Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Relative Risk

I'm sorry for being scarce lately. The overload alarm on my bullshitometer has been going off incessantly, and it's keeping me up at night. I could just turn the damn thing off but I'm afraid of being overhwhelmed by a massive, ineluctable tide of bullshit and drowning in my sleep.

Anyway, the past few days have given us all a profound lesson in how the generally accurate reporting of True Facts can constitute a massive deception. Was the attack on London mass transit on Thursday the most important thing that happened in the past four days? Applying the usual quantitative tools of epidemiology, obviously not. We now believe the death toll was approximately 75. In 2004, 514,250 people died in England and Wales. 65% of these were of people older than age 75, but that still leaves about 180,000 of what might be called premature deaths. More than 11,000 people in the UK died from "accidents" (a politically incorrect term in public health), most of them relatively young, and more than 3,000 of these died in "land transport accidents," the majority of them young men. At least 2,500 took their own lives (many suicides cannot be distinguished from accidents). While 75 murders would be a trivial number in the United States, that is not true in the UK, where there were only 131 confirmed homicides in 2004, although there were more than 900 "events of undetermined intent," some of which are unsolved murders.

Another way of putting all that is that this event will be barely noticeable in the overall risk of travel in the UK. This simple numeric comparison, obviously, doesn't tell the whole story. I'll get to the moral and political issues momentarily, don't worry, but let's try to remain dispassionate a bit longer.

A big problem is uncertainty. This was an intentional act, and nobody knows whether further, perhaps even more deadly attacks will ensue. This troubles me also, particularly in that the methods used by Islamist jihadists recently have been notably inefficient. There are quite a few simple means of killing larger numbers of people, and no, you don't need any high tech Weapons of Mass Destruction™. Given the complexity of modern infrastructure and the potential of what are today commonly available technologies, it only takes a few people to produce impressive catastrophes. There are 6 1/2 billion people in the world, so it's a bit of a surprise, actually, that we haven't seen even more such events. This is definitely a problem, but hardly anyone is talking about it sensibly. It's not a "war," and it's not a "clash of civilizations." It's a property of industrial civilization that puts unearned power in the hands of any class of radically disaffected people or sociopaths, including Christian terrorists such as Tim McVeigh. But that doesn't mean we're at war with Christianity.

In fact, we've seen quite a lot of comparable events recently, but this particular one received highly disproportionate attention. They happen in Iraq almost every day. To be fair, the first few massive car bombings in Iraq after Mission Accomplished got quite a bit of press attention, but interest has faded quickly as they have become routine. By orders of magnitude, more people -- including completely innocent people -- have been killed by American bombs, tank shells and rifle bullets in Iraq than were killed on July 7 in London. Supposedly the U.S. does not intend these deaths, they are "collateral damage," and therefore not morally reprehensible. Certainly they are of almost no interest whatever to the U.S. corporate media.

The London attack, much to the glee of Fox News announcers, blew the G-8 summit off the front pages, and along with it the two issues at stake there: the fate of human society in Africa, and the fate of the planetary environment. An enormous catastrophe happened at the G-8 summit, a terrorist attack on all of humanity. The leader of 5% of the world's population, that consumes 25% of the world's petroleum production, refused to do anything to reduce his country's use of fossil fuels. (We'll talk about Africa another time.) Oh yeah, this is the same guy who ordered those bombs and shells and bullets for Iraq.

We have a good deal to be concerned about these days. Religious fanatics with bombs are somewhere on the list. What we need to do about that is the same thing we do about all categories of criminals. Solve the crimes, capture the perpetrators, and prosecute them. It seems pretty clear to me that if we are diligent about that, this problem will remain somewhere around number 17, well after influenza and drunk driving. Our own leaders, however, say that relying on that approach is treasonous, cowardly, and worst of all, liberal. When somebody commits a mass murder in your country, the manly thing to do is find some country to drop bombs on, launch cruise missiles at, invade with tanks, and then rewrite it's laws to permit unlimited foreign investment. If Tony Blair can't come up with a suitable place to bomb, he'll end up looking almost as French as John Kerry.