One day I was having a discussion with an intelligent and educated individual on the subject of environmental regulations. Noting a particularly egregious stupidity in a regulation, this man said to me, “I sometimes feel as though I live on the planet of the apes”. We both immediately recognized the elitism inherent in the comment and spent some time discussing why it was inappropriate to think that way. To this day, however, I still sometimes feel like Chartlton Heston in a loin cloth when I see something particularly stupid. I have been feeling that way a lot recently. Let us consider a particularly egregious recent example.
- X number of people die in bicycle accidents in Toronto.
- Y number of people die from Cobra bites in Toronto.
- X is greater than y.
- Bicycles are more dangerous than cobras.
“I don’t believe it”, you are saying to yourself, “nobody could be that stupid”. While it is true that nobody is arguing that cobras are more dangerous than bicycles, there is a government study that has been released recently and is being used by major politicians to justify policy which suffers from the same basic flaw as the argument above. Before we discuss that study and the policies, let us consider the reason that the conclusion above is flawed.
Now obviously, unless you have an inordinate fondness for bananas, the reason that cobras kill fewer people in Toronto than bicycles is because there aren’t very many cobras in Toronto and there are many bicycles. Though the bicycle is less inherently dangerous than the cobra, even a low level of mortality in using a bicycle will yield significantly higher deaths than the number of deaths due to cobra bites. (Which I assume is near zero without direct evidence.)
“But”, some liberals will say, “even in India which has a significantly larger number of cobras, bicycle accidents still kill more people than cobras do.” This is because people in India are not stupid. They know how deadly cobras can be and they actively avoid them. They hire people to remove them from areas frequented by people and they take other precautions. Not only that, but there are also a much larger number of bicycles in India.
The simple fact is that the raw number of deaths caused by a thing is not a good measure of the danger associated with that thing. If you want to convince yourself that cobras are more dangerous than bicycles, then consider a thought experiment. Let us use 200 cubes 10 feet in dimension. In 100 cubes place a molting cobra and three days worth of food and water. In another 100 cubes place a bicycle and three days worth of food and water. Keep a person in each cube for three days. Which cubes will have a higher mortality rate? The simple fact is that bicycles are not dangerous at all in the same way that cobras are and would likely have a near zero mortality rate in a society without automobiles. A person on a bicycle may be a danger to himself or he may injure others, but a bicycle sitting in the corner poses no threat to anybody.
Believe it or not, I have seen articles in the media that argue that because X causes less deaths than Y, X is less dangerous than Y and we have an irrational fear of X. As we have demonstrated by looking at cobras and bicycles, such an analysis is entirely too simplistic. X may cause fewer deaths than Y because it is less dangerous, but there are likely to be many other factors involved. Such simplistic analyses are likely one reason for the popular saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
Recently the Obama administration released a report saying that right wing extremism is more dangerous than radical Islam. The fact that Muslims make up a tiny fraction of the American population and yet still kill almost as many people as “right wing extremists” is not considered. The fact that 9/11 is ignored is not considered. The fact that various law enforcement agencies have targeted the most dangerous Islamic groups and prevented many attacks is not mentioned. All we hear is that the “right wing” is more dangerous than Islam and that we should have no worries about Syrian refugees entering the country. Using such arguments trivializes and oversimplifies complex issues, however, and this is a favourite tactic of those who cannot defend their position rationally.
A better and more concise examination of this issue is found here.