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Bruce Schneier On Perceived and Real Risks 324

prostoalex writes "Encryption guru Bruce Schneier takes a look at perceived and actual risks with some insightful commentary on how warped the public perception of risks may be: '...we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn't. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.'"
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Bruce Schneier On Perceived and Real Risks

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  • If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.'"

    But I'm pretty sure if it happened on the same day and dropped both towers it'd be every bit as famous as the one we had.
    • Really? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 03, 2006 @09:40PM (#16711791)
      Without consulting google, on what date did the Indian ocean tsunami hit?
      • MOD PARENT UP (Score:3, Insightful)

        by brunes69 ( 86786 )
        The Tsunami led to way more deaths than the WTC attacks did. Yet it received far to little press and nowhere near enough aid.
      • by sporkme ( 983186 ) *
        If the Tsunami had been named 12/26 we would all remember the date.

        --Mr. Obvious
      • Without consulting google, on what date did the Indian ocean tsunami hit?

        Boxing Day, and now some American will ask when boxing day is I suppose.

        26th December
        • As an American, I'm offended you think I don't know about Boxing Day.

          It's the day you celebrate all the brave lads who died to keep China British.

    • by despisethesun ( 880261 ) on Friday November 03, 2006 @09:51PM (#16711871)
      Really? Without looking it up on the internet, tell me the exact day the Hindenberg crashed. Same with the Titanic. The Eschede train disaster. If 9/11 were caused by lightning it would certainly have been a memorable event and wound up on about a hundred Discovery Channel specials, but the exact date of it would likely have been forgotten, and there wouldn't be the huge politicisation of the event that there was. Nobody would be telling you to "remember 9/11". It would just be some crazy shit that happened, of interest mostly to airplane and disaster buffs and an excuse for people afraid of flying to stay on the ground.
      • by Breakfast Pants ( 323698 ) on Friday November 03, 2006 @11:50PM (#16712629) Journal
        I'm sure 5 years after the hindenberg crashed a hell of a lot of people could tell you when it happened.
      • People tend to remember momentous events that occur during their lifetime. It is often expressed "where were you when ________ (happened)" as opposed to "when". Some events that resonate in the United States with at least some people still living:

        Pearl Harbor was attacked
        Sputnik was announced
        President Kennedy was shot
        Astronauts landed on the moon
        Bobby Kennedy was shot
        Martin Luther King was shot
        President Reagan was shot
        Challenger blew up
        Operation Desert Storm started
        The Twin Towers were hit

        There are other
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 )
          You make an excellent point: we remember these events in relative, "lived-in" time, not in absolute historical time. Absolute historical time is very much a late development - the classical historians didn't really use it, and it isn't really "natural" or intuitive. When we recall, for example, when we lost our virginity, when a relative died, and so forth, we refer to our age before we refer to the year it occured; we locate it experientally proximate events (where we were living and working, for example.)
      • One thing about 9/11 is that it's got a very handy mnemonic- 911 (and for those who are not aware, that's the standard emergency services telephone number in the United States and possibly elsewhere).

        As for other fun attacks in US history... Remember the Maine!

    • But I'm pretty sure if it happened on the same day and dropped both towers it'd be every bit as famous as the one we had.

      Then tell me what was the date of the great san fransisco earth quake? do so without looking it up. It's only memorable because we have a huge species spanning problem with confirmation bias, distorted sense of risk, and we're in general gullable and stupid. Just see how a marketting partment made santa part of chirstmas and Diamonds part of engagements. The current American administratio
  • I've often wondered about the fact that the number of lives lost in the 9/11 attack are lost every year in to traffic "accidents" in the US. So where's the war on cars?

    • The war on cars is in the power cops have to give out tickets for reckless driving, parking and putting a buck fifty into a broken meter, and failing to use a turn signal in a turn-only lane. It's just like the war on terror - it makes old people feel safer, gives arbitrary power to the government, and most people are too stupid to realize it does nothing for them.
      • Speed limits make people safer. Arresting people who ignore that you have the right-of-way, and attempt to enter the same bit of roadway as you, makes you safer. Not signaling turns in turn-only lanes? Well, oncoming traffic can't tell how your lanes are set up.
        • by dwandy ( 907337 )
          Speed limits make people safer.
          Got anything to back that up? It seems to me there are place on this planet that have higher (and no) speed limits that don't have increased accident rates... I fail to see a causal relationship between minimizing maximum velocity and minimizing accident rates. I do believe, however, that there is a causal relationship between better driving training and lower accident rates.
          • Got anything to back that up?

