Bryan Caplan  

A Numerate Sermon on Terrorism

Peter Thiel on Foreign Policy... Turkey's Failed Coup...
I've long regarded serious fear of terrorism as a sign of deep innumeracy.  Deaths from terrorism remain a tiny share of the thousand-odd murders that happen on Earth on an average day.  Terrorism is special primarily because people overreact to it - and occasionally kill a hundred thousand innocents along the way.  Since my ability to persuasively convey these facts is minimal, however, I was pleased to discover this inspired numerate sermon by Sam Hughes.  Highlights:

As an ordinary human being, you may feel that there is nothing you can do in the fight against terrorism. You couldn't be more wrong.

You see, terrorism directly targets ordinary people. You, an ordinary person, can deny terrorists their victory simply by refusing to be a victim. Believe it or not, you have a choice in the matter. This is because the victims of terrorism are not simply those who get blown up during the initial attack. It's the people who are scared to fly in airplanes or visit big cities afterwards. It's the people who get dragged into a war against an abstract concept. It's the people who get attacked in the street because they look like they might come from a hot country...

Here is how you, an ordinary human being, can fight terrorism:

Ignore it.

The more you think about a threat, the larger it grows in your mind. The more you talk about it, the more worried you and people around you become. So quit talking about terrorism. Quit seeking out horror stories in news shows and on the internet. The media's job is to sensationalise things to get you to watch them. That's how they get ratings and they are very, very good at it. Don't get dragged in by these ploys. Turn off the sensationalist television. Be informed, yes, but don't stand for any of that alarmism, speculation, bias, uncertainty and denial.


Know the facts. There is no risk.

The odds against you being killed in a terrorist attack are millions to one. Ditto plane crashes. Only somebody who regularly enters lottery draws would be put off by odds like these. You have more chance of dying in a car crash tomorrow, and do you fret about that? Hell no.

Understanding this will enable you to:

Show no fear.

Terrorism, by its very definition, sets out to provoke terror. If you are scared afterwards, the act of terrorism was successful. If you refuse to be intimidated, the terrorists have lost. It really is as simple as that. You are not a mindless animal. You can choose not to give in to your basic impulses. Show some backbone.

Don't be provoked.

Don't get irrationally angry against the entire country that the terrorists originate from. Don't start to take out that anger on nearby people who look like they might be from that country. And don't accept a similar reaction from your leaders. The reason? Hate breeds terrorism. If you attack people, you give them motivation to retaliate. And if you hit back harder then they'll hit back harder still. It's a cycle of aggression which only you can break.

As the attacked party, you're supposed to be the good guy here: act like it. Back down. Walk away. Be the bigger man...

Refuse to alter your lifestyle in any way.


P.S. Sermon notwithstanding, I see little sign Americans have learned a thing since September, 11, 2001.  In fact, they seem more irrational and impulsive than ever.  If there's another domestic terrorist attack that kills over a thousand people, I predict the U.S. will mount another War of Negligence - easily winning the war, but bungling the peace yet again.

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Benjamin Cole writes:

Excellent blogging.

BTW, do you suppose there are interest groups who actively fear-monger in search of greater federal outlays and money into their pockets?

And not just about terrorism, but all "threats."

AbsoluteZero writes:

Amen indeed.
And this applies to a lot more than terrorism, it applies to everything the media sensationalizes. This is why I pay attention to mainstream media, to a degree, so I know what not to be concerned about.

Weir writes:

There's a book about torture called Because It Is Wrong. Same goes for terrorism.

Lynching is bad, and I don't mock someone who says so by pointing out that she's unlikely to be lynched herself.

Kgaard writes:

Brian ... Isn't this an anti-Semitic position? If Israel did this -- just ignored terrorism -- many Israelis would die. If Israel stopped its screening procedures, disbanded Mossad, took down its border walls etc etc ... the Israeli people would be much less safe.

As a pro-Israeli, I feel anti-terror measures are crucial to maintaining security.

Emily writes:

"What share of the murders" terrorism accounts for doesn't tell you anything about *your* chances of being murdered via terrorism vs. non-terrorism. Non-terrorism related murders in the United States are largely between people who know each other and/or as a result of gang violence. There are things you can do to minimize your chances of being killed both in these ways and in other, non-terrorism related ways. You can make decisions about who you associate with, where you live, and what security precautions you can take. And people *do* those things, because they really don't want to become murder victims. Becoming a murder victim - or having friends or relatives become murder victims - is an outcome most people want really, really badly to avoid.

Psmith writes:

Many people do not think that all deaths count the same.

We shall reduce risk on the beaches, we shall reduce risk in the swimming pools, we shall reduce risk on the highways and on the ladders, we shall reduce risk in the bathtubs surrounded by electrical appliances, and we shall go on until the point that the costs exceed the marginal benefits under standard assumptions about the statistical value of a human life. And then if you all are still not satisfied, we shall get around to this nasty blitz bombing business.
Glen Smith writes:

Those that think that innumeracy is core for all those who fear terrorism are being innumerate themselves. Dead people don't fear death. Most murders are personal or do not threaten a whole cohort. To rely on such analysis, you would first have to eliminate all murders that are not directed at a specific, limited group. You need to analyze the threat/

john swabey writes:

If we each choose not to go to war there will be no war, waiting for law 2.0

Steve writes:

Like this essay, but I'm really curious where it's from? I see the link to the internet archive, but the page that was archived doesn't seem to exist anymore. What's the provenance of the quoted material?

