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Friday, December 11, 2015

The Math of Muslim Mass Murders

A few months after the 9/11 terrorist attack, a group of friends and I went to see a comedian named Ahmed Ahmed (he said he's the only guy on the no-fly-list ... twice!). He noted that in a poll shortly after the 9/11 attack that muslims were the 3rd (or maybe 4th - I can't remember) most hated group in the United States. Given that the carnage on 9/11 didn't do it, he wondered what on earth muslims had to do to be number 1!

Well, it looks like muslims may get a shot at Ahmed-squared's coveted top spot of being hated given the recent suggestion that muslim immigration to the United States be restricted. Yet, to me, the recent attacks seem incredibly lame compared to 9/11.

Here are some numbers: in the United States, around 7,500 people die each day (all causes); approximately 30 of those die from gun based homicides (less than 1/2%); about 1% of murders are from mass shootings; a tiny fraction of mass shootings are bona-fide muslim terrorist attacks.

We never hear about the vast majority of the approximately 30 people who are murdered by guns each day. 30 people is simply not newsworthy in a country of more than 300,000,000 people. We don't really care, nor should we - it's simply too unlikely to happen to you or those you know to be bothered with and it's too small of an impact on the day-to-day lives of Americans to put more energy into worrying about it.

On the other hand, we can probably all name quite a few mass shootings even though 2 orders of magnitude fewer people die in those than in plain-vanilla gun homicides. It seems to be an inherent innumeracy of the human psyche to be oh-so-ho-hum about 30 gun homicides a day but be terrified, terrified I tell you, of the much rarer mass murder like the recent one in San Bernadino. And if that mass murder is of the even rarer type perpetrated by someone of a different tribe (for example a muslim), then it is all the more terrifying.

I would hope that terror doesn't overwhelm all reason though, for example when it comes to reasons for restricting immigration. On the topic of terror, religious freedom, and immigration, in a recent post by Scott Adams (the author of the Dilbert comic strip), he wrote:
But if the risk is more than tiny, can you put a price on your love of religious tolerance? In other words, how many dead Americans are you willing to accept? I’ll go first. 
Personally, I would accept up to 1,000 dead Americans, over a ten-year period, to allow Muslim non-citizens to enter this country. My calculation assumes we are better off accepting some degree of tragedy in the name of freedom.
One-hundred dead Americans a year? When 30 are already murdered using guns each day? A no-brainer, in my opinion, being less than 1% increase.

Unfortunately, I suspect the indirect deaths alone will be far higher. While Obama and others push for gun control after each of these incidents, a large number of people rush to gun stores and buy weapons and ammo. After all, they're terrified and want to defend themselves and I don't blame them. But there are already several hundred accidental firearm deaths annually. More guns may or may not mean less crime but they almost certainly mean more accidents and more accidental deaths. My guess is that each terror attack will cause more Americans to die because of increased gun accidents than die in the incidents themselves. That's not inherently bad. I can understand the argument that it is better to die defending oneself or even just preparing to defend oneself or in the process of preparing to defend oneself than to live in fear. I think the numbers say we shouldn't be living in fear anyway, at least not yet, but that's clearly just my subjective opinion.

Will (muslim) immigration increase the number of terror attacks? Well, it certainly won't decrease them. That's why I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to have a debate about restricting immigration of muslims, even though my vote (at this point) is to not have such restrictions.


Clovis e Adri said...

Actually, if they start implementing bothersome restrictions to travelers from visa waiver countries, those islamic terrorists may well achieve a goal comparable to 9/11 in terms of financial losses.

I did give up or change travelling plans (both for conferences and tourism) due to excessive red tape in past, and I know others who did too.

erp said...

You're looking at this from the position of a physical scientist, not a social scientist. The chances of any of us being murdered in our safe middle class neighborhoods are much lower than those forced to live violent ghettos.

Elites like most of those in the media, entertainment, government and academe are even less likely to meet a violent end because they live in even safer neighborhoods, travel first class with or without bodyguards, etc. so you need revise your numbers down.

The reason that ordinary people are so frightened of Islamic terrorists is they have figured out how to get at us ordinary people and even some of the protected elite. They attack where ordinary people congregate in large numbers like theaters, airports, schools ... They aren't shooting up a 7-11 on a country road or a welfare housing project in Chicago.

We should definitely encourage immigration just as we've always done from every corner of the world, but with the caveat only those who wish to jump into the melting pot and join We, the People and be welcome.

For all others who want to recreate here the hell holes they came from, hang out the Not Welcome sign.

erp said...

Example of terrorism that doesn't scare people into wanting to ban immigration from African countries or Haiti and the kind the media can safely ignore.

Peter said...

It is with great pride that I proclaim my belief in religious tolerance to be greater, purer and more noble than that of Mr. Adams. You see, I would accept two thousand deaths over ten years, provided none of them were me. At three thousand, though, I'd be calling for a theocracy.

I've seen a flurry of articles like this of late. They are of a type we've all seen before--the calm rationalist disdaining the fears and worries of the little people with the aid of statistics. Yes, fear of flying is irrational compared with the risk of driving and it is well established that most sexual assaults occur within families. But it is the stranger in the park at night that haunts the dreams of most women. Silly, irrational women. What these uber-rationalists don't understand is that it is a basic feature of human nature to fear most that we can't predict and over which we have no control. People are worried/defiant/resolved about terrorism, not because of the risk of deaths, but because it's terrorism.

In fairness, these are useful insights in the sense that it is important to keep a perspective on the nature of the threat and not succumb to mob panic, overreaction, etc. But these faux-calculations irritate me greatly. Imagine what the average Iraqi or Syrian would think of the pompous Western liberal self-indulgence behind Mr. Adam's statistically sound magnanimity. A thousand deaths over ten years in the name of religious tolerance? How many for freedom of speech?