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Samizdata quote of the day

The odds of people dying in a terrorist attack obviously are still a lot lower than in a car accident, unfortunately.

– President of the USA Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, speaking on the Jay Leno show

26 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • POTUSes say the darnest things…

  • Orcadrvr

    Anyone can, and I often do, make innocent slips of the tongue. However, little imagination is required to envision the outpouring of derision that would have accompanied a similar statement made by George Bush, Dick Cheney, or frankly, any other Republican on the planet. Instead, it is like the proverbial “tree falling in the forest that no one hears”.
    Thanks for the link, Alisa. These people have no shame.

  • Sure, Orcadrvr. Not that I’m a fan of Bush or Cheney, mind – but yes, the hypocrisy is screamingly obvious.

  • Old Hoya

    And the odds of Savannah, Charleston and Jacksonville being on the Gulf Coast are even lower… Imagine if Bush had spouted such nonsense. The mockery would be endless. But President Chaucey Gardiner gets a pass as always.

  • He’s an idiot who says any nonsense that pops into his head, but honestly, I took that “unfortunately” to be an automatic need to express a little dismay over the idea of lots of people dying in highway accidents.

    You do have to wonder what point he thought he was making. The federal government should quit worrying about national defense, its natural role, and instead focus on anything that threatens human life and happiness, like highway safety? It’s not an encouraging sign of his understanding of the division of responsibility between federal and local government, or indeed of the division of responsibility between the private and public sectors. These aren’t subjects on which he thinks deeply. His instinct is simply to amass power and meddle, and blather into the nearest microphone.

  • Laird

    I’ve been trying to parse that word “unfortunately”. The logical reading is that it is “unfortunate” that terrorists don’t kill as many people as do car accidents, but I doubt even Obama really meant that. I suppose what he was trying to say, in his typical incoherent manner (when speaking without his teleprompter or a professionally written speech), is that it is unfortunate that so many people die in automobile accidents, which obviously is a total non sequitur from the terrorist issue. I imagine that Leno (and others) will be having some fun with it in tonight’s monologue.

    Texan99 has it right. Obama isn’t a deep thinker, on this or any other matter. He’s all style (such as it is) and no substance.

  • Bruce Hoult

    He likes to watch.

  • James Strong

    Obama is a terrific speech-reader.
    Off the cuff he’s none too good at all.
    ‘Special Olympics’ anyone?
    But being a terrific speech-reader, and being half-white was enough to get him the votes of idiot racists who thought ‘Look at me, I can’t be racist, I’m voting for a black man.’
    To a colour-blind person Obama’s talent and achievements are on the low end of negligible.

  • Ernie G

    @Orcadrvr ” …like the proverbial ‘tree falling in the forest that no one hears'” With the cover he’s getting from the press, he could stick up a liquor store in broad daylight and we’d never hear of it. Come to think of it, maybe he already has.

  • Paul Marks

    Old Hoya – yes, even I (who have never even been to the United States) noticed that one.

    What happened with Comrade Barack’s training? I an reminded of when Bill O’Reilly spoke to him about American Football and he (Comrade Barack)seemed to be unaware of what it was. Is there not suppose to be some “little America” town where the Organs teach their agents to pass as Americans?

    Just kidding……

  • Lee Moore

    It’s not nonsense, it’s not a slip of the tongue. If any non politician had said it, no one would have the slightest difficulty in understanding his point, nor the rhetorical benefits of his phrasing. The “unfortunately” is unexpected, it smacks you across the chops with a wet fish, and serves to emphasise the point that deaths from car accidents are too high.

    But for a politician it is a gaffe, because it allows opponents of low scrupulosity to make pointless and worthless criticisms. And a good politician minimises the number of hostages he leaves to fortune. But just because the left does this all the time to their opponents is not a good reason to copy them.

    Compare with the recent flutter about Santorum comments about men showering, in which the Huffpo quoted a perfectly fair point out of context to make him look like someone who had “issues” with men and showers – ie not remotely a real gaffe, just a fake one constructed by opponents. Or the sly misquote from 2008 which had Palin claiming that God was on the US’s side in Iraq. Compared to Republicans, Democrat politicians are as children unborn when it comes to avoiding remarks that can be misconstrued against them. Evolution has not provided them with any instinctive defence, because they have no natural media predators. Whereas on the Republican side, it’s mostly the new, local, inexperienced ones who get stung, because the old gnarled ones have learned to mind their mouths. (Romney got caught cos someone secretly taped a private event. Now the old gnarled ones know that there’s no such thing as a private event.)

