Thursday, September 8, 2011

TSA bureaucrats like it when you don't think in probabilities

Over at Popehat, Ken documents the latest in egregious TSA antics - a TSA employee who jammed her fingers four times into a crying woman's vagina in public is threatening a lawsuit against the woman, a blogger, who protested on the internet about getting molested by the agent in question. That's right - not only are they going to molest you in public, but they're going to sue you if you complain about it, first amendment be damned.

In a follow-up post, Ken raises a question I've wondered about myself - why aren't people on average bothered by the abuses of the TSA? He has a good list of suggestions as to why, which are well worth your reading.

I've written about this before - no matter what the TSA announces as its next ridiculous stunt, people just seem to go along with it.

In the comments, I added what I think to be part of the problem:
People don’t think well in probabilities, and aren’t willing to state explicitly “I am willing to tolerate an X% chance of my plane exploding in order to not be subjected to Y’.
Doesn’t matter if X = 0.00000001% and Y = [junk grabbing / anal probes / whatever]. Doesn’t matter if the people have a far, far higher chance of dying in a car crash on the way to the airport than any possible reduction in terrorism. People view it as being that there’s still some chance of attack happening without the measure. And that is used to convince them of the importance of ever greater intrusions, because yes, sticking your hand in someone’s labia will somewhat reduce the chance of terrorist attack. It’s just that the reduction is trivially, ridiculously small, and the intrusion is large.
To get this to stop, the average person needs to
a) Ask how large the impact on the probability of terrorist attack will actually be from any given measure, and
b) Ask themselves what probability of terrorist attack they’re actually willing to tolerate in order to not undergo that measure.
The first one is very rarely done, and the second one is basically never done. Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic about the chances on change on this question.
The point is that there is always some chance that your plane will be blown up by a terrorist. Always. Don't blame the government or the terrorists for this, blame Pierre Simon Laplace - it's just the laws of probability.*

You can pretend that there isn't an X% chance of the plane exploding. You can avoid thinking about it. But it doesn't change the underlying fact. And as long as people aren't willing to acknowledge this, they'll get sold all sorts of ridiculous security theatre, because they're not actually thinking on the margin.

So if people think 'Is there some chance that this might prevent a terrorist attack', the answer is probably yes. Literally stripping everybody naked and performing a cavity search would stop a small number of terrorist attacks. It's just that that number is probably a tiny fraction of an attack per year, and the cost would be Ken and myself exploding in rage (among other things - this may count as a benefit depending on your perspective, but I assure you there are other costs)

The only common antidote is other categorical objections - I'm never willing to put up with my husband / daughter being felt up by the government, no matter what. This is akin to the rights-based way of thinking about the world - some things are wrong, no matter the consequences. This probably would kick in for an actual strip search. I hope.

Now there's nothing wrong with this way of thinking. But I think a lot of people deep down are pragmatists. They do trade off costs and benefits of policies. It's just that here, the tradeoff is being worked out it a ridiculous way.

Imagine if people thought this way about traffic accidents. The government would propose lowering the freeway speed limit to 30 miles an hour. People would respond 'Well, it pisses me off too, but there's some chance it might save me from a traffic death. So I guess I'm okay with it'. Then the government would propose speed limiters on cars keeping them below 25 miles an hour. And people would grumble 'well, I guess I just have to leave a bit earlier to get to work, but I'm sure they know what they're doing, and I really don't want to die in a car crash' etc.

So why don't people respond like this to car deaths, but they do for plane deaths?

My guess is the illusion of control. In the car, you feel like you're able to control the ability of crashing, so you think that  governmment-imposed extra steps aren't really necessary (although they'd probably save a lot more lives). No one ever thinks they're going to get in a fatal accident - after all, I'm a safe driver! For terrorist plane attacks, people find the prospect intensely terrifying because if a plane is crashing, there's nothing you can do. Terrorist plane crashes are even worse, because the plane crash is also personified by scary foreign men. And this intense (not unjustified) fear tends to cloud out any real calculation of probabilities - the prospect is just too terrible to think about, and anything that might stop it happening is worth it.

Until... I don't know what. At some point, people will say enough is enough, but I've come to conclusion that I think sufficiently differently to the average person about this that I'm no longer in the business of making guesses about how much people would put up with.

*A probability of zero means that literally no evidence in the world would cause you to update your prior from zero. Even if you saw a terrorist explode a plane right in front of you, you'd be certain that it couldn't happen.

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