The Politics of Fear VS Mathematical Perspective

In 1964 Lyndon Johnson’s campaign ran the following ad scaring Americans in to voting for him with the idea that Barry Goldwater would start a nuclear war if elected:


Hillary Clinton’s campaign is spinning their recent primary wins as attributable to their “3a.m. Phone Call” ad, which uses a similar tactic against Obama:


Fear is a powerful motivator. The 9/11 terrorist attacks took President Bush from a 50 percent approval rating all the way up to 90 percent in a month. They convinced us to invade a country that had nothing to do with the attacks, and without a plan for securing the country once occupied.

In the world of rhetoric, this is known as the Politics of Fear, but geeks aren’t fooled for a moment, because we have the awesome power of mathematics to embolden us!

Behold! Putting things in perspective, 2,998 people died as a direct result of the 2001 terrorist attacks in America. Comparing that number to a 2002 list of causes of death by rate chart, we can determine how worried we should be about terrorism in comparison to all the other things in the world trying to kill us, and decide whether we are getting our $2 Trillion Worth out of the Iraq war.

We can quickly see that we are 19 times more likely to die in an automobile accident than from terrorism, a figure that will surely go up as our roads crumble as our all our infrastructure money goes to the “War on Terror.” We are 263 times more likely to die of Cardiovascular disease, which, for the price of the Iraq War, we could buy a whole lot of research, education, and prevention.

Admittedly, I’m fudging things a bit by comparing 2001’s terrorism deaths to 2002’s causes of death, but there were zero deaths in America from terrorism from 2002 to 2007 (unless you count Americans in Iraq, another preventable tragedy), but my calculator keeps giving me an error when I divide by zero, so I’m biasing these numbers heavily towards terrorism’s favor as a cause of death, and it still looks miniscule.

Without that bias, 2,998 deaths spread over seven years would make us 11 times more likely to die of Hepatitis B, a threat that requires a well-funded CDC to protect us, and 131 times more likely to die in a car accident. Remember that when you see a new pot-hole or a delayed road project. We know that education, more than any other factor, extends life spans, too bad we can’t quantify the lives were loosing on that front.

This chart from Wired best illustrates the disproportionate nature of our fears, and it’s not just terrorism that we are disproportionately afraid of shark attacks, airplane crashes, and other unlikely causes top our lists also.

As for 3AM phone calls, we all know first hand what an experienced leader is capable of when informed of a national crisis:


Note: I am well aware of the “You don’t know how many terrorist acts have been prevented since 2001” argument. I don’t believe a Department of Homeland Security, looking to justify its funding, would keep a thwarted terrorist act a secret for a second.