Thursday, August 10, 2006

Cognitive bias, and how it affects your plane ride

This isn't precisely a fallacy, but I wanted to point out the cognitive bias inherent in the current ridiculous scramble at the airports. What we have here is an example of an availability heuristic, in which people tend to rate events more likely when they're memorable or emotionally charged. The possibility of explosive liquid on a plane is not any higher than it was yesterday, nor is the possibility of other easily concealed explosive material any lower. Because people reacted emotionally to the bust in England, though, the availability heuristic kicks in and makes everyone paranoid about liquids and gels -- just like they were paranoid about white powder after the anthrax letters, or white box trucks during the DC sniper nonsense.

You're always more aware of risks when you feel strongly about the possible outcomes -- maybe you've experienced them, or someone else has. For instance, I'm very careful about not leaving water on the stove unattended, because I once let it boil right through the bottom of the pot. For a long time I was scared of ticks, so I was unnecessarily careful about covering up when I went into the woods. On the more extreme side, everyone knows at least one person who's obsessed with spreading their own cognitive biases -- like maybe one time they found a bug in a Subway sandwich and now they proselytize against eating at Subway, or their sister had a rare mineral deficiency so they're insistent about the importance of taking vitamins, or they once got a hernia so now they nag everyone to do constant crotch stretches. Now imagine that person had armed representatives, big guys packing we-don't-fuck-around automatic weaponry, who were authorized to force you to take vitamins or stretch your crotch. That's pretty much the situation we have here.

If you're as irritated as I am that you have to be dramatically inconvenienced (and possibly threatened with weapons) because of unchecked cognitive bias at the higher levels, or if you're actually nervous that your seatmate's chapstick might explode next time you're on a plane, I recommend the comforting dose of reality that is John Mueller's excellent article "A False Sense of Insecurity?" (via Boing Boing):
The shock and tragedy of September 11 does demand a focused and dedicated program to confront international terrorism and to attempt to prevent a repeat. But it seems sensible to suggest that part of this reaction should include an effort by politicians, officials, and the media to inform the public reasonably and realistically about the terrorist context instead of playing into the hands of terrorists by frightening the public. What is needed, as one statistician suggests, is some sort of convincing, coherent, informed, and nuanced answer to a central question: "How worried should I be?" Instead, the message the nation has received so far is, as a Homeland Security official put (or caricatured) it, "Be scared; be very, very scared -- but go on with your lives." Such messages have led many people to develop what Leif Wenar of the University of Sheffield has aptly labeled "a false sense of insecurity."
Here you will learn useful facts (for instance, did you know that you're four times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist Israel?), plus you'll get a much-needed dose of rational thought. Read it, take a deep breath, and tell yourself that reason will win in the end. Meanwhile, if you're leaving on a jet plane, don't expect to be hydrated or moisturized during the flight, and pack an extra suitcase if you want clean hair or teeth during your trip.

Warning: Your mileage may vary, but personally, I won't be reading this article anytime close to an air-travel trip. The frustrated scene I would undoubtedly cause at the airport would get me on the no-fly list for life.


Blogger David said...


August 14, 2006 1:50 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

David: I'm sorry your friend and Jess had an argument over at Bee Policy, but that's where it should stay--at Bee Policy.

If you've got something substantive to say, say it. Any further nasty comments here at Truth Tables will be deleted.

August 14, 2006 7:26 PM  
Blogger jess said...

His friend came over here too -- commented in a couple of different places asking if I was married to somebody or other. Did you not get those sent to you? Neither one of them seems to be very familiar with Blogger (if you look at his blog, you'll see it's basically an email, and she seems to start a new blog every time she wants to say something) so I think there's some confusion about the difference between a blog and the person who posts on it.

Anyway, there's nothing I can say to these folks that would make them look worse than they're making themselves look, which is generous of them. I'd like to avoid deleting, if possible, just because that's a right-wing asshole blogger tactic (and besides, their comments are such excellent self-refutations), but this is your space too. Plus, I think the rules are different when the comment in question can't even remotely be considered on-topic discussion.

August 15, 2006 7:14 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

No, I did see the comments before, but his friend really did at least start out with a response (however fluffy) to something you posted at Bee Policy. Whatever "argument" there is, it's bad form to bring it over here.

I would never delete a substantive comment--you're right, only asshats do that. But this comment really only barely pretends to comment on your post. The first sentence is just an excuse to abuse you. I guess when I said "nasty comments" I really meant "empty comments." Is that cool by you?

August 15, 2006 7:59 AM  
Blogger jess said...

It's cool by me, and in fact it's kind of doing our interlocutors a favor. It's a bad idea to leave stuff that's quite this personally unflattering lying around on the web -- at least if you believe pubs like the NYT, with their "people who got denied jobs because of their MySpace profiles" horror stories. It adds nothing to the blog to have random nastiness posted here, and it does the posters of said nastiness no good either.

August 15, 2006 8:10 AM  
Blogger jess said...

By "personally unflattering" of course I mean personally unflattering to the person who wrote it!

August 15, 2006 8:13 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

Besides, you guys are definitely hot enough to use deoderant.

August 16, 2006 3:49 PM  
Blogger David said...

um...sorry...o, well.

August 18, 2006 12:18 PM  
Blogger jess said...

Thanks, David.

(And Anna. Good to know I'm allowed to use deodorant!)

August 18, 2006 12:42 PM  
Blogger David said...

by the way, is that you bryn, i think you're a great sceintist, if I can't understand it, it pretty darn good!

August 18, 2006 1:03 PM  
Blogger jess said...

I'm so very confused by people's constant assumptions that I'm someone they know. The internet is a big and weird place, everyone!

Then again, enough of you do know me that I guess it's not that implausible. Still, the causality's backwards.

August 18, 2006 2:10 PM  
Blogger *Billy Jones* said...

Ha, Ha ,ha, david ur dumb..

August 18, 2006 3:42 PM  

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