Anyway, I like it, wherever it came from...

Steve writes:

More about where this came from?

I see from the Internet Archive that it first showed up on in October 2006 and was still there as of May 2016 - but it doesn't seem to be there any more. (The site is there, just not this essay.)

So, I'm really a little mystified. I *like* it, but I feel weird about recommending it to other people since the origin of the essay seems a little mysterious.

Found a slightly different version here:


[broken url fixed--Econlib Ed.]

ThaomasH writes:

About as close to an Anyone But Trump appeal that a "non-partisan" can make. :)

Well said.

Anon writes:

Bryan's response to Jews in the early years of the Nazi regime:

You are not very likely to die from Nazis, despite their explicit intention to kill you. Don't change your lifestyle!

Bryan's response to Japan attacking Pearl Harbor

You have a very small chance of dying from a military attack by the Japanese. Ignore it!

Bryan's response to a future biological attack by terrorists:

There are over 6 billion people on earth and just a few hundred thousand died. Your chances are minimal. There is no risk!

I guess we should sit back and wait until Bryan has a satisfactory p value before we "overreact."

Bryan - You keep ignoring that a terrorist attack is a *signal* that people intend to harm you. Just because they currently have small capability to inflict harm does not mean they will not have more in the future - they could if they get their hands on major weapons or if they take control of a formal army. In either case, we should react more strongly than indicated by just the relatively small number of people killed because we want to *prevent* future mass attacks. This is not numeracy, this is ignoring the qualitative and information differences between numbers.

MikeDC writes:

If a student wrote this and you were putting aside your biases, you'd rightly flunk him or her for an abject refusal to engage in marginal analysis.

Someday I expect to get on here and read you unintentionally quoting Dr. Manhattan, "A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally there's no discernible difference."

Peter Gordon writes:

But there are the risks we know, that we have factored into our choices, and the ones we know little about. Someone shot up Munich's biggest mall this AM. That's a new ball game for mall goers. Possibly slipping in wet bath tubs is understood and not a surprise. This is not about innumeracy.

Niko Davor writes:

"Ignore it". "Refuse to alter your lifestyle in any way".

You first. Start by holding traditional Jewish festivals celebrating Purim in Brussels. Or walking your yarmulke wearing Jewish kids through the streets of Brussels or the banlieues of France. Or publishing cartoons of Muhammed in your satirical newspaper as you have always done. Or continue to feature such cartoons in normal news coverage.

Western civilization has officially done the exact opposite. We've told these groups to alter their lifestyles to avoid terrorism. This isn't innumeracy or a lack of arithmetic, it's a formal admission that terrorism works.

Next, western civilization has always categorized homicides and treated some categories as worse than others. A first degree murder is worse than second and that is worse than involuntary manslaughter, etc. Hate crimes such as racially or politically motivated killings including terrorism have officially been categorized as the worst and most serious to society. This isn't due to innumeracy. That idea is absurd.

RPLong writes:

One consistent experience I have in reading EconLog posts is the fact that I typically have the opposite response to Caplan's posts that others do. Where so many commentators seem to have read this post and thought he was minimizing the tragedy of terrorism, I read it as a call to be (1) rational, and thus (2) courageous. I understand that minimizing tragedy is wrong, but encouraging us to be brave and stoic is wonderful medicine in the face of terrorism. I hope my reading is the correct one.

Kurt Schuler writes:

People of Munich, remain calm, all is well!

MikeDC writes:

But I don't see Caplan's response to actually be rational. I don't know if it's courageous or not, but I think not because there's no actual rational understanding of the costs and benefits.

To put it simply, I agree with calls for rationality. But rationality demands marginal thinking and compensating for one's own biases.

In this case, it's smart not to overestimate the risks, but I see this as more or less dismissing the sort of economic analysis we find useful in literally every other context in order to serve an emotionally pleasing end.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

An unarmed black person has about a million to one chance of being killed by a policeman per year, about the same risk as being killed by lightning.

Of course that it still one in a million too many, and just like you shouldn't go golfing in a thunderstorm, we should do something about it - but rationally, not emotionally.

Moses writes:

I think the problem with the argument is how does Caplan know that the low incidence of terror is not caused by proactive measures against it?

Israel is a perfect example in this regard (and politically is a victim of its own success, insofar as virtue is often measured by degrees of suffering). Terror attacks used to be more frequent and larger in scale. Israel has simply innovated more quickly and effectively than its adversaries, but the cat and mouse game goes on--Israel builds a wall, so Hamas builds tunnels, and so on.

To bring the point home, consider Hamas's approach to terror. It has no fear of terror (from Israel), but rather expects the complete opposite--a high degree of discernment between military and civilian targets. Thus it strategically unprotects its population through human shields, etc.

Imagine if Israel unprotected itself in the same way.

There is a phenomenon in which a rare event or two might be a harbinger that far more is on the way: epidemics.

Is terrorism epidemic-like?

MikeDC writes:

Sort of, but epidemic spreading pathogens aren't engaging in strategic behavior. terrorists are.

Krzys writes:

I think the one having trouble with numbers is actually you.

You are comparing a known distribution to an unknown one, from which hazard ratios are hard to calculate. More than that, the hazard ratios are a function of the decisions made in response. In other words, those who control appropriate resources to control terrorism, yet dismiss the concern make the risks higher.

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