Extra! Mainstream Media Downplays Hysteria!

I was happily shocked to see yesterday’s cover story in Parade Magazine, “What Are We Afraid Of?”


What surprised me was that a mainstream, read-by-millions, middle-of-the-road, USofA kinda magazine was talking Americans out of their panic room mentalities toward a crazy thesis: You’re pretty darn safe.

Well, the article didn’t say that exactly, but nowadays we worry more about highly unlikely things like ebola and terrorism than real dangers (like texting while driving and the flu). People who should know better, like Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey*, think we live in a dangerous time despite the fact that death by tuberculosis, murder, natural disaster, smoking, fire, war, polio–even heart disease and stroke–are becoming less and less likely.

The Parade article breaks down in simple ways how we evolved for threats on the East African savanna–dangers that don’t exist for us anymore–not for our current threats, most of which are self-made (like obesity, being inside moving automobiles, and suicide). But if we don’t use the rational part of our mind, fear can rule us, especially with a media environment that can report every bit of bad (though rare) news in gory detail.

So remember that flu, not ebola, might kill you. Gluten won’t cause you health problems (barring celiac disease), but make sure you get enough fiber. And for heaven’s (and my family’s) sake please get all your shots. No one gets autism from vaccines.

*”I can’t impress upon you [enough] that in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” from Cato Institute website


Traffic Deaths Will Plummet

As you know, I have a rosy–maybe rose colored–vision of the future. On the top of my “getting better” futuristic wish list is the self-driving car. It’s funny, but many people think that self-driving cars will make driving more, not less, dangerous. Why?

I love neuroscience, and finding, understanding (and, I hope) avoiding cognitive biases is a micro-hobby of mine. One of my “favorite” biases is the Illusion of Control. This is “the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events.” (Wikipedia) One of the most common examples of the illusion of control is the fact that so many people feel safer driving than flying. Driving feels safer because one has control. However, if you’re flying in a commercial jet and the ailerons fail (exTREMely unlikely), you have no control. Buckle up and assume the position. This powerlessness makes people feel less safe.

However, we should be grateful that we have no control. Safety procedures for commercial aircraft have been so routinized, regulated and automated that in some years no one dies in commercial aviation crashes in the US. In 2012, 34,080 died in auto accidents (Wikipedia) in America. In that same year, there were no commercial airline crashes that caused fatalities in the US. According to the New York Times, “the death risk for passengers in the United States has been one in 45 million flights.”

So why not do for automobiles what the airlines have done to their jets? As you have probably experienced in your (or someone else’s) car, new safety gadgets keep coming with each new model year. Contrast that with previous decades. As a child my mom plopped me in the front passenger seat, and when she would brake suddenly, Mom put out her arm so that I wouldn’t do a face plant on the dashboard. I guess she could’ve made me buckle my seatbelt, but hardly anyone did that in the 1970s. Nowadays there are many systems and alarms that are standard, such as the rear-facing camera to make backing up safer, sensors for blind spots, anti-lock brakes, etc., etc., etc.

But the real jump in safety will come when we take our hand off the wheel and feet off the pedals. Humans make consistent and persistent perception and judgment errors. On Rock Creek Parkway, a particularly dangerous road in Washington, DC, I have had two accidents at one merge and three at another. (This clearly reflects on my poor driving skills, but it also reflects on human driving skills, too.) All have been fender benders and no one was hurt, but a machine wouldn’t have made the mistakes I made once, let alone five times. In every one of those crashes, I saw the car in front of me accelerate, so I checked my blind spot to make sure I could go, I accelerated, but unbeknownst to me, the car in front of me has decided to stop. Bang! My fault.

A recent CNN article explores some of the coming safety innovations, including cars that “learn” and communicate, external air bags, laser headlights, and self-parking and self-driving cars.

And when this all comes to pass, my insurance rates will plummet like the fatality rates. (Hopefully before my next accident.)

Moneyball Crime Fightin’

Instinct. Guts. Street Smarts. Experience. These are qualities of a great cop, right? But does a belief in heroic crime fighting get in the way of fighting crime?

In an intriguing TED talk, Anne Milgram, former Attorney General of New Jersey, demonstrates how she used smart statistics to zero in on the real problem crimes and criminals in the Garden State.

Her methods produced remarkable results. Like so many people today who are successfully solving our most intractable challenges, she broke down the problem by asking essential questions and then followed the data to the real bad crimes. It didn’t surprise me that she found that too much time, focus, energy, manpower and money are being spent on low-level drug crimes, and not enough on gangs, violent crime, and crippling corruption.

People seem to dislike this statistical approach because it lacks the street smart gritty glamor of the gumshoe cop on the beat–think Hill Street Blues. But what we think is most important and what is most important are often different, even in the eyes of “experts.” Overconfidence Effect and Illusion of Control are cognitive biases that veteran detectives, successful stockbrokers, doctors–and experienced teachers like me–possess whether they (or we) admit it or not. These biases lead “experts” to believe that all they see is all there is (I paraphrase Daniel Kahneman) and think that their experience and wisdom are right. Big Data, especially now that we have the computing power to crunch it, can help us get a more realistic picture of the real problems of the world. But I hope we are as skeptical of Big Data as we are of experts. Big Data has blind spots, too.