            Well, there's this; http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/NCSA/RNot e s/2005/809890.pdf [dot.gov] (PDF Warning)

            There's a bit of debate about this going on at the moment over here in Aus, since the NT is looking at imposing upper speed limits for the first time ever. http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2006/s1780096.h tm [abc.net.au]

          • It's not so much about accident frequency, I believe, as about the seriousness of injury. As I recall, a collision between a car and a pedestrian is twice as likely to cause a fatality at 35mph than 30mph. If the speed limit is 30mph and you are going 5mph over then you are twice as likely to kill someone than someone obeying the speed limit, assuming all other factors are constant.
          • by dindi ( 78034 )
            Hahaha. yep i agree, I moved to Costa Rica from Hungary (chaos to chaos) and had to complete a driving test (for my bike) her, and now I understand why I see that an accident every single day on a 15km road to my job .....

            I had weeks of training, and medical, mechanical, highway, city and parking exams .... here: follow me, do the cones, do the exam ....

            OMG :) people learn to drive in their parents' car with no extra pedals. In eureope the instructors have to have 3 pedals and you have to have certain ho
        • The GP poster is correct; your examples (mostly *) are all actual incidents of a public safety issue; the GP's examples are all examples of enforcement of a rule already enforced by the situation:

          - reckless driving: thought crime, ticket them only if they have an accident

          - putting $1.50 in a broken meter: thought crime, ticket them only if they exceed the amount of time $1.50 would have bought them

          - failing to signal in a turn-only lane: thought crime, ticket them only if the *don't* turn

          * speeding is relat
          • and why Interstate highways have different rules than state highways (hint: the state is not permitted to regulate what constitutes a safe speed on a federal roadway).

            Are you sure about this? I just want to make sure I have my facts straight. I thought the feds gave up control of Interstate highway speed limits back in the 90's. If not, how is it that Montana is allowed a mostly unlimited daytime limit, while Wyoming's is set to 75, and most of Utah is 65? I thought the difference between state and Inters
    • I've often wondered about the fact that the number of lives lost in the 9/11 attack are lost every year in to traffic "accidents" in the US. So where's the war on cars?

      Traffic deaths do not take out 2,000 people in a single incident.

      Traffic deaths do not massively damage infrastructure or erase 50,000 high-paying jobs in a single incident. Traffic deaths do not kill a significant fraction of a city's first responders.

      New Orleans may never fully recover from Katrina. There are damn few world cities as ri

    • So where's the war on cars?

      I take it you've never driven in Boston during rush hour? :-)

  • It might also be worth mentioning that in an average hour, 6304 people die [census.gov]. That's more than twice the number of people who died in the September 11th attacks (2973). I'm not saying those attacks weren't a big deal, but maybe we are overestimating their effect a bit?
    • ... a war on hours
    • Those 6000 deaths are more or less randomly distributed across 50 states and among a population of 300 million. What you do not see so often is 6000 deaths in a single incident.

      • by he-sk ( 103163 )
        and events were 200000 people die within a couple of hours are even rarer (tsunamie 12/26/2004). i venture that more than 6000 people die worldwide each hour and that 6000 people dead related to a specific incidant are not that rare overall history.
    • by Bobzibub ( 20561 )
      warning: With this careless talk you are undermining the very basis of modern western governments.
      Once, to undermine government legitimacy one would mock democracy or the methodology used. No longer. You are a threat and you must be stopped!!

  • Wouldn't have remembered what happened? Heck yes we would have. At least new yorkers anyway. I want to know what the heck you do for a living that two planes crashing and leveling buildings in major cities due to lightning hits is considered mundane and unremarkable.
    • by 0racle ( 667029 )
      The only reason you remember it is because someone had the gall to do it to Americans. Terrorism happened all over the world before then but no one ever cared.
      • The only reason you remember it is because someone had the gall to do it to Americans. Terrorism happened all over the world before then but no one ever cared.


        Americans actively supported the terrorism in Northern Ireland, of course that sort of terror was fine.
    • Just as bad as people's ability to rate risk badly is our ability to read what we WANT to read, instead of what's written. The question wasn't to do with remembering what happened, rather when.

