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  • Statistical Malpractice, Cluelessness About Humans

    Posted by David Foster on July 28th, 2016 (All posts by )

    Almost every day, I see someone arguing that we shouldn’t worry about terrorism so much because your chances of being killed by a terrorist are less than your chances of being killed in an auto accident, or by slipping in the bathtub, or some such comparison.  Barack Obama, according to The Atlantic, “frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do.”

    Indeed, this argument was even being made shortly after 9/11, even being made by people with obviously high intelligence and mathematical knowledge.  Marvin Minsky, MIT professor and pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, recommended scrapping “the whole ‘homeland defense’ thing” as “cost-ineffective.” According to the WSJ, Minsky calculates that the cost of preventing each terrorist-caused airplane fatality would be around $100MM, and that “we could save a thousand times as many lives at the same cost by various simple public-health measures.”  Whatever one thinks about the performance of Homeland Security as an organization, as a matter of logic Minsky’s argument was just plain wrong, as are its present-day equivalents.

    Calculations of probability must be based on assumptions about whether the rate at which some phenomenon is occurring is static or is subject to change.  Based on the numbers of influenza in 1914, you might have concluded that you were not at material risk of dying from this disease. In 1918, things looked very different. The dynamics of the disease led to a very rapid increase in the probability of infection.

    If the FAA receives some service difficulty reports indicating that cracks have appeared in the wing spars of a few aircraft that have reached about 10,000 hours in service…aircraft of this service level representing a small portion of the total production for this model…they’re not going to dismiss it with ‘well, no biggie’ and wait until substantial numbers of planes reach 15,000 hours or so and have the wing spars actually break in flight.  They’re going to analyze the situation and quite likely issue an Airworthiness Directive against the aircraft, requiring inspections and remedial action.

    The wing spar case is an example of a process in which the mere passage of time can change the probabilities of the adverse event occurring.  The influenza case is an example of a malign positive feedback loop, i.e., a vicious circle–the more people become infected, the more other people they infect.  Positive feedback loops tend to have exponential growth patterns until something stops them.

    In the case of terrorism, it should be obvious that successful terror attacks act as encouragement for future acts of terror–definitely a positive feedback loop. Remember what Osama bin Laden said about people wanting to side with the ‘strong horse’?  Moreover, terror attacks are demoralizing to the target country in a way in which random accidents are not.  There has already been a chilling effect on free speech driven by the desire to avoid angering the Islamists.

    Bookworm offered an interesting take on this topic:

     

    Obama gets the human lizard brain completely wrong. This morning, at Power Line, I read something that meshed beautifully with a theory I’ve had for some time about the difference between crime and terrorism. Scott Johnson notes that Obama, posturing as an intellectual, likes to offer these words of wisdom:

    “In his long, long exposition of Obama’s foreign policy, [Jeffrey] Goldberg relates that Obama ‘frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do.”

    We normal, sensate humans understand that there are drug dealers and crazy people and jealous spouses and garden-variety thugs out there, each of whom is capable of killing, but we also understand that they are not engaged in a concerted effort. Likewise, we know that accidents happen and that, while we try to protect ourselves, fate may have other ideas.

    But what we understand equally well is that there is a single ideology at play in the world today, that its adherents gain power through mass killing, that they are beginning those mass killings in America and, unchecked, that they will escalate. We understand this because war goes back deep in the human psyche, to a time before history and even before words. Our little Spock-in-Chief needs to get with the human program and recognize that our fears aren’t irrational but are, in fact, highly rational.

    I don’t think it’s so much the lizard brain that’s missing among the ‘terrorism doesn’t matter all that much’ crowd, though, it’s the more mammalian aspects of the human mind, those that make possible empathy–empathy both in the sense of understanding the emotions of others and in the sense of caring about what happens to others.

    So the ‘terrorism isn’t really that important’ argument not only demonstrates a lack of good emotional response, it also demonstrates a lack of clear mathematical and logical thinking.  If you’re going to be a  Spockian Vulcan, at least be a competent Vulcan.

