Friday, January 15, 2016

Thinking Slow about San Bernardino

On December 2 last year, a Muslim couple – U.S.-born Syed Rizwan Farook and his Pakistani-born wife Tashfeen Malik – opened fire at a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, leaving 14 dead and 22 seriously injured. 

The political reaction was swift and unequivocal.  Chris Christie of New Jersey announced, “Our nation is under siege… What I believe is we’re facing the next world war.” Ted Cruz of Texas claimed, “This nation needs a wartime president,” and, by way of suggesting that he fits that bill, has promised to “carpet-bomb them into oblivion.” Jeb Bush declared, “Islamic terrorism wants to destroy our way of life.  They have declared war on us, and we need to declare war on them.” 

Marco Rubio weighed in similarly:  “This is a clash of civilizations. … There is no middle ground on this. Either they win or we win.” Rubio called for a "substantial ground army" to take on the Islamic State.  He has also said that he would support a Congressional formal declaration of war on ISIS.

Mike Huckabee adds: "If [ISIS is] allowed to go unchecked, if you don't go in and kill it, destroy it -- not just contain it, destroy it -- it will continue to grow, metastasize, and kill us." 

Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina: “We’re at war, folks. They’re not trying to steal your car; they’re trying to kill us all.”  And then, just in case you missed this point, he added: “The bottom line is, we’re at war. They’re trying to come here to kill us all,” and, “The ISIL leadership wants to hurt you, and your family, and if I’m President they will not get here ’cause we’re going to kill ’em over there.”

Donald Trump has vowed not only to kill the terrorists but also to kill their families.  Everyone says we must ban Syrian refugees, and Trump wants "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

This sort of reaction reflects a serious misperception of the risk that ISIS poses to the United States or its citizens.  Many other risks that we willingly accept as a part of being alive are much more significant than any we face from terror organizations.  So, let's get some perspective on these risks.  In their book, Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart include a table comparing the annual fatality risks of particular threats to Americans.  Comparison of Annual Fatality Risks (revised Aug 29 2015).  The terrorism fatality information in the table is based on data in from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) headquartered in the University of Maryland.

According to Mueller and Stewart’s table, in 2009, there were 560,000 deaths due to cancer in the US, amounting to a fatality risk for that year of 1 in 540.  In 2007, there were 119,000 deaths due to all accidents, posing a risk that year of a fatal accident of any kind of 1 in 2500.  Car accidents by themselves numbered 37,261 in 2008 and posed a risk of fatality that year of 1 in 8,200.

Here are some other annual fatality risks we Americans face:
  • Homicide   Year: 2006   Total:  14,180   Risk:  1 in 22,000
  • Industrial accidents   Year:  2007    Total:  5,657    Risk:  1 in 53,000
  • Natural disasters   Years:  1999–2008    Total:  6,294    Risk:  1 in 480,000
  • Drowning in bathtub   Year: 2003   Total:  320   Risk:  1 in 950,000
  • Death from home appliances   Yearly average:  200    Risk:  1 in 1,500,000
  • Deer accidents   Year:  2006   Total:  150   Risk:  1 in 2,000,000
  • Commercial aviation deaths   Yearly average:  130   Risk:  1 in 2,300,000

Now let’s look at the death numbers for terrorism. The START data shows that terrorism in America from 1970 to 2013 has claimed 3,372 lives.  Thus, it poses an annual fatality risk of 1 in 4,000,000 – fully one-half the risk we face from deer accidents, and an even smaller likelihood of fatality than what we face from home appliances and bathtubs.  See "Americans Are as Likely to Be Killed by Their Own Furniture as by Terrorism."

Of particular note is the difference in risk between gun violence and terrorism, since Congress apparently is unwilling to lift a finger to prevent gun violence.   As the CNN chart below shows, we’ve had over 400,000 deaths due to gun violence – accidents, suicide and homicide – from 2001 to 2013 and 3380 deaths due to terrorism during the same period, which includes the 9/11.  This averages to over 31,000 gun deaths per year compared to 260 average annual deaths from terrorism.  In other words, gun violence poses a risk to Americans that is 120 times the risk posed from terrorism.  (Note:  You may wonder why the CNN chart over a shorter period of time has slightly more deaths due to terrorism over than the START data.  The difference is that CNN included overseas American deaths, whereas the Start information reflects only terrorist actions within the US.  Also, in the interest of full disclosure, some of the gun deaths are due to terrorist acts, but obviously a very small number.)

