Adam Elkus
Nov 25, 2015 · 7 min read

Meet Joe. Joe is afraid that terrorists are going to murder him. He watches TV and sees an enormous amount of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) shamelessly communicated by people that ought to know better. He sees politicians telling him that Syrian refugees are going to murder him in his bed. Joe sees dead bodies in Paris and other places and grows more afraid.

Enter Bob. Bob is a public policy analyst that is unhappy about American security policy. Bob thinks (obviously with some justification) that America has massively overreacted to terrorism. However, for Bob to achieve his instrumental policy aims, he must somehow communicate this to Joe, who is currently ready to put the Constitution into a shredder so that he can feel safe.

Bob: “Hey Joe, I saw that you’re afraid of terrorists! You’re such an irrational, mathematically illiterate chump. Don’t you know that you have a greater chance of your cat killing you so it can sit on your warm computer forever than ISIS killing you in a terrorist attack?”

Bob, understandably, is not going to get much success out of this. For one, Joe has never made decisions based on probability. Joe has gotten through his life just fine despite his heuristics and biases. For what it is worth, if Joe’s survival depended on his ability to calculate probabilities and update them according to the principles of Kolmogorov’s axioms and/or frequentist and Bayesian ideas of probability, evolution would have somehow evolved his mind to be able to do so. But Joe, limited and imperfectly rational as he is, is still from some point of view rational in regards to his environment and the cognitive and non-cognitive tasks that he must perform. So Bob’s pleas for Joe to think about the world like a statistician aren’t going to work.

Additionally, truth be told, Bob can’t really justify the rationality of his own beliefs completely either. First, the arbitrary thing that Bob has likely selected as his “you are more likely to die from ___” example is probably not as probable a cause of death as one of the Center for Disease Control’s leading causes of death. And Bob has completely ignored the ways in which people have subjective preferences about the way they will die, even if everyone will inevitably die due to the basic facts of biology. That is why Bob’s argument suffers not just from presentation issues, it also has some enormous conceptual limitations.

There are a lot of relatively low-probability things that have disparately catastrophic impact; and more importantly things that people have traditionally feared. The probability of a nuclear bomb exploding is low, but it is also nonzero. The probability of major war between the US and another great power is low, but it is also nonzero. No one would argue that policymakers should somehow abstain from thinking about nuclear compellence, deterrence, and other related security topics because the probability is low. Certainly no one in their right mind would argue that policymakers shouldn’t be concerned about great power war because the probability is low. War as a whole is also not exactly an regular or common event either, even if its frequency has waxed and waned. Yet all of these matters are things that people should be concerned with.

Terrorism, like many of these examples, fits the bill. Even in environments where terrorism is endemic, it still is not as common a cause of death as other things such as mundane war violence, crime, other forms of violence against civilians, and the effects of war such as starvation and deprivation. Yet nonetheless terrorism has the capacity for both potentially disproportionate quantitative impact (a few men can kill about 120 Parisians or 3,000 Americans) and qualitative impact (infliction of fear, suffering, and hopelessness). Hence the public has demanded that politicians do something to protect them from terrorism. And they have ignored Realists and other critics of US foreign policy that use their own fear-mongering to try to get the public to fear the unintended consequences of offensive US action to stop terrorism more than they fear terrorism. They have also ignored, in general, people that make vague promises of being able to contain terrorism or suggest that the American public should simply just soak up incidents of terrorist violence.

Bob’s intentions are good. He would like to see a measured reaction to terrorism, and he would like to undercut people that spread FUD about terrorism. But Bob’s intentions do not justify the tremendously inept and counterproductive way he is trying to achieve his goals. First, he is telling Joe that his fears are a figment of his overactive imagination, denying any kind of legitimacy that Joe might have to feel this way. This is dubbed “gaslighting” in other contexts. Second, Bob is speaking to Joe in a language that Joe neither understands or cares about — the language of statistics and formal probability. It would be, for sure, one thing if Bob had an ironclad justification for his arguments. Perhaps there might be some burden on Joe to have to learn to accept this unfamiliar language and challenge his own beliefs about terrorism.