    One other point:  I often see the ‘terrorism doesn’t matter all that much’ argument propounded in away that suggests those who believe terrorism is a critical issue are motivated mainly by fears for their own personal safety.  In reality, of course, it is possible to be concerned about terrorism mainly because of its potential impact on the whole country, indeed the whole of civilization…while at the level of personal and family safety being more concerned about at-least-partially-controllable things like automotive and bathtub safety.  A person who lives in a remote rural area where he is personally quite safe from urban- and infrastructure-focused terror attacks may actually still care about what happens to the country and the civilization of which he is a part.

     

     

     

    27 Responses to “Statistical Malpractice, Cluelessness About Humans”

    1. Thomas Hazlewood Says:

      Confronting, and dealing with, violent people is not their forte. With the likes of Mitt Romney, George Bush, etc, they have developed the tools they like to use. There’s no danger to themselves and they can drag the issue out for years, always with the hope that the other side will tire. They can lie and obfuscate safe in the knowledge that, even if found out, they’ll have lost no ground.

      Their usual tactics are exposed as impotence when used against the likes of Isis. Obama’s ‘Red Line’, casual slurs like ‘JV’, and bald denial (eg:Workplace incident) are NOT directed at an actual foe. Rather, the target of these feeble thrusts is the political opposition.

      Lives have been, and will again be, sacrificed when necessary so long as the facade of strength is maintained.

    2. Jonathan Says:

      Great points. Not only does the “terrorism takes fewer lives than car accidents” argument ignore feedback effects in human behavior, it ignores substantial differences in the outcome distributions of different types of risk. The average car accident might injure one or two people but would never injure ten thousand people. The average terror attack might injure one or two people, but some terror attacks kill hundreds, a few kill thousands, and terror attacks that kill tens or hundreds of thousands are likely possible and perhaps are merely a matter of time. The ordinary person with good instincts may understand that it’s important to try to prevent such unlikely but extremely bad events, while the clever, self-consciously logical person may rationalize complacency because on average fewer people have been killed in recent years by terrorists than are killed by accidents, disease and so forth. Obama appears to be the kind of superficially intelligent person to make such rationalizations and discount significant outlier risks.

    3. Phil Ossiferz Stone Says:

      I don’t give a God damn about terrorism any more. I don’t live anywhere near a large coastal city. Most of the prospective victims will be happy to dip their hands in their own blood and smear it all over my face, as the queers in the New York Sexual Dysfunction Parade did less than two weeks after Orlando.

      The state-mandated breakdown of the family and obliteration of any difference in the sexes — of castrating healthy boys and sending them to school in dresses, or of men marrying other men and raising more dysfunctional diseased creatures like themselves; of the state-sponsored celebration of every disgusting wart and wrinkle in the human organism while cracking down on anything that smacks of Old and Evil Standards, from the Constitutional rule of law to the Judeo-Christian ethic — poses a far more immediate and lethal threat to the survival of our society and our civilization.

      All the modern day janissaries of Islam can do is kill us in handfuls here and there. They cannot make us create a society where the only standard is that there are no standards, and where anything that smacks of self-restraint is scorned and spat upon. And we are already most of the way there.

    4. JFM Says:

      I may not be at high risk from terrorist acts, but I sure have spent a lot of time in TSA lines in the last 15 years.

    5. dearieme Says:

      What a fine complaint, Mike. And people want the Clintons back in the White House!

      Slick Willie was the perfect exemplar of Dereliction of Duty. Still, he bombed Serbia where there was no vital American interest, so that’s all right.

    6. Mike K Says:

      There was a great example of this fallacy in medical malpractice litigation in the 1970s.

      Medical malpractice carriers would settle cases filed against insured doctors for the cost of a defense. The doctor had no say in the matter.

      If a case would cost $50,000 to defend, the insurance company would offer a settlement for say $25,000. The insurer saved the cost of a successful defense and ignored the morale of the insured doctors who had concerns about their reputation.