      If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened

      The date is the important part. Who remembers the date flight 800 came down, the date the iraq war started, the date of the loma prieta quake, the date Katrina hit NOL, the da
  • !918 Flu Epidemic (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Mercedes308 ( 832423 )
    Plus it's amazing how many people have no idea about the 1918 Flu epidemic that killed between 50 - 100 million yet the only significant event that caused a heavy death toll that we often remember of the period was the Great War.
  • "You can't make this stuff up:

    A retired veteran and candidate for Oklahoma State School Superintendent says he wants to make schools safer by creating bulletproof textbooks.

    Bill Crozier says the books could give students and teachers a fighting chance if there's a shooting at their school."

    why wasn't -that- slashdotted??
    • Ignoring the sheer idiocy of that statement... I bet most students would remove any bulletproof cover or lining. I know MY books are heavy enough as they are already!
    • would lead to the inner city schools actually having up to date books (or books at all).
    • He's still better than his opponent who opposes protecting our children from gunfire.

      Apropos, that Democrat has not said he is against pornography featuring deviant child rape by the terrorists burning the gay marriage flag that will cut and run the mushroom clound by raising your taxes while calling our troops DUMB. Nancy Pelosi as a speaker, ooooooooooooo!
  • You're more likely to be killed by a car accident than terrorism. You can take steps to reduce the odds, but they will always be there. With few exceptions though, the other drivers are not trying to kill you. Your car, the weather, or whatever it is causes the accident is not an intelligent being that "has it in for you".

    So. Are people irrational or not? Maybe not. Terrorists, if successful, can destabilize the whole society. It hasn't happened yet, but in theory, left unchecked, it could. OTOH,

    • by rewt66 ( 738525 ) on Friday November 03, 2006 @10:02PM (#16711935)
      Looking at what Schneier is saying, what humans are really doing is paying less attention to non-intelligent threats, even though they are more deadly. That does not sound like a successful survival strategy to me.
      • what humans are really doing is paying less attention to non-intelligent threats, even though they are more deadly. That does not sound like a successful survival strategy to me

        are the non-intelligent threats really less deadly or simply more open to analysis and prediction?

        the eight million victims of the Holocaust might have the right to ask that question. perhaps also the 3000 who died at the WTC.

      • Are people really paying less ATTENTION to threats, or in fact are they simply WORRYING less about non-intelligent threats?

        There is a huge difference. I would say WORRYING (and thus planning for the prevention of) intelligent threats is far smarter, as they are a longer term threat that much be planned for as opposed to truly random threats which must be dealt with as they arrive.

        I pay plenty of attention on the road, but am more concerned longer term as a citizen with terrorist action than with the more l
    • It's folly to deny that we're just out of the age of tribal culture, and many of us are still there. Stir in fear, my-god-is-better-than-yours,-heathen, make some insulting commentary, and it's a recipe for explosiveness.

      Add in greed, as in oil greed and thirst (it used to be water and arable land) and you get Iraq, as no proof has been forthcoming of any of the reasons we went to war there. Instead, we shot about $3trillion getting revenge for about 3K deaths.... this after we went to war for Kuwait and ru
    • You're more likely to be killed by a car accident than terrorism. You can take steps to reduce the odds, but they will always be there. With few exceptions though, the other drivers are not trying to kill you. Your car, the weather, or whatever it is causes the accident is not an intelligent being that "has it in for you".

      So. Are people irrational or not? Maybe not. Terrorists, if successful, can destabilize the whole society. It hasn't happened yet, but in theory, left unchecked, it could. OTOH, lightning
      • Contaminate some chip fabs?

        You could do that by getting a number of people employed at various fabs in an entry level position, and have them dump a bunch of powder with a moderate sublimation point in critical areas, and they could keep doing it until they started an investigation as to why chip yields had dropped to 1% of what they used to be.

        Don't worry, I initially had the same question on 9/11, mainly "how could they be so stupidly ineffective in their choice of economic targets?".

        But then I realized t
    • by gutnor ( 872759 )
      "Terrorists, if successful, can destabilize the whole society."

      The point of the article really ...

      If our fears were in relation to the actual risk we face ( eg: take your car, or take a plane ), Terrorist would never be able to succeed.

      Terrorist try to scare the shit of the people with a very local action and a very limited number of death. In the big scheme of things, the annual death caused by terrorism worldwide is much lower than the number of people murdered in 1 US city. If Terrorist were to succeed i
    • You're more likely to be killed by a car accident than terrorism. You can take steps to reduce the odds, but they will always be there.

      This is a comparitive statistic that people love to bandy about, but it's really a poor comparison.

