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Friday, December 21, 2007


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Well... amen.


This is something that comes up a lot in public health... the idea of relative risk.

We spend far more time worrying about things that are extremely unlikely to happen to us than we do about the things that probably will.

People are funny that way.


I'm sure there are some deep, psychological reasons we fear such things, but I've always thought that it's the sense of powerlessness that scare us the most.

We learn to live with the devils we know(cancer, heart attack, car accidents) because we believe we can take measures to prevent or mitigate the risk. And we've decided the trade-off is worth it.

Random dangers we are helpless to foresee or prevent terrify us. We want control, even if it's ultimately an illusion.


Two comments from Schneier's post worth repeating:


@Hugo: "While it's more likely you get killed in a car accident then because of a terrorist attack, we can all relax (assuming you get into your car every day without any fear)."

Apples and oranges, my friend. While we all risk dying in a car accident when we drive, it would be different if car accidents were arranged by a group of people. Now, I understand that it doesn't affect probability of it happening to me specificially, but if there was a group of people causing auto crashes, it would be reasonable and responsible to stop that at its source where possible.

I understand the statistical argument, but it really isn't the same. It is sort of like the DC sniper--on any given day, more people died in crashes than at the snipers hands, so based on probability I didn't stay home scared. But on the other hand, it had to be handled much differently than someone running a red light. The fact that probability was less didn't mean it didn't require much different and more energetic response.

I agree we should keep things in perspective of probability, but the response to accidents should and must be different than response to murder, even when the probability is less.

Merry Christmas.

@3:52 -- it may be apples and oranges, but we can spend the same money to reduce the number of either type of death. So why get worked up and waste money on one thing, that kills far fewer people, when we could spend time and resources on another that is far more dangerous?


"When any particular activity in the U.S. takes thirty-eight thousand lives in one year, it becomes a national problem of first importance . . . It is one of those problems which by their very nature have no easy solution . . . But in a democracy, public opinion is everything. It is the force that brings about enforcement of laws; it is the force that keeps the U.S. in being, and it runs in all its parts. So, if we can mobilize public opinion, this problem, like all of those to which free men fall heir, can be solved."
---President Dwight D. Eisenhower, on automobile accidents, 1954.

"We Americans resist encroachments on our freedom to drive automobiles as we please just as we resent restrictions of our freedom to worship or vote. As a nation we dislike regimentation of any sort. Time and time again we have deomnstrated that we will not reaily relinquish what we regard as our individual rights unless we are convinced that our doing so is necessary for national welfare."
--Harry DeSilva, Why We Have Automobile Accidents, 1942, New York: John Wiley Publishers.

priscianus jr

Maybe this will explain it: 9/11 was not the REASON for all that followed -- it was the PRETEXT for all that followed.




As Sloop points out, automobile accidents have been around for a long time. We can easily say that accidents were the PRETEXT, not the REASON, for laws and enforcement of speed limits, seat belts, air bags, licensing, registration, mandatory insurance, radar detectors, laser detectors, jammers, ....

We can also argue that the present is the result of some historical PRETEXT rather than reason. It's a stupid argument, but a popular one.



I believe the "deep, psychological reason" we fear such things is called (according to another Schnier link some months ago) "the availability heuristic".

Basically there was a study that found a link between peoples perception of risk and how easy it was for them to recall the risk. In other words, if your dear, beloved Great Aunt Wilhelmina died of a snake bite you'll most likely find the 'risk' of snakes much higher than I do.

I think human intent (i.e. murder rather than accident) increases the availability. Rarity also increases this.

I believe this is why "Nuclear Power Plants" are so frightening but most people take coal fired plants for granted (have you looked at the difference in radiation released into the environment? Not to mention other pollutants...)


Well, I just heard on the radio the other day that the new Massachusetts administration was planning on getting an extra $100,000 in highway funding from "increased emphasis on traffic enforcement". So, I'd say that's a fairly intelligent argument that accident rate is a PRETEXT instead of a REASON. The good thing is that this administration isn't even using it as a PRETEXT. I appreciate honesty even when I disagree with the action.

I think, however, that many things are indeed REASON for some people but PRETEXT for others. In fact, this seems a major criticism of the current US administration: there is a belief that what they were calling their REASON was actually their PRETEXT, and others went along with them for the REASON.

My major complaint, however, is that there is often very low correlation between the actions we're taking for a stated REASON and the effect of those actions in curing the REASON. I recall a study some years ago (I don't recall the source) that found that average vehicle speed on a given section of road had low correlation with posted speed limit and had much higher correlation with driver-perceived physical characteristics (e.g. guard rail). It's a human characteristic to presume that the actual REASON for an action is that REASON which has highest correlation to the result.

In other words, even if everyone believes you to be perfectly honest, you're still going to be judged on the result rather than on your intent.

In any case, I'm tired of pretending that all we're loosing to combat terrorism is worth the result.


Dewey: "... there is a belief that what they were calling their REASON was actually their PRETEXT, and others went along with them for the REASON."

Well said. I appreciate you bringing correlation to the discussion. Perceived correlation is a strong motivator for thought and action. The difference between correlation and causation is often forgotten in out preference for automatic thinking. It's easier, quicker and relatively effective. Which is also why science rejects it as a methodology.

I have no problem with people expressing the reasons for their "tiredness." Unless their reason is the opposition has no reasons for their thoughts and actions, only pretexts.

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