      The trial lawyers gradually learned that merely filing a case could bring a nice reward. The incentive was established. A tragedy of the commons was working. Nobody worried about the incentive that was being established.

      Malpractice insurance stayed fairly inexpensive until the bear market of 1974 began. Suddenly, as Hemingway once said, the insurance companies went bankrupt. My partner and I found that the insurance company we had paid dues to for three years was bankrupt and we were uninsured.

      This may seem an unrelated problem but I think it is exactly the same.

      Bill Clinton ignored increasing terrorism attacks in the 1990s. There was the The Khobar Towers bombing.

      The attack turned out to be one by Hezbollah and Iran but Clinton and his administration blocked Louis Freeh from investigating the matter.

      Clinton Administration officials admit that they “received a wave of threats against Americans and American installations in Saudi Arabia” in the weeks leading up to the attack, “but failed to prepare adequately for a bomb of the power that killed 19 American military personnel.”[11] Threats were also downplayed by the Saudis when Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz al-Saud, who characterized acts carried out by Saudi Islamists in 1995 as “boyish” and that the “Kingdom is not influenced by threats”.[11] As Senator Arlen Specter said, “There was no intelligence failure … there had been more than 100 intelligence reports on alerts of a general nature and very specific reports” about the threat to the Khobar Towers complex during a Senate intelligence committee meeting.[12]

      FBI Director Louis Freeh made clear his objections to interference by the Clinton people.

      In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Freeh said Clinton failed to seek Saudi cooperation with the investigation into the Khobar Towers attack, which killed 19 U.S. airmen. He said Clinton instead pressed then-Crown Prince Abdullah, now king, for a donation to his presidential library — a charge the former president’s spokesman and a former adviser told CBS was false.

      Then came the embassy bombings in Africa. This time it was clear that al Qeada was responsible.

      Then, after ineffectual retaliation in Afghanistan, came The USS Cole bombing just prior to the 2000 election.

      Again it was ignored by Clinton. The Rules of Engagement sound like those under Obama.

      The destroyer’s rules of engagement, as approved by the Pentagon, kept its guards from firing upon the small boat (which was not known to be loaded with explosives) as it neared them without first obtaining permission from the Cole’s captain or another officer.[37]

      Petty Officer John Washak said that right after the blast, a senior chief petty officer ordered him to turn an M-60 machine gun on the Cole’s fantail away from a second small boat approaching. “With blood still on my face”, he said, he was told: “That’s the rules of engagement: no shooting unless we’re shot at.” He added, “In the military, it’s like we’re trained to hesitate now. If somebody had seen something wrong and shot, he probably would have been court-martialed”. Petty Officer Jennifer Kudrick said that if the sentries had fired on the suicide craft “we would have gotten in more trouble for shooting two foreigners than losing seventeen American sailors

      Then came 9/11/2001 and we have seen the continued attacks right up until today. We can expect more until the ROE are changed.

      I am reading “Catastrophic Failure” by the author whose briefing on Islam and terrorism was cancelled by the Pentagon and all briefing materials destroyed.

      In October, 2011, John Brennan, Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and currently the head of the CIA, wrote a letter on White House stationary directing US security agencies such as the FBI, CIA, military intelligence, and homeland security, to immediately stop any classes or training material on terrorism which mentioned Islam. Award-winning instructors such as Stephen Coughlin, who was constantly in demand for his knowledgeable and thorough preparations, were completely shut off from training security and intelligence personnel in the canonical, theological, and historical basis for those observant Muslims who are responsible for a majority of terrorism today. Not only were experts such as Coughlin bared from any further instruction, but trainees who had taken classes from them were given “re-education” classes, whatever that meant.

      I am not optimistic about avoiding a catastrophic attack on US soil.

    7. Zachriel Says:

      David Foster: Calculations of probability must be based on assumptions about whether the rate at which some phenomenon is occurring is static or is subject to change.

