Monday, September 12, 2005

Why terrorism works

NYTimes - Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Terrorism exploits three glitches in human nature, all related to the management and perception of unusual events. ... risk avoidance is not governed by reason, cognition or intellect. Rather, it comes chiefly from our emotional system. Patients with brain lesions that prevent them from registering feelings even when their cognitive and analytical capacities are intact are incapable of effectively getting out of harm's way. ...

the emotional system is impressionable and prefers shallow, social and anecdotal information to abstract data, it hinders our ability to cope with the more sophisticated risks that afflict modern life. ...

Consider this: Osama bin Laden continued killing Americans and Western Europeans in the aftermath of Sept. 11, though indirectly. How? A large number of travelers chose to drive rather than fly, and this caused a corresponding rise in casualties from automobile accidents (any time we drive more than 20 miles, our risk of death exceeds that of flying).

third ... We are moved by sensational images of heroes who leap into action as calamity unfolds before them. But the long, pedestrian slog of prevention is thankless. That is because prevention is nameless and abstract, while a hero's actions are grounded in an easy-to-understand narrative.

The audiovisual media, with their ability to push the public's emotional hot buttons, need to play a more responsible role. Of course it is the news media's job to inform the public about the risk and the incidence of terrorism, but they should try to do so without helping terrorists achieve their objective, which is to terrify.


Of course, human beings weakness for the anecdotal story over a statistic applies in more situations than terrorism. I was surprised by the 9/11/01 attacks, but I did not know how it would "change everything." Even pointing out that terrorism is not as big of a problem as people make it out to be can get you accused of being heartless (What I am frightened by is terrorists acquiring a nuclear materials; something the government has been rather lackadaisical about; I'd much rather have one more nuclear site secured than have SWAT teams patrolling the BART).

Similarly, our health care system does not maximize health because it tends to focus on emergency care rather than preventative medicine. If you point out that the $2 million spent to separate conjoined twins with a 50% chance of survival should be used to save the lives of hundreds of children's lives in Africa... heartless.

I don't the media will change its behavior any time soon. They respond to viewers and advertisers not the public good. They will continue to overemphasize exciting and rare risks particularly at the time such warnings are not necessary.

This phenomenon also increases the risk of rare terrible events happening. The dot com bubble lasted years, anyone who was correct about the phenomenon would have looked wrong for a long time. The same thing has occurred with housing prices recently. Those who point out risks are considered pessimistic.

This issue also reminds me of the decision to go to War in Iraq. The administration assumed everything would turn out smoothly, but if they had considered how costly a civil war would be (even at a chance of 1 in 20) going into Iraq does not look like such as promising adventure.

People who continue to support the War in Iraq as a good idea, cling to the idea that (at least someday) the Iraqis will be better off. But that should not be the question. We should ask, what is the opportunity cost of the War? What was the next best option to War. What could have we done with $200 Billion dollars and 2,000 U.S. soldier lives? I think a great deal more than what has occurred.

But why does terrorism work? Because people get afraid and demand action.

I have thought that as difficult as the Martin Luther King approach of non-violence is, it might be more effective in stopping terrorism. Such comments are likely to get one called a weak liberal and not "tough" on terrorism. Shooting yourself in the foot and invading Iraq are both "tough", but they are both stupid and counter-productive in reducing terrorism. Imagine if Israel adopted an non-violent approach; not retaliating when there is a bombing; not just once, but for a long time. The source of bombers would dry up as Israel began to look more like a victim than an occupier. Negotiations would become possible and the bombers would be clearly seen as murderers, not martyrs.

1 comment:

Blue Cross of California said...

Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system as we are in a major crisis and health insurance is a major aspect to many.