But Bob’s argument is, as I have noted before, problematic. The logical conclusion of Bob’s arguments are that the only things worth worrying about are the things that are most probable. In this case, what reason does anyone have to care about something that is not on the CDC’s leading causes of death list? If that is the wager we must make, we must all somehow busy ourselves worrying about things like heart disease and cancer. No need for police, the military, or spies, then. Redirect all of the money to fighting cancer! Obviously we have valid reasons for carrying about other things, else we would only use public policy designed to prevent death to mitigate heart disease and cancer. And once we acknowledge that it is worth caring about other things even if they are not the leading causes of death, we move into the realization that people can and will have preferences about how they die. Those preferences are not above criticism. If I want to spend everyone else’s money ensuring that there is no way that I can be horrifically murdered by a kangaroo, I would have a hard time justifying this. However, popular preferences concerning not wanting to suffer property loss, injury, and death from crime has systematically shaped the last few decades of American political, economic, social, and cultural life.

What Bob should be doing is arguing some variant of the following sequence:

  1. It is legitimate for Joe to be afraid of terrorism. However, people that Joe has been watching on TV have not been telling Joe the truth about how terrorism works. They have lied to Joe, exaggerated to Joe, and wasted Joe’s resources.
  2. Accepting Joe’s fears of terrorism as legitimate, the question is whether the benefits gained by fighting terrorism outweigh both their material and opportunity costs. There are limits on how safe Joe can be and there are questions of how much trying to be safe will hurt other things that Joe cares about.
  3. Bob wants to help Joe find a realistic way to be able to feel safe that fits with Joe’s larger priorities.

Certainly, doing this alone may not get through to Joe. The manner in which it is communicated to Joe, the strategy of the overall communication effort, and other factors are relevant. And even then, Bob still might not be able to get through to Joe due to larger factors that Bob cannot alter or manipulate such as Joe’s biases or the way in which Bob struggles to compete with the FUD-vendors. There is, to be concise, no guarantee that anything that Bob says to Joe will make a difference in terms of modifying Joe’s beliefs and behaviors. That isn’t really, though, a reason to avoid thinking about how certain ways of modifying Joe’s beliefs and behaviors may be better than others.

At present Bob is not really competing at all. All Bob is doing is using a strategy that will never get through to Joe, and then wondering why Joe isn’t paying attention to him. Bob’s intentions are good, but the identification of a problem to be solved (terrorism fear mongering) and Bob’s good intentions themselves (stopping fear mongering) are not enough. And, in being an ineffective advocate for his own cause, Bob is helping the FUD-vendors that he is trying to fight. Bob will go home complaining about Joe’s irrationality and lack of capacity for reason, but is it really completely Joe’s fault? Joe is not an expert on security and public policy. Joe is just an ordinary Joe. What appear to be many gradations of nuance for Bob are bright and fuzzy colors in Joe’s view. Joe may be an expert on something (his job, football, his family, Star Trek, etc) but on everything else Joe simply has a vague and qualitative idea of how things work. There is also another asymmetry.

Joe does not need Bob. To Joe, Bob is a “Washington elite,” a resident of a city that he views in terms that are roughly similar to how Buffy the Vampire Slayer sees the Hellmouth. Joe does not need Bob; in fact he likely sees Bob as a member of a broader political class that burdens Joe in various ways — real or perceived. And Joe might not even be aware that Bob exists, period, until he sees Bob in his newspaper or TV screen. Yet, in order for Bob to realize his policy aims, Bob needs Joe. Yes, DC decisions are generally the product of insiders and elites. But those insiders and elites are at least partly successful because of their ability to rile up people like Joe and funnel their support. Or at the very minimum, ensure that people like Joe do not do anything to oppose them. It’s not Joe’s job, really, to do anything more than express his opinion about policy. However, it is Bob’s job to make, justify, and implement policy. So really the fault rests with Bob, who is unwilling to think pragmatically about how to attain Joe’s cooperation or at least ensure Joe’s indifference to the stratagems of the FUD-vendors.

Hopefully one day Bob will realize that he could do a better job of achieving his own policy aimsl. In the meantime, Bob will tell Joe that he has a greater chance of doing from [some arbitrary thing] than terrorism, and Joe will ignore him.

Rethinking Security

Rethinking Security is a blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus. Older content can be found at rethinkingsecurity.tumblr.com, this blog’s last incarnation. Header image is trademark of Introversion/Ambrosia software (DEFCON game).

Adam Elkus

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PhD student in Computational Social Science. Fellow at New America Foundation (all content my own). Strategy, simulation, agents. Aspiring cyborg scientist.

Rethinking Security

Rethinking Security is a blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus. Older content can be found at rethinkingsecurity.tumblr.com, this blog’s last incarnation. Header image is trademark of Introversion/Ambrosia software (DEFCON game).

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