Monday, May 28, 2007




BRUCE SCHNEIER - The Virginia Tech massacre is precisely the sort of
event we humans tend to overreact to. Our brains aren't very good at
probability and risk analysis, especially when it comes to rare
occurrences. We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange and rare events,
and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. There's a lot of
research in the psychological community about how the brain responds to
risk but the gist is this: Our brains are much better at processing the
simple risks we've had to deal with throughout most of our species'
existence, and much poorer at evaluating the complex risks society
forces us face today.

We can see the effects of this all the time. We fear being murdered,
kidnapped, raped and assaulted by strangers, when it's far more likely
that the perpetrator of such offenses is a relative or a friend. We
worry about airplane crashes and rampaging shooters instead of
automobile crashes and domestic violence - - both far more common.

In the United States, dogs, snakes, bees and pigs each kill more people
per year than sharks. In fact, dogs kill more humans than any animal
except for other humans. Sharks are more dangerous than dogs, yes, but
we're far more likely to encounter dogs than sharks.

Our greatest recent overreaction to a rare event was our response to the
terrorist attacks of 9/11. I remember then - Attorney General John
Ashcroft giving a speech in Minnesota in 2003, and claiming that the
fact there were no new terrorist attacks since 9/11 was proof that his
policies were working. I thought: "There were no terrorist attacks in
the two years preceding 9/11, and you didn't have any policies. What
does that prove?"

What it proves is that terrorist attacks are very rare, and maybe our
reaction wasn't worth the enormous expense, loss of liberty, attacks on
our Constitution and damage to our credibility on the world stage.
Still, overreacting was the natural thing for us to do. . .

Consider the reaction to another event from last month: professional
baseball player Josh Hancock got drunk and died in a car crash. As a
result, several baseball teams are banning alcohol in their clubhouses
after games. Aside from this being a ridiculous reaction to an
incredibly rare event (2,430 baseball games per season, 35 people per
clubhouse, two clubhouses per game. And how often has this happened?),
it makes no sense as a solution. Hancock didn't get drunk in the
clubhouse; he got drunk at a bar. But Major League Baseball needs to be
seen as doing something, even if that something doesn't make sense - -
even if that something actually increases risk by forcing players to
drink at bars instead of at the clubhouse, where there's more control
over the practice.

I tell people that if it's in the news, don't worry about it. The very
definition of "news" is "something that hardly ever happens." It's when
something isn't in the news, when it's so common that it's no longer
news - - car crashes, domestic violence - - that you should start


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