Shortly after I moved out at 18 years old, I signed up for one of those old-fashioned book clubs which shipped you out a book a month unless you told them not to. (I had overestimated the likelihood that I would send in the little postcard halting delivery and billing). It was a mistake that saddled me with many books I never read. But all the mistakes were worth it, because among the cookbooks and dry military histories came one little gem: a book called Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. The slim volume changed my life.
The premise behind Innumeracy, a celebrated best seller when it first came out in 1988, is that most people, even smart and well-educated ones, don’t learn enough about numbers. We spend a lot of our schooling asking, “How will this ever help me in real life?” to teachers who don’t know how to explain it to us. The result is that we lack basic number common sense, causing us to make terrible decisions when probability is on the line.
I am sitting here watching Republican debate number 347. The theme of the debate is “terrorism and national security.” Because “people are scared.” Because “America is on edge.” And “rightfully so,” pant the giddy announcers, looking grave. “America is under attack.” “We are at war.”
I in no way mean to minimize what happened in San Bernardino. Every one of those precious people should be spending the end of this year with their families right now. And I certainly don’t wish to downplay the Paris attacks, a horror too awful to contemplate. Murder is repugnant to me. I have never been able to fully wrap my mind around what it is that causes one human to do violence to another that way. Everything in me screams out against it. I absolutely hate it.
But I don’t live in fear of it. Why? Because in 2013, 19 Americans were the victims of terrorism. That’s worldwide, not just here at home. And that number has stayed incredibly low since September 11th, 2001. In contrast, heart disease killed 611,105. For something less prevalent, consider that influenza killed 56,979. Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis (I’m not even exactly sure what those are): 47,112. Heck, about 400 people die every year from electrocution, but no one is calling for a war on electricity.
Some might argue that one life lost is too many. I’d agree there. Some might further say that it does no harm to thoroughly prepare for all potential threats. And that’s where we differ. When you stoke fear and paranoia and exaggerate a threat, you cause people to clamor for irrational and disproportionate reactions. You get the grotesque rise of demagogues that play on overblown fears. You get mosque bombings and proposals to exclude people from entering the country based on their religion. You get calls for even more nearsighted and unnecessary military spending. You get people laughing about climate change as a threat, when we’ve got “real problems.” In short, you get the 2016 Republican primary.
You are not going to die in a terrorist attack, no more than you’re going to die squashed by a falling piano (like the 30 to 50 people a year who die from being struck by items that fell or were thrown at them). We are a nation of 318 million. That’s 318,000,000. Put 14 up against that, and try for a moment fully wrap your head around how highly unlikely it is to be one of the tragic, but highly unusual (and unlucky) fourteen.
Incidentally, gun deaths in 2013? 33,636. But you certainly won’t hear that from anyone on the debate stage tonight. A post for another day.
What we need is not a debate about terrorism. It’s a math quiz. And a copy of Innumeracy on every school desk.