      True. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor killed far fewer Americans than automobiles in 1941, but nearly crippled U.S. defenses in the Pacific. More specifically, terrorism is scalable, as Osama bin Laden showed.

      David Foster: So the ‘terrorism isn’t really that important’ argument not only demonstrates a lack of good emotional response, it also demonstrates a lack of clear mathematical and logical thinking. If you’re going to be a Spockian Vulcan, at least be a competent Vulcan.

      The claim that President Obama doesn’t take terrorism seriously is unwarranted. The U.S. expends vast resources, both at home and abroad, on defense against terrorism. Unfortunately, there is no military solution, and security will always be less than perfect. Stronger international cooperation is the only path forward.

    8. David Foster Says:

      Zachriel…”Barack Obama, according to The Atlantic, “frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do.”

      This downplaying of the importance of terrorism, and the refusal to admit that it has anything to do with Islam, project weakness.

      And responses to terrorist attacks based on blaming the exercise of free speech (Hillary Clinton: we’re going to have that filmmaker arrested) or blaming the intended victim for ‘provocation’ (Donald Trump, after Islamists attempted to murder Pam Geller: ““It looks like she’s just taunting everybody. What is she doing?”) certainly send a message that Terrorism Works.

    9. Jonathan Says:

      Unfortunately, there is no military solution, and security will always be less than perfect.

      I don’t see why there is no military solution. Terrorism generally has state sponsorship or is sponsored by non-state organizations, such as ISIS, that have state backing and substantial infrastructure and resources that can be attacked and degraded. IOW there is a military solution, but we haven’t pursued it seriously in recent years and thus are being subjected to more terror attacks than was previously the case.

      Security is always less than perfect, like everything else. This fact doesn’t mean that we can’t necessarily be safer than we currently are.

    10. David Foster Says:

      “Just two days after two Da’esh (ISIS) terrorists ritually sacrificed an elderly Catholic priest by slitting his throat on the altar of his own church as he was serving Mass, the people of France has once again bestowed the title of “Honorary Citizen” upon another cold-blooded terrorist killer.”

      http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/france-declares-barghouti-honorary-citizen-48-hours-after-catholic-priest-sacrificed-by-isis/2016/07/29/

      The excusing and romanticization of Palestinian terrorism over the last 2 decades has a whole lot to do with the unleashing of the plague of terrorism throughout the entire world.

    11. Zachriel Says:

      David Foster: This downplaying of the importance of terrorism,

      It doesn’t downplay the importance of terrorism, but puts it in perspective. As already pointed out, the Obama Administration has continued the Bush policy of expending huge resources fighting terrorism.

      David Foster: and the refusal to admit that it has anything to do with Islam, project weakness.

      No one says that the terrorists don’t claim they are motivated by Islam; however, it makes no sense blaming a billion Muslims for the actions of a few, when only the enlisting their help can terrorism be stopped. Keep in mind that Muslims have borne the brunt of terrorism. They suffer the equivalent of a 9-11 every few weeks.

      David Foster: after Islamists attempted to murder Pam Geller

      Pam Geller has every right to be a bigot, and people have every right to call her out on her bigotry.

      Jonathan: I don’t see why there is no military solution.

      Because the jihadist terrorist movement is amorphous and adaptable.

      Jonathan: Terrorism generally has state sponsorship or is sponsored by non-state organizations, such as ISIS, that have state backing and substantial infrastructure and resources that can be attacked and degraded.

      Yes, that is correct. The elimination of state sponsorship is an essential step. Notably, the U.S. and its allies are engaged in the fight against ISIS. However, that will not be sufficient. There are areas essentially outside the modern state system that can still produce terrorists.

      David Foster: The excusing and romanticization of Palestinian terrorism over the last 2 decades has a whole lot to do with the unleashing of the plague of terrorism throughout the entire world.

      Hate breeds hate. (The U.S. has engaged in terrorism, as well, but at least the U.S. has always been aspirational.)

