Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Trump, terrorism predictions, and another trip down memory lane

As we consider the political implications of latest probable lone-wolf terrorist (what, you want heartfelt pablum from me?), it is worth revisiting another debate classic.

As Rick Perry would later say, "oops."  Yes, the USSR dominated Eastern Europe.

Consider, then, how Trump approaches terrorist incidents.  It is always some variation of, "I called it."  Who, though, is on the Gerald Ford side?

Suppose Hillary Clinton were to say that there is no such thing as terrorism, that terrorism isn't a threat, etc.  That would be a Gerald Ford moment.  Trump's response, then, of claiming prescience would be the obvious one, since the premise of his campaign is that we live under constant dire threats from within and without.  Without a Gerald Ford here, though, he wound up getting himself into trouble after the Orlando shooting with his "thanks for congratulating me" tweet.

So let me play Gerald Ford.  Quit worrying about terrorism and read some old classics by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.  The latter won a Nobel because the former died first and they don't give the Nobel to corpses.  I guess they don't want to stink up the ceremony.

Anywho, one of their famous observations is that most people do a lousy job estimating probabilities, relying on faulty heuristics based on easily recallable events rather than formal math, leading to big errors.  Terrorism is not a real threat to you.  You will not die in a terrorist attack.  You are more likely to die of a disease whose name you don't recognize.  If you are worried about terrorism because you overestimate the likelihood of dying in a terrorist attack, you are making a Tversky & Kahneman mistake.  Quit it.  Now.

Why can I write that?  Because I'm not running for office, and never will.  Nobody would ever vote for me even before I typed that because I'm unmutual.  Telling you that terrorism isn't a real threat to you would be a Gerald Ford moment, even though my math is right.  It's one of those funny things, though, that the right is irrationally afraid of terrorism and the left is irrationally afraid of mass shootings.  Neither will happen to you, so quit worrying about them.

But if a politician says that... Gerald Ford time.  And if Hillary Clinton said that, Trump's response of "I called it" would be exactly the right thing to say, strategically.  He'd get a lot more traction, anyway.

Regardless, social science lessons of the day:  study statistics, read Tversky & Kahneman, and quit worrying about either terrorism or guns.  You're more likely to contract an obscure disease.  So go scare the shit out of yourself with WebMD!  Yes, that's wacky too, but slightly less so.


  1. Ah, but one of those things is a FUCKLOAD more likely than the other.

    1. You know full well that one cannot describe one number within epsilon of zero as a "FUCKLOAD" greater than another number within epsilon of zero. I know that you know this. Therefore, I must conclude that you are currently spending too much energy worried about obscure health problems that you probably won't contract either. Must I have your wife take away your WebMD privileges?

    2. From 2005-2013, 24 Americans were killed by "jihadist" terrorists. 71, if you want to count all extremist terrorists, including our homegrown rightist fuckwads.

      I'm not seeing an accurate count for mass shooting deaths for that whole period, but I do see 389 for 2014 and 475 for 2015. So, a reasonable estimate is that these things are about a factor of 16 more likely.

      And restricting ourselves to "mass" shootings really hurts. Because if we just compare terrorism's numbers to SHOOTING's numbers, we get to factors like 10,000+.

      There were 23 shootings at college campuses in 2015 (and there are about 4000 college campuses). So, there's a shooting at around 0.5% of college campuses annually.

      Likely? No. But A LOT more likely than terrorism? Yes.

      Guns kill people; terrorists really don't. If you separate out gun suicides from homicides (and from other methods of suicide), gun suicides would be about #15 on the list of causes of death, and gun homicides would be about #20. If you keep guns combined, they are the 12th most common cause of death in the US. They are the 7th most common form of preventable death.

      The deadliest terrorism attacks in the US since 9/11 were gun attacks.

      Guns are a much more common cause of death than any weird disease. They are much less common than the standard battery of heart and lung problems, but terrorism deaths in the US are actually less common than shark attack deaths in Australia (just on raw counts; on a per capita risk its apples and oranges).

      One of these things is not like the other.

    3. Allow me to introduce you to a concept I call, "the denominator." You divide by it. It gives you ratios, and you convert those into probabilities. You know, probabilities? Those things you are tying yourself into knots to avoid talking about? Why? Because if you factor in that pesky denominator, the probabilities of dying either by terrorist attack or gun shot both go to essentially zero, and since it would be ridiculous to claim that one number indistinguishable from zero is a "FUCKLOAD" bigger than another number indistinguishable from zero, voila! The magic, disappearing denominator!

      As for weird diseases, what you are missing is what HRC would call a "basket." As in, the basket of stuff called heart disease. It's actually a pretty big basket because there is so much that can go wrong. Arrhythmia, plaque buildup, weakened aorta, and more shit than I could ever list. When you get diagnosed with some heart problem, there is a pretty high likelihood that it is something weird that you've never heard of because it is a big basket. And, the gap in magnitude between the risk of death by heart disease and gun death is so big that even the weird stuff in the heart disease basket is more likely to kill you than a gun.

      This is math. Your probability of dying by gun shot is indistinguishable from zero, just like your probability of dying by terrorism. Calm the fuck down and re-read Tversky & Kahneman. Remember your denominator.