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.”