    12. Mrs. Davis Says:

      The losses to terrorism are in no way comparable to bath tub accidents. Bath tubs are not trying to change my way of life. What I am worried about is not so much the immediate losses, but the fact that Obama does not recognize that they are losses in a war or what the long term losses will be if we fail to win the war.

    13. Mike K Says:

      “Hate breeds hate. (The U.S. has engaged in terrorism, as well, but at least the U.S. has always been aspirational.)”

      Interesting to see this new attitude appear.

      So, if I want to learn what it is in Islam that causes jihad and terrorism, I am indulging in hate ? Hmmmm.

    14. Zachriel Says:

      Mrs. Davis: Obama does not recognize that they are losses in a war or what the long term losses will be if we fail to win the war.

      That is contrary to Obama’s statements and actions.

      Mike K: So, if I want to learn what it is in Islam that causes jihad and terrorism, I am indulging in hate ? Hmmmm.

      No, indeed. Our comment referred to Palestinian accommodation of terrorism. While civil violence can sometimes achieve political goals in the short term, in the long term it often leaves only bitterness.

      As for learning about the rise of Islamic terrorism, it is certainly a valid question.

    15. PenGun Says:

      You were bitten by a rather large horsefly, metaphorically speaking, and reacted by taking a sledgehammer and wreaking several places. This hurt the horsefly almost not at all, and now you have to guard against another bite, and deal with the blowback, of millions of horseflies, from the places you wreaked.

      Not real smart. Certainly somewhat understandable, but dumb.

    16. Mrs. Davis Says:

      That is contrary to Obama’s statements and actions.

      Wrong on both counts. If he believed we were at war, he wouldn’t be comparing to bath tub accidents. As for actgions, what actions? Hope the pay’s good.

    17. Zachriel Says:

      Mrs. Davis: Wrong on both counts.

      “The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us,”

      “since the day I took this office, I’ve authorized U.S. forces to take out terrorists abroad precisely because I know how real the danger is.”

    18. dearieme Says:

      “to take out terrorists”: too unmanly to say “to kill terrorists”.

    19. dearieme Says:

      @Mike: congratulations on your diatribe about Slick Willie’s dereliction of duty. Well said!

      Let it not be forgotten that he did bomb Serbia where there was no vital American interest.

    20. Jonathan Says:

      Don’t trip over any red lines.

    21. Will Says:

      In 98-99 I lived in a heavily muslim neighborhood in Brooklyn. There were two halal butcher shops at the end of the block, one served the Pakistani/South Asian community, the other the Balkan. I came home one day to discover a block-long line of men signing up at the Balkan shop:

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/special_report/1998/kosovo/317449.stm

      So much has been made of the Bush episodes, and many have forgotten how Clinton’s efforts have brought us to where we are now.

    22. Grurray Says:

      Schindler has written extensively on the Balkan breeding ground for terrorists:

      http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2008/12/bosnia_and_global_jihad.html

      Indeed, the war in Bosnia came at a fortuitous juncture. Many jihadis had fought in Afghanistan. When the war against the Soviets ended in 1992, their choices in Afghanistan were poor. Staying there risked embroiling them in internecine, Muslim-on-Muslim conflicts; not only was this not jihad as they saw it, but they were outsiders. Some went home, but others couldn’t because of legal charges or the risk of repression. For many of those who could re-enter it, civilian life was boring and meaningless. Bosnia as the next front in global jihad was irresistible.

      Schindler presents considerable evidence to support his contention that Al Qaeda, including Bin Laden himself, “played the dominant role in getting the international component of the Bosnian jihad off the ground in 1992.” This includes the personal engagement of Bin Laden. He was residing in Sudan at the time but apparently traveled to Bosnia and was, at one point, sighted in Izetbegovic’s antechamber by two Western journalists (although it seems unlikely that Izetbegovic would have kept such an important contact waiting).

      Schindler also traces the SDA’s ties, especially those of close Izetbegovic associate Hasan Cengic, to the various Islamic charities and ‘humanitarian’ organizations active in Bosnia. Before and during the war, Cengic served on the board of directors of the Third World Relief Agency, an organization with links to both the Saudi government and Al Qaeda that served as a conduit for funds and jihadis entering Bosnia.

