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Dec. 29 2009 - 7:19 pm | 29,420 views | 2 recommendations | 14 comments

The Availability of Terror

We talk a lot about the availability bias here on Neuroworld, so I don’t think I have to tell you how much you overestimate the possibility of being on a plane brought down by terrorism. Still, it’s worth taking a look at this graphic, via Gawker and based on data put together by Nate Silver:
odds-of-airborne-terror2

Now, look at that graph, and decide which is the better response to terror: 1) Panic and yell and scream from the rooftops that we’re all about to be killed by Al Qaeda, or 2) Handle terrorism as a law-enforcement and intelligence matter.

Sure, I’m tipping the scales with my own biases. But the data really speaks for itself.


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  1. collapse expand

    Those statistics are just so cold. They don’t reflect how humans (well, here, Westerners) customize what they fear. I’m less concerned about sitting next to a terrorist on a plane than being on a plane that’s not airworthy because some corporate jackal vetoed the replacement of a 25-cent plastic part.

  2. collapse expand

    “Now, look at that graph, and decide which is the better response to terror: 1) Panic and yell and scream from the rooftops that we’re all about to be killed by Al Qaeda, or 2) Handle terrorism as a law-enforcement and intelligence matter.”

    3) Handle terrorism as a political/social justice problem necessitating dialogue, negotiation and diplomacy.

    Jeez, am I allowed to say that in the USA?

  3. collapse expand

    I think these stats would be more applicably comforting in the days or months directly proceeding September 11, 2001. Myself and most intelligence officials whom I respect concur that another terror attack is certain, if not imminent. Of course on a long enough timeline that seems moot, but I happen to be one of the ones surprised that it hasn’t happened yet. And if I were a betting man I would not place money on another airline attack but rather something from the ground up–something much scarier, sinister and deadly…in the realm of biological.

  4. collapse expand

    But then, would the US not be vastly over reacting to the threat (as per the graphic) if the US was to design policy in order to not annoy these groups/individuals?

  5. collapse expand

    That’s crap; that’s like posting statistics of AIDs taking in the entire population of the world, including those who aren’t having sex at all, those who come from strict monogamous unions, and saying…see…your chance of getting AIDs in 1 in 3 Million or something.

    Remove every single flight that doesn’t go to the United States from your figures. Remove flights that originate in South America and the Caribbean, China and Japan, as well as all flights intra-America.

    Remove all flights that carry no Muslims on board. The figures have no doubt been cut
    drastically, haven’t they?

    The problem, however, are the ridiculous ’security’ measures adopted. Get El Al to teach you how to screen.

    Then we’ll talk.

  6. collapse expand

    I love the graphic and totally agree that too much is made of terrorism. I really think we should rethink the risk factor of flying.

    Nobody seems to think anything of 45,000 Americans dying in car wrecks every year. That amounts to about 115 to 125 every day. That would be about two and a half jumbo jets going down in flames every week. Until the terrorists reach that level of calamity, I don’t see why it would even make the front page of most newspapers.

    Nobody has to submit to the terrorists at the TSA to take a trip in their car. Why do we put up with that?

  7. collapse expand

    So I just stumbled on this site, and I don’t make a point of commenting on random sites but certain things bug me enough to set up an account just for a single comment.

    Let me start by saying that I totally agree, the fear of terrorism on planes is very inflated, and I understand that the point of this graphic was to illustrate why we should not be as afraid of these attacks as we are. To that end it was successful.

    What bothers me is misuse of statistics, of which this graphic is guilty. What these statistics are showing is the probability of picking one person out of ALL the people that have EVER TAKEN (past tense) a flight and having THAT SPECIFIC PERSON being a victim of a terrorist attack on a plane. It does not give an accurate estimation of the probability of future flights being attacked.

    By this logic, before the first ever terrorist attack on a plane, there was a 0% of EVER being in a terrorist attack on a plane in the future, which is clearly not true since now it HAS happened. It would be a better estimate (though still not an accurate one) to take the total number of flights since the FIRST terrorist attack on a plane and compare it to the total number of attacks, ore even to plot the frequency of attacks over time and see if there is a trend that could be projected into the future.

    The probability of planes being attacked is not DEPENDENT on the number of attacks that have happened in the past but rather things like: how many people WANT to attack planes NOW, how many people have the ABILITY to attack planes NOW, what TYPES of flights these people prefer to attack, etc. If you have a way of finding these numbers, I would be greatly interested in the statistics.

    On that note, I do have to say I’m glad that you are misusing statistics for ANTI-fear. That is far less common than trying to promote fear. I simply feel that your case would be much more convincing if you weren’t calculating the odds of something mostly unrelated to your conclusion.

    Note: Caps added for emphasis. I’m not trying to yell at anyone.

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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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