why focus on that group? Why not ban all convicted felons from libraries? Why should murderers and armed robbers be allowed in public libraries? They might kill and rob children!
Let's recap a few of the mayor's assumptions:
1) Sex offenders are likely to strike again.
False. Sex offenders are unlikely to attack again; the re-offense rate is actually very low. According to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study ("Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994"), just 5 percent of sex offenders followed for three years after their release from prison in 1994 were arrested for another sex crime. In the largest and most comprehensive study ever done on prison recidivism, the Justice Department found that sex offenders were in fact less likely to reoffend than other criminals.
2) There’s a proven link between "inappropriate" comments and sex offenders.
False. As noted above, there is no evidence given either that the comments were necessarily sexual, nor that they were made by sex offenders.
3) Children are in significant danger of being molested by strangers in libraries.
False. According to decades of research and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, kids are in far more danger of being abused, kidnapped or killed by their own parents than by any stranger or sex offender in a library or on the Web. If parents want to see who is truly abusing and killing America's children, they should look in the mirror instead of at sex offender lists.
The facts are there for the mayor or anyone else to see for themselves. If Chavez knows these facts, why is he promoting costly measures he knows don't make children safer? If he's unaware of the facts, shouldn't he understand the issue before proposing laws like these? Laws such as these are well-intentioned but utterly ineffective publicity stunts. They do make great case studies in poor reasoning and bad logic, though.
Child sexual abuse is a real danger, and it needs to be taken seriously. Passing ineffective laws based on myths, mistaken assumptions and bad logic is wasteful and does nothing to protect children. If Mayor Chavez is interested in a course in logic, evidence-based public policy and critical thinking, I can recommend the UNM course Philosophy 156: Reasoning and Critical Thinking.