In fact, at least in two recent years, the chance of being killed by a toddler (a child under age 5) was greater than the risk of being killed by a terrorist.  In 2015 and 2013 the number of deaths caused by toddlers, either self-inflicted or inflicted on others, exceeded the number of deaths, including those in San Bernardino, caused by terrorists.  Kindergarten, Stop (2015).  Toddlers Killed More Americans Than Terrorists Did This Year (2013). 

You might well ask, where is the political pugnaciousness about these much more serious threats to our safety.  Why is no one announcing that we are under siege from deer (OK, other than Jim)?  Why has no one proclaimed that we need to declare war on home appliances?  Or, insist that there is no middle ground with bathtubs?  Why has Congress done nothing about the toddler threat?  And, here is the more serious question:  why are we not spending the trillion dollars – the amount Congress has appropriated to the Department of Homeland Security since 9/11 – on cancer prevention, which poses a fatality risk to each of us that’s over 7,000 times greater than terrorism?

Actually, there is an answer, supplied by someone who has graced the pages of this blog before, Daniel Kahneman.  See "Why Smart People Are Stupid."  In 2011, Kahneman published the popular book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.  There, he discussed two modes of human thinking, that he calls, simply enough, System 1 and System 2.  “System 1” is a fast decision making system responsible for intuitive decision making based on emotions, vivid imagery, and associative memory.  “System 2” is a slow system that observes System 1’s outputs, and intervenes when “intuition” is insufficient. Such an intervention occurs “when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.”  

System 1 is the way we operate most of the time.  And, as Kahneman demonstrates, under this mode of thinking, there is a general inability of the human mind to deal comfortably with statistics and the actual likelihood of an event occurring. Rather, when we “think fast” we are prone to making decisions based on rapid and often superficial intuitions, usually based on a small number of oversimplified analogies. We have particular trouble when simple analogies come to mind quickly and vividly.   Kahneman’s suggestion that in System 1 we too easily turn to simple and commonly used analogies is echoed by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.:  “I trust that a graduate student some day will write a doctoral essay on the influence of the Munich analogy on the subsequent history of the twentieth century. Perhaps in the end he will conclude that the multitude of errors committed in the name of Munich may exceed the original error of 1938.”

It needs to be said that this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Fast thinking made us fit for the Pleistocene era when risk avoidance meant running away from tigers.  Even today, we need to think fast to avoid being struck by a car or to stop an infant from drinking cleaning fluid.  Nevertheless, our Pleistocene risk machinery was not designed for the information-laden modern world.

This risk machinery becomes particularly illogical when it comes to acts of terrorism.  The mental image of a terror event – the thought of a suicide bomb or a mass shooting – produces a much more vivid and horrific image of death and suffering than, say, someone suffering from diabetes, and it produces an instant and uncontrolled emotional response.   Even though people may “know” that such events are rare and their probability is low, they cannot escape the psychological discomfort caused by such vividly imagined threats.  And then, the news media’s disproportionate and unrelenting focus on cases of terrorism reinforces such mistaken perceptions. As Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow, “extremely vivid image[s] of death and damage” resulting from terrorist attacks are “reinforced by media attention and frequent conversation,” leaving us with highly accessible memories of such events. When people who have been exposed to such coverage later assess how likely more terrorism is, such events come readily to mind — and so they are likely to assign probabilities biased upward.  Such reporting results in people being "guided by emotion rather than by reason, easily swayed by trivial details, and inadequately sensitive to differences between low and negligibly low probabilities," says Kahneman.

Kahneman points out as an example that in the early 2000s many travelers in Israeli cities avoided buses because they feared suicide bombings, even though the statistical probability of being injured by a terrorist attack on a bus remained much smaller than being killed in a traffic accident in a car.

Whether terror organizations are aware of Kahneman’s book or our Pleistocene propensity to overreact to vivid images of death, the strategic goal behind terrorism is to produce an unthinking overreaction.  The terrorists know that, on own their own, they pose no real threat to great powers and cannot impose their will on these powers.  Instead, terrorists seek to weaken strong powers like the United States by goading them into overreaction and, in so doing, waste their own blood and treasure, create sympathy for the terrorists and boost recruitment.   

