Friday, July 13, 2007

Cognitive Bias

Cognitive bias is just a fancy term for a readily observable phenomenon: we humans aren't necessarily logical in our thinking. Often these cognitive biases can be traced back to some evolutionary advantage they conveyed (which may or may not still be an advantage in our modern world).

For example, we humans have a special horror for risks of death by unusual means. Around these parts, many people are quite frightened by our abundant rattlesnakes – and it is possible for a rattlesnake to kill you. Last year, in fact, seven people in the U.S did die from a rattlesnake bite (two of these were small children; four were adults who did not get treatment for various reasons, and one was an elderly man who apparently had a heart attack just before being bitten).

The same people who are frightened by rattlesnakes will climb into their car for a trip without the slightest care – despite knowing that over 100 people die every day in traffic “accidents” (39,189 in 2005, the most recent year for which data is available)! By any logical analysis, we should all be much more frightened by driving to the grocery store than we should be rattlesnakes...

A similar cognitive bias affects the lamestream media's reporting on the war on terror, and most people's perceptions of it. I've noted this in quite a few conversations – in general, people seem to very badly overestimate our war casualties. Of course this affects their perception of the war and how it's progressing; they see the war on terror as being unreasonably costly compared to it's benefits. The sad thing is that this perception doesn't stand up to any rational analysis, much like our fear of rattlesnakes versus our fear of driving.

For starters, ponder this: in over four years of our war on terror, the total military casualties are about the same as the traffic fatalities from a single month. Even that is an overestimate, because it neglects something rather important: our military personnel are at risk even when they're not at war. From 1980 to 1999 (a relatively quiet period), our military suffered (on average) about 1,600 deaths per year from non-hostile causes. Adjusting for changes in the size of our military and for the fraction of our military directly engaged in the war on terror, a reasonable estimate is that those forces would have suffered about 2,400 deaths in the same four years, even if the war on terror had never occurred. So the incremental casualties directly caused by the war are more like 1,500 – about the same as the number of traffic fatalities in just 10 days.

Ponder that.

The men and women of our military engaged in the war on terror are heroes to me, and I mean that in the most literal sense. I think about them and admire them often; I read everything I can get my hands on about them. I mourn those who have been killed or injured. But I am also very conscious of something else: that our military's competence, combined with the amazing technology we possess, has lowered the human cost (to us) of warfare to levels far below many other risks that face us – and at the same time has increased the lethality to our enemies. By any rational measure, our military heroes are kicking al Qaeda's ass, hard; they are dying in large numbers. That's not a pretty fact, or a politically correct fact – but it is a fact. It's also the objective in a war, as General Patton famously said:
No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
The only way that al Qaeda is going to win this war is if we give up. Their poor dumb bastards are dying in droves (especially in Iraq), while our astonishingly expert military is suffering very light war casualties. Partly because of this cognitive bias, a significant fraction of Americans (and virtually the entire Democratic party, except Joe Lieberman) are ready to give up, and hand al Qaeda a tremendous victory. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid make almost daily calls for withdrawal from Iraq – they want us to unilaterally surrender.

Such “leaders” shouldn't be allowed outside to play without adult supervision...

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