Something that Leonidas said a while back has made me think again about the problem of inaccurate risk assessment. He was writing about terrorism, and asking what we readers would do about it if we were president.
But terrorism is not actually a significant threat to most of us. Depending where you live, you are enormously more likely to die from smoking, starvation, cholera, or the sting of a venomous creature than from terrorist action.
According to this website, 400 million people have died in the past 50 years from malnutrition and lack of hygiene (diseases caused by fecal contamination of water, for example). This is triple the number who died in wars in the 20th century. I see no reason to doubt this figure — we know that during our Civil War, this pattern showed up. Most of the deaths from that war — and the total was greater than the combined total for all our wars till the Vietnam war is added in– were from disease.
What on earth are we doing spending vast sums of money on largely pointless attempts to protect ourselves from largely illusory dangers, when hunger and disease continue (not have become, folks, continue) to be the main dangers in the world?
Here is a lengthy and figure-filled essay on the question.
I tend to think that the whole “War on Terror” is an intentional distraction from the actual problems, but this may be cynical of me. After all, we as human beings are inclined to worry about stuff not on the basis of its statistical likelihood of actually happening to us, but on the conceptual scariness of the idea.
This is known as “the Dread Factor.” Things that seem controllable are less dreaded than things that seem uncontrollable. So car accidents are less scary — you are driving — than the less common plane accidents. Lung cancer, which is largely a result of the decision to smoke, is less dreaded than the remote possibility of someone intentionally spreading anthrax. In the flu pandemic of 1918 (which killed more people than World War I), the scariest thing about it seemed to be that healthy young people died. The unfairness, surprise, and uncontrollable character of it made it seem dreadful, even to people who had experience of smallpox, cholera, malaria, and so forth which we no longer deal with in the U.S.
People also evaluate risks based on how easily examples come to mind So if your friend Susan had breast cancer it seems like a bigger risk than it is, or if avian flu has been in the news a lot, it seems like a bigger danger.
jim said this about avian flu: “For many months now we’ve been completely set-up by over-zealous reporting of the impending doom. I am no prophet and truly have no idea what may or may not happen. The great irony is that in many developing countries, people are already dying from preventable illnesses and malnutrition by the thousands – however there is no great panic about that.”
In the U.S., death is caused primarily by heart disease, cancer, and car accidents. This very thorough analysis of death statistics for the U.S. doesn’t even mention terrorism, though homicide is in there (it is a more significant figure for younger people who are less likely to die of heart disease or cancer). If you look at international statistics, communicable diseases move up the list.
I live in the region which has more chickens that any other in the world, and I read that a simulation of avian flu has shown that teachers and shopkeepers will be the first to fall — and I am a shopkeeper catering to teachers. The disease also was in the news a lot in Southeast Asia, and my personal connections to Southeast Asia cause me to pay more attention to news from that part of the world. Therefore, avian flu seems to me, in my normal self-centered human way, like a possible real concern. It has been suggested that this is adaptive for humans — that is, being able to focus on immediate possible dangers trumps being able to judge statistical likelihood of all dangers when it comes to reproductive success.
Here is an intriguing article on the “Dread Factor.” It does suggest that asteroids are something to worry about, so you might not want to read it if you are of a nervous disposition.
However, even if it is normal for us to be more worried about things for reasons like these, it doesn’t make sense for our government to determine spending based on reasons like these. In the 2004 foreign aid budget, 4.7 billion went toward “counter-terrorism” and 2 billion to programs designed to fight poverty. And 1.3 billion of that 2 billion was for support to nations judged to be involved in the “War on Terror.” 41 billion was the budget for Homeland Security. At present, in our domestic budget, we spend $400 billion on defense and $16 billion on welfare.
It appears that our government is more involved in protecting us from terrorists than from poverty. And yet it is beyond belief that our government is unaware that poverty, disease, and the destruction of our environment are more dangerous to humans around the world than terrorism. This information is readily available to all of us.
This is why I suspect that they are playing on the “Dread Factor” to further other agendas. After all, the oil companies continue to get richer and richer. Mr.Bush’s ratings went up for a while, and he was re-elected. The American people have been distracted sufficiently to tolerate losses of individual liberty and human rights which I would never have believed we would have accepted. The executive branch, and the president in particular, have gained greater power than has been seen since Andrew Jackson defied the Supreme Court. Environmental safeguards are being removed at a startling rate.
These could be perceived as the actual results of the “War on Terror.”
7 thoughts on “Friday March 3, 2006”
And all God’s people said: Amen!
What a well thought out piece. One thing I find bemusing is that after all the red alerts about terrorism and watching suspicious people closely etc. we are supposed to suddenly have no qualms at all about the UAE running our ports.
Except for the exact statistics, I knew all that, but it’s really depressing to hear all this information assembled in one place.
I’d ask that we all pray that our fearless leader somehow acquires a brain and some common sense, but that appears hopeless.
We’d have better luck figuring out how to make doing something sensible personally profitable to the president. That might work!
Have you noticed that at the same time all the high-paying technical jobs are dissappearing in the US, that National Public Radio put a news piece on the air yesterday about the new rich class of people in India?
Could there be some connection?
Elsebeth Lavold has other knitting books out? I saw another book by her in a local yarn store, but haven’t been able to find any info about that online. And there’s another one???
If you have any other info about them, let me know. At the moment, I’m really hyped about Viking and Celtic cables, but even more about stand-alone motifs, like the St. John’s cross.
I still want to get Caveman Chemistry, but foolishly spent my discretionary funds for the week on Viking knitting and a subscription to Spin-Off, and there may not be any extra funds next week.
No argument from me. I too am politically cynical. Govts rely on the support of a certain proportion of the nation’s population. Even without govt sanctioned media manipulation (dread factor) a large proportion of the voting population (whether it supports the govt or not) really doesn’t care that much about poverty so the govt does not need to care about it. If you are comfortably off you would not be inclined to accept extra taxation that might be targeted to help those not so well off and if you are one of those who is subject to the depredations of poverty you are too busy trying to survive (or too busy dieing) to vote so the govt doesn’t need to worry about what you think. (Can you tell that I was raised a socialist?)
What a great site. I checked it out and bookmarked it immediately.
I think I know where I might be able to get the secand book. I don’t like it as much, though.
The first Viking knits book had knotwork that fit the interesting design and vice versa. The second one has more designs with ordinary shapes that have a motif or two just arbitrarily stuck somewhere without regard fot aesthetics.
It still has some good ideas, though.
It’s making me want to develop some “magical” designs and write a book.
RYC: Ha! I guess I should have expanded on the running joke! My oldest son loves (LOVES) to torment his older sisters…as nature intended. He often announces when he enters a room, “Sexy’s here!” or orders his sisters to move over because “I’m sexy…can’t you stand it I’m so sexy?” So…that’s where the whole little sexy tag came from…LOL!
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