Statistical Obtundity: How Sharp People Reach Dull Conclusions

I heard a certain amiable media commentator make a point a couple of weeks ago that he has often made before (and which, frankly, is becoming a little tiresome and cliché in him and in others). He remarked that people entertain an irrational fear of new technologies, especially those in transportation. Statistically, you’re much more likely to die while traveling from Dallas to Atlanta in a car than on a plane. Furthermore, now that self-driving cars are looming (which was the specific topic under discussion), people are shrinking back in fear and again failing to register that they’re much more likely to die when others like themselves are behind every wheel at rush hour.

I call this phenomenon “statistical obtundity”: i.e., the tendency of bright people to convince themselves that they’re even brighter than they are by juggling undigested stats. Raw numbers can make us obtuse if we’re not careful. The chances seem to rest almost at statistical certainty that a burst of solar flares will not take out our power grid today, or tomorrow… yet the chances are 100% that such a burst will one day occur, and that we’ll lose all electrical power if we don’t secure it in ways so far ignored by policy-makers. The chances are 100% that a super-volcano will one day erupt in Yellowstone Park (which sits atop the caldera of one)… but today is a great day to go see Old Faithful!

Likewise, if a terrorist’s bomb or surface-to-air missile explodes your plane in mid-flight, the chances are pretty much 100% that you’ll die. There is no equivalent situation that arises in driving a car. Because the vehicles are widely spread out and no more than one or two people, usually, sit within each one, no “target” is presented. If a high, long bridge or an undersea tunnel were to be taken out as peak traffic filled it, the situation would become comparable to the exploded aircraft’s—but such precarious choke-points can either be avoided are negotiated at a less popular time by the “paranoid” driver.

You see, the correct comparison is not between airplanes and automobiles: it’s between Heathrow Airport and the Channel Tunnel, or perhaps between a passenger jetliner and a Japanese bullet-train. To put it another way, the plane and the car pose a contrast. One is a sure-fire death-trap IF certain defenses can be penetrated by evil agencies: as a passenger, you’re powerless to control your fate once security has been breached. The other option is perfectly insulated from the machinations of wicked schemers. Even if a tractor-trailer jackknives in front of you or a drunk driver strays toward you across the median, you still have the wheel in your hands and may come out in one piece with quick, cool reactions.

Now that the self-driving car looms in our future as something like a lead-pipe cinch (whatever that means—lead pipes are pretty deadly, too, you know), all bets are off for the car. It will become like the jetliner. A hacker who gains access to whatever GPS is controlling your vehicle’s navigation can sweep everyone into the sea at rush hour. You’ll just be along for the ride and won’t be able to do a thing about it. Apparently, we haven’t yet learned the lesson that trending new technology all appears to be dangerously centripetal: it’s carrying us toward greater centralization—in the name of “efficiency”—where one miscue, glitch, or brilliant feat of sabotage may kill thousands. A flu vaccine is advertised by Big Brother as the means to save dozens or hundreds of lives annually… and only one or two here and there will die because of a peculiar reaction to it. Simply choosing a lifestyle where one’s exposure to masses of people is limited doesn’t win consideration as a serious alternative. Yet there’s always the chance that, by fair means or foul, some toxin will find its way into the vaccine…

I like keeping as much control over my life as I can get. I leave the self-satisfied techno-geeks and faux conservatives to curl up in their blanket of warming stats.