Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Risk perception

Ah yes, one of my favorite subjects. Two and a half million people fly in the United States every day. Until Tuesday of this week, there had not been a single fatality resulting from a commercial flight in the United States since 2009. On Tuesday, one person died following the disintegration of an engine on a Southwest Airlines flight.

This event was the lead story on every TV news program and on every major new web site, and has continued to be a front page story every day since. Nobody has been paying attention, but if the past three days have been about average, more than 300 people have died in the U.S. in motor vehicle crashes since Tuesday. Many of the crashes involved multiple fatalities. Not a single one of them made national news.

So what's going on here? It is true that commercial airplane crashes normally draw a lot of attention because a large number of people are killed all at once. We seem to perceive a single, large-scale catastrophe as more important than a whole lot of smaller ones. That is, until we don't. Hardly anyone in the U.S. is paying any attention to the war, famine and pestilence in Yemen right now; our interest in Syria is pretty well over even though the war is not. Oh wait! Chemical weapons!

I'll get back to that momentarily. To stick with the Southwest Airlines engine failure, it was not a large-scale catastrophe, so why the OJ treatment? There was drama, to be sure. The pilot was skilled and composed and she is given credit for saving the plane and its human cargo. That story is interesting to read about, and it helps that there aren't a lot of female commercial airline pilots. But still, that didn't emerge into a coherent story until today, and this was the biggest thing since oxygen long before the reporters had any real information about it.

In fact a small plane crash, on the same scale as a car crash, is always national news. It seems to me that the distinction between airplane crashes and car crashes is analogous to the distinction between blowing people up and gassing them. It's a largely arbitrary, meaningless distinction. Why is it none of our problem if Assad blows children to pieces with high explosives, but it is a big problem if he suffocates them with chlorine gas? No reason whatever that I can see. Flying commercially is very safe. It's safer than riding a bicycle. It's much safer than driving to work. One person dying on an airplane is no worse than one person dying in an automobile. Except, apparently, it is.


Gay Boy Bob said...

The news worthiness of the Southwest Airline fatality comes from the sheer rarity of it. As you stated, two and a half million people fly in the US every day.

As for the difference in coverage between conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, to not cover them differently would be going down the road of normalizing of the use of WMD and I think that's what people are most afraid of and why the world is so appalled.

mojrim said...

We're only appalled because we've been told to be, GBB. Also, WTF is a WMD? The term was invented by the Bush II admin entirely to make people wet their knickers. The FBI description includes pipe bombs, and chemical weapons are the most expensive and unreliable way to kill people.

Gay Boy Bob said...

I'm simply pointing out public perception concerning the use of WMD whether you think it's justified or not.

It's there. That's the point of Cervantes' post.

Cervantes said...

Chemical weapons are not weapons of mass destruction. They are battlefield weapons, again, no more "massively destructive" than high explosives, in fact less so. That is complete bullshit, used as a lame-ass excuse for invading Iraq -- which didn't have chemical weapons anyway, not that it matters.

Gay Boy Bob said...

The definition of WMD is really a "sidebar", a "Squirrel" moment, brought to us by Mr. mojrima as the discussion originally was about why chemical weapons are thought of differently than conventional weapons.

Don't try to re-litigate a decision the world made long ago.

Currently, 189 nations, representing about 98% of the global population, have joined the CWC. The OPCW mission is to implement the provisions of the CWC and to ensure a credible, transparent regime to verify the destruction of chemical weapons; to prevent their re-emergence in any member State; to provide protection and assistance against chemical weapons; to encourage international cooperation in the peaceful uses of chemistry; and to achieve universal membership of the OPCW.

Anonymous said...

I think GBB is a miserable turd.