Hell of a Week

Summarizing the last week’s events, I have the following comments:

  1. A small bomb is not anywhere near a “weapon of mass destruction.” When that term was coined, it referred to the atomic bomb. If the largest RAF “blockbuster” bombs of World War II weighed in at twelve thousand pounds and were not thusly termed, how do the professional bed-wetters of American “journalism” claim a crude homemade device merits the moniker? And why has the justice department suddenly downgraded the already downgraded term (it had been expanded to include chemical and biological weapons, neither of which is as efficient a killer as plain old TNT bombs)? It has gone from a device whose first wartime employment killed upwards of 100,000 people to a crude mutilator with a death toll of 3. If you weren’t doing the math, that is five orders of magnitude difference.
  2. Rights as outlined in that quaint document known as the Constitution (more specifically, the Bill of Rights) do, indeed, protect the rights of terrible people. The reason they exist, however, is to protect everyone. If a miserable scumbag do not have the protection from warrentless searches, neither do you. If an obviously guilty person does not have a right to a fair trial, neither do you. As one who resembles roughly 75% of wanted posters (minus the tattoos and questionable facial hair), I appreciate this right.
  3. By the fear-mongering allowances granted above, the explosion in the sleepy little burg of West, TX should be considered a tragedy on par with the entire American Civil War. Somehow, it has seen nowhere near the coverage of a pair of pathetic losers attempting to earn a place in headlines. I suppose “terrorism” intent (as long as only non-WASPs are involved) is ‘sexier’ news than criminal negligence. Thankfully, the right people are on the scene to emphatically ask the question “Who could have known?” to all who will listen. Of course as soon as the federal government finished handing out public money to clean up after this private disaster, they can just get the hell out of town. Private industry can police itself. As long as Uncle Sam foots the bill for the consequences.

[Update]: Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns, and Money on the disparity in coverage between West and Boston:

Again, when workers die because of massive negligence by owners, those owners need to be charged with some form of a murder crime, perhaps equivalent to a fatal drunk-driving charge. Instead, the owners themselves are often seen as victims, including at West.

Two articles he references, Boston, Texas, and the roads: affect and the power of normalization, and The Texas fertilizer plant explosion cannot be forgotten also wonder at the peculiar focus of the corporate “news” agencies.

Letters to the Editor

One of the only non-science dead-tree publications I read is The Economist. It is somewhat right-leaning, but is generally reasonable about most things. A couple of days ago, (I’m a few issues behind) I read an article (“Apocalypse perhaps a little later,” The Economist, March 30th – April 5th 2013 issue) claiming that “some scientists are arguing that man-made climate change is not quite so bad a threat as it appeared a few years ago.” While the article was hardly sounding the bells confirming that the right wing nuts were right, it will nevertheless have that effect.

Two issues later, I found exactly what I expected. In the interest of “balance,” the editors included four responses. As luck would have it, these perfectly reflected a cross section of opinion as presented by the mass market media:

  1. The Reasonable Crank: If one takes the advice of the Concern Troll, his efforts are rewarded with a “bravo” and golf-clap from the Reasonable Crank. In this case, the author writes:

    Your change of tone on climate change is welcome … You now have common ground with people who have long been dismissed as sceptics (actually something for any scientist to be proud of) or vilified as deniers

    What has become more and more obvious is that current climate-change policy is an expensive waste of time …

    This is the sort of person who writes in complete sentences, carefully toning down any would-be mouth frothing to maintain the facade. The reasonable crank often claims a sort of credential via membership to one or more organizations that, on closer inspection, are crank institutions. In this case, the writer, Mr. Martin Livermore, claims membership to something called the “Scientific Alliance.” That sounds innocuous. Unless, of course, we actually look any further (from the Scientific Alliance “About Us” page):

    The Alliance brings together both scientists and non-scientists committed to rational discussion and debate on the challenges facing the environment today.

    Members of the Scientific Alliance are concerned about the many ways in which science is often misinterpreted, and at times misrepresented, within both policy circles and in the media.

