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On V Update to Old Ideas: Fear and Risk Edition

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Usually when we write our updates, we link to the individual articles we are updating. Today, consider all these articles updates to our posts on the statistics of terrorism. By statistics, we mean terrorism’s remarkable rarity in modern life. (And since many of these links are old, we don’t even consider the statistical insignificance of ISIS.)

Putting the Boston Bombing in Perspective

As we wrote back in “Our response to an ‘On the Media’ Question”, terrorism is incredibly rare. (Particularly, check out Chris Hayes’ take.) Due to its rarity, spending large sums of money to stop it makes very, very little economic sense. This Bruce Schneier piece about the Boston Marathon bombings, which re-examines the evidence surrounding the likelihood of terrorism, helps make that case. Even better, Schneier lays out why, from a behavioral and psychological perspective, Americans overreact to rare events like terrorism. (H/T to Andrew Sullivan.) Conor Friederdorf, also at the Atlantic, pleads for similar sanity here.

That won’t stop the main argument that drives terrorism spending, though...

Why Does the Government need to spy on everyone? Because we live in a dangerous world.

This line stuck out to me in an op-ed from last year in the The LA Times by career intelligence analyst Andrew Liepman [bolding mine]:

“But those following the Snowden saga should understand two key points. First, though many things need to be kept secret in today's dangerous world, the line between "secret" and "not secret" is fuzzy rather than stark, and if the goal is security, the harsh truth is that we should often err toward more secrets rather than fewer…”

First, semantically, one can either write “we live in a more dangerous world” or “a less dangerous world”. You can’t write “We live in a dangerous world” because we just live in the world. By writing “dangerous”, he obviously means, “more dangerous than before 9/11”. And as we’ve written about before and will continue to write in the future: this isn’t the case.

The world is safer than it has ever been, and continues to get safer. If you’re going to argue that we need to keep more secrets, not less, you need to prove that the world is more dangerous.

Holy Crap! A Bag!

The guys at Decision Science News tear apart an ad about suspicious bags. Turns out, most abandoned bags (by most, I mean all but around 0.000008% of bags) aren’t dangerous.

This is another example of bad use of language. The ad says “probably” but no sane definition of “probably” means less than 50%, especially not 0.000008%.

Nuclear Terrorism is Unlikely Too

Georgetown University political scientist Keir A. Lieber and Dartmouth College political scientist Daryl G. Press make the case that nuclear terrorism is particularly unlikely, in a paper shared by the Monkey Cage. In short, states are extremely unlikely to give them to non-state actors, read terrorists.

Stopping Every Single Attack Forever

Researching the Boston Bombings, I came across this Wall Street Journal op-ed by Paul Campos describing a hypothetical basketball game against Lebron James, where he would win if he scored a single basket. If the game could go on forever, he would always have a chance to win. So goes terrorism, which explains the Sisyphean task the intelligence, national security and political leaders of our country have embarked when they say the U.S. can, could or should stop every terror attack.

two comments

He wouldn’t score on Lebron.


Most spying/intelligence/clandestine/whatever agencies still need to prove they’re relevant for defence against terrorism at all.
Typically for U.S. cases it’s only the FBI which gets mentioned when a plot was stalled.