Public Unease Over Remote Threats

by , October 28, 2014

The breathless news coverage of the minuscule number of people in the United States that have so far contracted the Ebola virus has led to a typical irrational response in some quarters. For example, schools have been closed, and the public and thus some politicians support a travel ban of people from the affected West African countries, even though health professionals have said that this "solution" might make things worse. Despite such professionals repeating often that Ebola is inefficiently transmitted, that West Africa has a much lower level of general health care than does the United States, and that therefore the American problem is likely to be only contagion among the health workers tending to the very small number of victims rather than in the general population, many people are still nervous that they or their family will catch the virus.

Yes, people still watch too much TV and confuse television news with reality. Whenever a rare incident occurs, such as an Ebola case or death, it gets blanket coverage on the tube; thus many viewers experience what experts call "probability neglect," which means that they vastly and implicitly overestimate the chances that they could die of that infrequent cause.

An even worse example of probability neglect occurs with terrorism. Since the exceptional 9/11 attacks – spectacularly more lethal (almost 3,000 deaths) than any previous terrorist attack by a small group – nonstop sensational media coverage of terrorism has induced excessive public fear of it. (The previous statement doesn’t count terrorism by governments, which is many times on an entirely different level of lethality – for example, the intentional "terror" bombing of civilians by the Nazi, British, and American governments during World War II killed about a million people. But you need a substantial war to be worried about terror on that level.)

The reality is that, in North America, international terrorism has been a rare phenomenon both before and after 9/11. The continent is a haven from international terrorism because it is geographically removed by oceans from the world’s centers of conflict and, in the case of Islamist terrorism, the countries on the continent don’t have radicalized Muslim populations to provide important support for such acts of terror. Even for small groups of terrorists, logistics do matter.

Some historians and journalists, writing about the George W. Bush presidency, basically have concluded that he was a lousy president but, always trying to throw in something positive to show their objectivity, conclude that he did keep the American public safe from further 9/11-scale attacks. Yet since North America has had a very low level of international terrorism before and after those attacks, a statistician would probably conclude that the attacks on that date were a rare statistical "outlier." Sorry George.

So what are the odds of getting killed either by Ebola or a terrorist? Of course, with Ebola, an American’s chances are infinitesimal compared to a resident of Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone – the countries in West Africa in which the disease’s outbreak has occurred. So far, only one person has died in the United States of Ebola, so the odds are currently one in 316 million (the population of the United States). This number could change but the chances of an average American getting Ebola will still be very low.

Should we worry about terrorism? With all the media coverage all of the time, one would think so. But statistics tell a different story. According to Reason magazine, during a five-year period, the chances of being killed by a terrorist is one in 20 million, compared to a one-in- 19,000 chance of being in a car accident or a one-in-5.5 million chance of getting struck by lightning. Yes, that’s right, the average person is four times more likely to get killed by lightning as by an attack from nefarious terrorists and more than one thousand times more likely to get killed in a car accident than by the same.

Humans, like many successful species on the planet, are evolutionarily a skittish and risk-averse bunch. Yet we are also supposedly the smartest life form on the globe. Thus we should do better and use or brains rather than reflexively supporting a travel ban against people from West Africa, even though no direct airline flights exist from the United States to that part of the world, or supporting accelerated military action against Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria in response to the group’s made-for-TV beheadings retaliating for initial U.S. airstrikes. What’s more, the chances of IS attacking the United States were and are even less than that of another U.S. offspring – the main al Qaeda group – because IS doesn’t have as sophisticated bomb-making capability or a network of operatives in the West.

We can never live in a risk free world – even with stifling government tilting at windmills to protect us from natural and officially induced, human-generated threats. If people want to worry about something, they should worry about problems that statistically have a real chance to prevent them from living long lives – maladies that can be lessened by exercise, eating right, not smoking, and wearing a seat belt.

Read more by Ivan Eland