Unleashing an exaggerated response to terrorist actions plays right into the basic terrorist propaganda that its enemies are all evil monsters and need to be dealt with mercilessly.  And, when the response also inflicts casualties on neutral or unsympathetic locals, it often turns them into terrorist supporters.  One could imagine that nothing would make ISIS leaders happier than a US decision to “carpet bomb” Iraq and Syria.  

Similarly, hostility toward Syrian refugees also plays into ISIS’s hands.  ISIS despises the Syrian refugees: It sees them as traitors to the glorious caliphate.  Beyond that, the millions of fleeing refugees dramatically expose the ISIS lie that its territory is a paradise for Muslims. But if refugees do make it out, ISIS wants them to be treated badly — the more the West treats them with suspicion and fear, the more it supports ISIS's narrative of a West that is hostile to Muslims and bolsters ISIS's efforts to recruit from migrant communities in Europe.  On the other hand, nothing would poke more holes in the ISIS claims of Western hostility toward Muslims and undercut ISIS support than a western wholesale welcome of the Syrian refugees. 

So, the question is:  can our cognitive illusions be overcome?  If we know of our propensity to think fast, can we avoid its pitfalls?  Kahneman is not encouraging. Because System 1 operates automatically and cannot be turned off at will, errors of intuitive thought are often difficult to prevent. Biases cannot always be avoided, because System 2 is often unaware of System 1 errors.  Even when cues to likely errors are available, errors can be prevented only by the enhanced monitoring and supreme efforts to activate of System 2.  As Kahneman says of his own book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, “It’s not a case of: 'Read this book and then you'll think differently.'  I've written this book, and I don't think differently." 

And, constant monitoring of our thinking may not even be desirable.  Kahneman says that, as a way to live your life, continuous vigilance is not necessarily good, and it is hopelessly impractical. Constantly questioning our own thinking would be impossibly tedious, and System 2 is much too slow and inefficient to serve as a substitute for System 1 in making routine decisions.   In the end, no one would be able to get anything done.

The best we can do, says Kahnemen, is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high.  Science, for example, recognizes the danger of bias, and so it insists on the principle that there is evidence of findings that other people are able to evaluate.  Is it too much to ask our politicians to meet a similar standard and produce evidence of their conclusions, especially when they are considering a major military adventure overseas?  Certainly, the stakes are high enough to insist on some slow thinking.  


James R said...

What an enjoyable read! I'm glad I fought my modern tendency to glorify my meted time to the extent of believing anything over 140 characters is a life shortening cancer.

Those who are following the second series of "Serial" will recognize Myk's point that the U.S.'s overreaction to radical religious terrorism has hugely changed our image overseas. With all the drones flying overhead, a simple mistake or intended "collateral damage" destroys one's home and family. It's hard to imagine how we would feel if we were constantly in fear of that kind of "sword of Damocles". Ironically, for how intolerably bad Bowe Bergdahl was treated as a prisoner, his captives could always point to the fact that their treatment of prisoners was much more humane that treatment in the U.S.

It's funny. You would think that the slow motion policy making of our government would lead to slow System 2 policy decisions. That doesn't seem to be the case. Thinking Fast and Slow may not be the best way to characterize this type of thinking. Perhaps a better characterization would be thinking locally and thinking globally or thinking small vs. thinking large.

Big Myk said...

I confess that I have not done my civic duty of listening to Season 2 of Serial. (Sarah Koenig for president!) Something else to look forward to. But I think that your "thinking small and large" is closer to Pinker's moral Flynn effect than it is too Hahneman's slow thinking, although no doubt closely related.

The moral Flynn effect, fueled by the power of abtract thinking, is the brain's increasing recognition that, from the standpoint of the universe, no one holds any position any more privileged or more deserving than anyone else. So, as I say elsewhere, if we prefer life over death and happiness over suffering, we can't expect anyone to accommodate us unless we're willing to accommodate others' preference for these things.

There was one other angle I was tempted to take, but decided not to. And that is this: how much of the warmongering is just a calculated campaign tactic and is nothing that any politician really believes. We have Hermann Göring's comment, made in an interview during the Nuremberg Trials: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.” I decided not to go that way because I feared our readers' invocation of Goodwin's Law or accusations of Reductio ad Hitlerum. Also, it had little to do with the Hahneman point.

Big Myk said...

Here's an example of slow thinking: One President’s Remarkable Response to Terrorism.