    Whenever a person incorporates “non-scientists” in analyzing “misinterpretation” of science, you can rest assured he is a crank.

    So this guy is given the first word.

  2. The Actual Expert: This person is generally actively involved in research in the object in question. While such a person readily dismiss crank arguments:


    … As long as we do not find modern physics to be fundamentally wrong, we will have to plan for a climate sensitivity of 3°C.
    Since CO2 emissions are consistently at the upper end of the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]’s scenarios both our solid understanding of climate change on a global level and our lack of understanding of hurricanes and other climate extremes demand more, not less, caution.

    While the author of this letter, Professor Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, is an actual climate scientist, he gets second billing to the crank.

  3. The Who Knows? Guy: The fence-sitter only sits the fence in that, since doing something requires effort, “We should do nothing and see what happens.” While claiming neutrality between science and anti-science, he is a de facto enemy of science.
  4. The Pithy Idiot: This person’s entire contribution to an debate is to provide a single quote from a (probably long dead) individual. To wit:


    Your article brought to mind Mark Twain’s adage:

    There is something fascinating about science. Once gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

    The contributor here apparently doesn’t realize that more data have been collected on any facet of climate science now than the entire collected knowledge of man at the time Mr. Clemens penned that (obviously satirical) remark in Life on the Mississippi.

The ineptitude of our media is the real tragedy of our age.

Miscalculating Risk

As often happens at my place of employment, discussion devolves into a multivocal rant decrying the inability of most people to perceive relative risk. It is not just risk, either. Anything that could be considered economic in nature is absolutely a foreign language to even many mathematically sophisticated people.

Unfortunately, the human brain is terrible at modeling statistics. Part of the reason is that it has evolved to develop its own models for making estimates based on experience. The mass media have given us the ability to observe things that are far from our own experiences. Yet the quasi-experiential information received via the outlets of yellow journalism is absorbed as if actual experience. Here are some examples of things we do not consider at an appropriate level:

The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children study published by the Department of Justice in October 2002 gives an interesting statistic:

During the study year, there were an estimated 115 stereotypical kidnappings, defined as abductions perpetrated by a stranger or slight acquaintance and involving a child who was transported 50 or more miles, detained overnight, held for ransom or with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed.

The number is from 1999 specifically. But forgetting about absolute accuracy, it is reasonable to estimate an incidence of approximately 1 per 2,500,000 people.

According to a Minnpost article from December 17th, 2012:

To begin with, having a gun in the home is a risk factor for serious accidental injury and death. As Hemenway points out, death certificate data indicate that 680 Americans were killed accidentally with guns each year between 2003 and 2007.

An average of 46 Americans committed suicide with guns each day between 2003 and 2007. In fact, more Americans killed themselves with guns during those years than with all other methods combined.

One study found, reports [Harvard Injury Control Research Center director David] Hemenway, that “in states with more guns, there were more suicides (because there were more firearm suicides), even after controlling for the percentage of the state’s population with serious mental illness, alcohol dependence or abuse, illicit substance dependence or abuse, and the percentage unemployed, living below the poverty level, and in urban areas.”

Two-thirds of all murders between 2003 and 2007 involved guns. The average number of Americans shot and killed daily during those years was 33.

From these data, we can say about 30,000 per year. For a population of 300,000,000, this reflects an incidence of approximately 1 per 10,000 people.

A Gannet News Service article from March 26th, 2008 claims that in 2006, 4,810 motorcylists were killed in accidents. (This is approximately 1 motorcyclists were killed for every 1,400 motorcycles registered.)

Again assuming a population of 300,000,000, this reflects an incidence of approximately 1 per 62,000 people.

So one is rather common among a small sample group (motorcyclists killed as a fraction of number of riders), but fairly uncommon for the population as a whole. A second is more common among the population as a whole. Of the three dangers mentioned, under the influence of sensationalist media, the most feared is a vastly rarer occurrence than either of the other two. That is dangerous.