      You have loads of control over the likleyhood of being hurt or even killed in a car "accident". If you are an aware driver, you can prevent almost any accident or control the degree of damage done to you and others... for instance if I am braking I am always looking in the rea
  • Without going to look it up, see if you can recall the date of the Indian Ocean tsunami in less than 3 seconds.
  • by Infonaut ( 96956 ) <infonaut@gmail.com> on Friday November 03, 2006 @10:05PM (#16711939) Homepage Journal

    When people fly two planes into the WTC, and their fellow travellers express the intent to conduct further attacks, the human intention behind it is pretty clear. Accidents happen, of course, but generally people aren't *trying* to get into car accidents. The idea that people are out there dreaming up further schemes involving mass destruction is what freaks people out. Sure, the odds are still absurdly low that you or I are going to get whacked by terrorists, but human beings are deliberately trying to create the destruction. I think it feels much more personal when you realize that human beings are behind these events, rather than random chance or nature.

    • Natural disasters evoke stoicism, or might make us mad at God. Depraved actions of another human being are fascinating because we are constantly struggling with our own desires to do what we know is wrong. "Would I do any better in the other guys shoes," we wonder. The more frenetic my denouciation of the evil terrorists, the more likely my own struggle against evil is on the brink of failure. Those who have hard won victories against the evil within know better - "there but for the grace of God go I".
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by SQL Error ( 16383 )
      This is exactly right.

      Humans naturally and correctly respond more strongly to intentional attacks than to accidents.

      Accidents will happen, and at any given point they may be more statistically threatening than whatever deliberate attacks may be going on. But accidents are relatively constant, and societies work to minimise them. Intentional attacks, on the other hand, tend to have people working to maximise the effects.

      There are people right now who would bomb every airplane in the world if they had the a
      • The thing is, the terrorists don't have those capabilities.

        What the terrorists are trying to do is cause maximal effect, with their extremely limited resources.

        They cannot bomb every plane in the world, no matter how much they strive.

        What can they do?.. ...well, you can scare people, and provoke massive reaction from the Government.

        The US response that it is playing through, right now, is exactly the response that the terrorists requested.

        Let me repeat: Your president is doing exactly what the terrorists pl
      • There are people right now who would bomb every airplane in the world if they had the ability to do so. There is no possibility of an accident happening on any similar scale.

        I disagree with your second sentence: cf. the Indian Ocean Tsunami, with total casualties and economic damage both exceeding that of, say, every airplane in the sky at a given moment suddenly exploding.

        But leaving that aside: a similar statement could be made in response to your first sentence, that is, that there is no possibility

    • An example we can all relate to is the business worried about "hackers" which doesn't have offsite backups. Employee error, hardware failure, and assorted disasters destroy more data than malicious attacks do (and in fact malicious attacks these days usually don't try to destroy data). So do businesses spend money on DLT drives, Iron Mountain, and fault-tolerant storage? Or do they spend it on fingerprint readers, NAC, and nannyware?
    • Exactly; if I knew someone who was murdered and I knew someone who slipped on a banana peel and succame to their demise, the murder would affect me the most.
      • What if the first person was murdered by a rabid chimpanzee that upon fleeing the scene, discarded said banana peel?
    • I agree with you and I think the article misses the mark in this regard. Sure anthrax has killed zero people this year, but that doesn't mean that we should logically conclude that it is a lower threat to us then flu, since people are not using past historical data to make their assesment, but rather possible future events. If the possibility of an anthrax attack in future is deemed high, then the possibility of dying from anthrax poisioning could conceivably be higher than flu. Whether the possibility of s
  • As a member of the SCA who participates in Heavy List Fighting. From time to time I end up talking to non members often parents and there children. All to often I get the question, "isn't this dangerus?" I all to often reply "not as dangerus as driving here."

    People will jump in a car and drive to the store. Then till you how dangerus it is to do X or Y.

    What I would love to see would be an analysys of the number of highway deaths that accured becase more people drove and are driving futher and more often sin
    • The obvious point I'd like to make is clearly this Heavy List Fighting causes some kind of brain injury that turns your spelling to shit.
  • would have to think about the header of this article. Wouldn't that be nice, don't you think?
  • In these things, the profit motive, direct or indirect, cannot be ignored. If a plane hits a building, by accident or through airline fault, no one is going to want to talk about, as it will cost the airline bunches, and talk will just make the eventual settlement higher. We all want to believe we live in a safe place, are in control of our lives, and our country is powerful enough to protect those of us who are worthy of protection. That is why after 9/11 so many people wanted to believe it was a govern
  • On 9/11/2001 something just short of 5k people died at the hands of terrorists, while around 25k died of starvation, and 32k died in auto accidents. Of course the second two happend again on 9/12, and 9/13, and 9/14 ...
  • Risks are hard to quantify, which makes comparing them difficult. There's an index of risk factors which tries to estimate the probable loss of life expectancy (LLE) [utexas.edu] by counting how many days of life will be lost because of an activity or condition.

