Will You Die in a Terrorist Attack? I Know the Answer
We often hear that modern people suffer from information overload. In other words, we get bombarded with more information than we can process. To the contrary, I believe the situation is somewhat different: we live in a world where bad information -- misinformation -- drives out good. With all the supposed knowledge sources available, we should be the wisest people in the history of the human race, but we aren't.
When I lived in Carnegie, PA, I used to take the Port Authority Transit bus from Carnegie to the Shop and Save in Scott and then return. I'd often run into a woman, age 65-is, from Bridgeville. She was what I'd call a classic Democrat. She'd wait for the bus and spit out complaints about "that Bush." For her, the President's last name truly was a four-letter-word, and he was responsible for most of the ills that afflicted her and others.
She also had opinions about the weather, which has tended to be pretty bad in recent years. After Hurricane Ivan lasted just long enough to dump a foot of rain on Carnegie and other area towns, she said, "It's all those space ships and men landing on the moon!"
I said nothing, but she continued: "We never used to have this terrible weather, hurricanes and stuff, before they started putting people on the moon! It's that Bush! He can't do anything right!" I didn't have the heart to tell her that the U.S. hadn't been sending men to the moon for, well, decades.
When I read the various public opinion polls in the P-G and hear about them on CNN, I think of that woman. I wonder what percentage of the people surveyed share her attitudes. From the views expressed in the surveys, I think she may be what the public relations specialists call "an opinion leader."
I've heard that many people -- I'm talking tens of millions -- believe the moon landings themselves were staged. That is, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin didn't really burst through the surly bonds of earth and end up on the moon. Instead, it was all staged -- perhaps in Hollywood -- and we, the gullible public, were misled. Apparently, about one-in-five Americans -- 20% -- believe that's the case. I have a hunch that 20% is present in most of the surveys, on various subjects, that I read about.
During the 2004 election, the Gallup Poll came under a lot of criticism. It kept showing George Bush either leading or tied. Most people -- presumably including my fellow bus rider from Bridgeville -- believed that couldn't be the case, because well: "Bush!" So, they told Gallup to modify the way it did polls. The modified version showed Kerry doing a lot better.
Just before the election, Gallup announced (in the P-G and elsewhere) that George Bush was 4% ahead in Pennsylvania and 4% behind in Ohio. I suggested to David Shribman, editor of the P-G, that Gallup may have confused the two states. I predicted that Kerry would win Pennsylvania, which he did, and that Bush would win Ohio, which he did.
The other day I listened to John Stossel, an excellent reporter, who had a two-hour special on ABC's "Prime Time." He spent a great deal of time demonstrating a point made long ago by Mark Twain: that a lot of the things people KNOW are true . . . aren't.
He pointed out, for example, that one-third of the American people believe there's a high probability they or a member of their family will be killed or injured in a terrorist attack. In fact, however, if we add up all the significant terrorist attacks (Oklahoma City, 9/1, the anthrax mailings, and the Unabomber) since the Clinton era, the number of people killed by terrorists totals about 3200.
Frankly, we kill that many Americans every month in automobile accidents.
Your chance of slipping, falling, and dying in the shower is greater than your chance of being done in by terrorists. That's true also of your chance of being zapped by lightning -- or of expiring because of an allergic reaction to a bee sting.
The good news is that I can predict with a high degree of probability that you and your loved ones will NOT die in a terrorist attack. Lightning strikes are of course another story.
I'll have more to say this week about John Stossel's excellent program, a model for the kind of information -- the truthful, fact-based, sane variety -- we should be getting, but usually don't.
I don't much like public opinion surveys, one of the most popular subjects in the media. When someone surveys 900 or 1600 Americans, I'd like to know who they are. Specifically, when I hear what the American people think about "global warming" or "the war in Iraq," or the "chance of our dying in a terrorist attack," I'd like to be informed what the people polled actually KNOW about the subject.
I mean: if the people in the surveys are ignorant about the subjects they're evaluating, we should ignore them -- right? If it's a poll on whether America should support either the Shias or the Sunnis in Iraq, we probably should focus on the 2%-3% of the public (if that) who actually know the difference.
If most of the people are like my Bridgeville bus-rider -- and I fear that's the case -- it's okay with me if you keep your surveys to yourself. I bet 69.6% of the American people agree with me on that.