      He says Bosnia now resupplies ISIS in Western Europe:

      http://dailycaller.com/2015/12/22/heres-the-european-isis-stronghold-no-one-is-talking-about/

    23. Will Says:

      Working in a hospital in that same city, I saw numerous young men of those nationalities in the ER who had extensive shrapnel wounds, quite obviously they had returned from the battlefield or had been somehow caught up in it. People speak of Europe and the dangerous populations present, but we don’t often hear of what lurks in that one borough.

    24. Mike K Says:

      The U.S. expends vast resources, both at home and abroad, on defense against terrorism. Unfortunately, there is no military solution, and security will always be less than perfect. Stronger international cooperation is the only path forward.

      Obama may spend as much as Bush did but I doubt it.

      What they are doing is relying on the Muslim Brotherhood to approve briefing materials on Islam and its role in terrorism.

      Consequently, Major Hassan’s colleagues at Fort Hood medical facility were afraid to report his steady drift toward jihad. He was counseling Afghanistan vets that they had performed criminal acts in fighting the Taliban.

      We cannot win by surrendering.

      International cooperation with who ? The Saudis ?

      The UN which funds the PLO and Hamas?

    25. Anonymous Says:

      It isn’t the money spent. Governments can waste huge (sorry it is the word that fits) amounts. It is the criteria of success, strategy, tactics, rules of engagement and supporting means. One can grind the military into the ground in restricted operations of little effectiveness and drawing down or withdrawing to create conditions for regeneration of the threat and claim one is fighting terrorism, but that does not mean one is intent on being effective or ultimately winning.

      It isn’t the vacuous statements that matter either. When the administration filters every action and policy with the view that Muslim and leftists sensibilities are more important that winning the struggle for our civilization, the real priorities are demonstrated. Obama’s view is largely shaped by his anti-colonialist, one world, universal moral equivalence ideology. This makes him constitutionally incapable of either seeking victory (eliminating the organized threat of fundamental Islamic aggression) or conceiving an effective means to that end. His goal is more along the lines of managing the conflict while making us less threatening to the rest of the world, especially Islam. His more strongly worded statements about international and domestic terrorism are by and large intended to calm public fears as he continues minimally effective strategies that have resulted in a growing threat on both fronts.

      It is true that it could greatly help our cause if we were able to gain support from a large part of the Muslims. Denying the roots of fundamentalist Islamic aggression is hardly helpful. In fact, it likely serves to embolden the aggressors and to increase their active and passive support among the wider Islamic community. Using the Muslim Brotherhood or its off shoots such as CARE as principle spokes organizations for the Islamic community is just plain ignorant. Perhaps we might try some expectations where the Muslim community was held to more actively and publicly fight this war with us and stop playing us for their internal conflicts between sects, tribe and ethnic divisions.

      Ultimately, we either plan on winning this war based on our own efforts or we will fail. If we receive international or even Muslim assistance, that’s great, but I see very little effective assistance possible from areas that are dominated by Obama’s ideology, widespread passive Muslim support for world jihad, or primary concerns of advancing specific Muslim sects, regional dominance or ethic groups. In my view, Europe has been rendered ineffective and is at best fighting a delaying effort toward a massive internal Muslim versus non-Muslim conflict or decent into a Muslim dominated culture. If we cast our lot with their actions and policies, we will follow in the same footsteps.

      Death6

    26. Whitehall Says:

      Actions involving human agency can not be fully understood with statistics or probability.

      Think of the differences between chess and roulette.

    27. MSimon Says:

      A little something I wrote on the 4G warfare going on in our cities.

      http://classicalvalues.com/2016/07/winning-the-race-war/

      My analysis indicates that those in power have decided to do something about it before it gets any worse.

      I use as my template a Strategy Page article on insurgent warfare. I have lots of links to free books and articles about insurgent warfare.