    It makes interesting reading, particularly when you compare it to our perceived risks.

  • I applaud Mr. Schneier for bringing to light the availability heuristic [wikipedia.org].

    Essentially, that sums TFA up in two words. When something's drummed into your brain on a regular basis, your brain begins to classify it as being real or genuine; it's a more "available" scenario or assertion to you. While in this particular case it proves cause for a lot of fallacies about terrorism, and the media/politicians take advantage of it regularly, it's actually something you do as a way of survival (think Darwin); it allow
  • If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

    If that skyscraper then collapsed, killing 3000 people, I'm thinking we'd remember it. If not the exact date, at least the fact that it happened. Witness Katrina- an accident in which far fewer people died than on 9/11. Do I remember the exact date Katrina hit? Nope. But I do remember it happened.

    Is it really so mystical that people would react more strongly

    • Well, actually the Katrina death toll isn't as far off 9/11 as you might think. Katrina is blamed for about 1900 deaths, while the 9/11 attack is blamed for 2700 or so.

      And as for natural causes, you had better believe that you can do something about most of them. The single greatest advance towards increasing life expectancy is chlorinated drinking water.

      While meteors are too rare to worry about on an individual basis, there are programs to look out for large asteroids. Also
      people certainly do worry and do
    • by Pinback ( 80041 )
      How often do storms need to hit various parts of the country before people stop moving back and rebuilding?
    • If that skyscraper then collapsed, killing 3000 people, I'm thinking we'd remember it. If not the exact date, at least the fact that it happened.

      FTFSummary:

      "...few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened."

      Of course you'd remember that it happened, no one is arguing that we forget the events completely. But even when they have much higher death tolls, we don't remember them as specifically, and they fade much more quickly. To the degree that our priorities in avoiding such disasters

  • As human beings, we seem to have an inborn fear of homicide, whether it's from a stranger breaking into your house, or a group of 'those guys over there' coming over and killing us en masse in an act of war. I think recent human history was incredibly violent, with cycles of revenge killings, and this had seletcive pressure on the human psyche.
  • "Shit Happens" - Forrest Gump :-)*

    "Don't Worry, Be Happy" - Bobby McFerrin

    * 2nd ref: footnotes [wikipedia.org]

  • he smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn't.

    You mean like the Hindenburg, the Titanic, the Andrea Doria, and Swissair flight 111?

    Here's a date for you: Dec 26, 2005.

    How about Friday the 13th? That's a date that everyone remembers, and they don't even remember why.

    Or the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918?

    Be careful when you say "the largest accident."

    I suspect that we wouldn't really remember the exact date September 11th if the Government and press didn't keep jamming it
    • by babyrat ( 314371 )
      More people have died in the 20th century from car accidents than have died from both murders and war combined. It is the single most common way to die accidentally, outranking the next reason by four to one, yet noone does anything about that.

      So all the additional safety feature of modern cars are nothing?

      Airbags, traction control, abs, crumple zones - well I could go on...but this sounds like a heck of a lot more than nothing already.
  • We over-react to intentional actions, and under-react to accidents
    I disagree. When we react strongly to intentional actions it has a strong effect on those who are doing the intending. Just showing outrage can be enough to scare people into backing down. But natural disasters don't care how much outrage you show. So I wouldn't call it over-reacting. I'd call it rational reaction.
  • I think what the blogger and the author intend to say is that peoples fears tend to be irrational.

    Risk analysis is rational, and is different from the examples he gives.

    Back to irrational fears. A great book on this topic is "meaning of anxiety" (r. may, c. 1977). He discussed why fears are irrational, especially in children. We project irrational fears, because they really don't happen to us, so we worry for a while, then stop and get on with life. To express real fear on what is likely to happen to us wou
  • Duh! It looks like an emergency number!

    That is why we remember the date. That and the fact that we refer to it as 9/11, whereas we refer to other incidents by names such as "Pearl Harbor".

    It is also a big event because it's new. We already know tons of people die in car accidents, so we're cynical and jaded to that -- but 9/11 is a change, so we notice it, and thousands of people died, so it shocks us.

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