    Politics is asymmetrical. The left operates in a very media friendly environment. The right operates in a very fact friendly environment. It’s not a fencing match – it’s more like one of those medieval sword against axe things.

  • Eric

    The thing that irks me about this is the same people telling me terrorists aren’t much of a threat use one or two deaths as a reason for rafts of new ‘elf ‘n safety regulations.

  • But just because the left does this all the time to their opponents is not a good reason to copy them.

    Indeed, Lee – and I don’t see anyone copying them. What I do see is people pointing out exactly what you said there.

  • bgates

    But just because the left does this all the time to their opponents is not a good reason to copy them.

    What is a good reason, in this particular instance, is that it’s always a good idea to demonstrate that an opponent’s supposed strengths are less than advertised. No one has ever pointed to Santorum or Palin or – really, any other politician I can remember – as “the greatest orator of modern times“, “the embodiment of the ideals of American eloquence“, “the greatest orator the office has ever known“, “the smartest kid in class“, &c &c &c, so yes, it’s silly to mock any of them for slips of the tongue. One of the most frequently repeated selling points for Obama was that he was supposed to be better than any other politician in precisely the way that this kind of momentary idiocy demonstrates he isn’t.

  • PapayaSF

    Eric: Yes.

    I object in general to the “terrorism kills fewer people than accidents” formulation. Accidents are just that: they aren’t trying to murder you in the name of a religious or political system they wish to impose on everyone. It’s entirely rational to fear people who want to kill you more than random things that might kill you.

  • PeterT

    It’s entirely rational to fear people who want to kill you more than random things that might kill you

    Clearly it is not if the probability of your death from either is the same.

  • Lee Moore

    Hmm. Wouldn’t an evolutionarily well tailored fear mechanism equalise the expected value of fearing (and countering) X and Y, rather than simply the fear of X and Y ? If fear serves a rational purpose, the purpose is presumably survival. And if there’s nothing you can do about a particular threat, there’s no point fearing it. The difference between car accidents and terrorism is that terrorism is a game with an opposing player. The terrorism risk depends on the changing tactics of the two players, and in order to keep the risk down, the defending player has to put in a lot of effort to respond to the attacking player’s changes. There’s no opposing player when it comes to car accidents. Today’s good tactic against being killed in a car accident is likely to be the same as yesterday’s. Not much effort is required to keep the risk low. But if you’re the defending player in the terrorism game, and you say “I’m fed up with this game, I’m just going to stick with yesterday’s tactics” the risk will not remain constant, it will rapidly increase, as the attacking side will respond to your passivity.

    Consequently if your level of fear governs your level of effort at countering the risk, it would be rational to fear terrorism more, even if it carries an equal, or even a lower, risk.

  • It’s also apples and oranges in terms of whether a public or private response to the perceived threat is likely to be the most effective response, or even whether any effective response is possible. I’m a lot more likely to die of disease than either terrorism or a car accident, but the President can’t make me immortal.

  • PapayaSF

    @Lee Moore: Yes, that’s what I am getting at. Imagine you have a choice of living in one of two towns, otherwise identical. In Town A there is one fatal traffic accident every year. In Town B there are no accidents, but there is a serial killer who kills one person a year. I think it’s rational to prefer to live in Town A.

  • PapayaSF

    Two more points. Statistical inferences about terrorism or any other intentional human action is problematic. What were the odds on 9/10/2001 that 3,000 people would be killed in terror attacks the next day?

    Also, accidents have certain basic limits. A ship might sink, two jets might collide, and so on. But 3,000 aren’t suddenly going die in lightning strikes or bathtub falls. Terror, on the other hand, has much higher potential limits: a nuclear bomb in a city, etc.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Statistical inferences about the real world are problematic in any case. As has been pointed out again and again in re the global-warming scare and various conclusions drawn based on statistics — such as, the beginning point of your survey can have a dramatic effect on the slope of any purported trend-line.

    Or this one: The average American family has 2.7 children. (As was often mentioned back in the early 60’s I think it was.) Or this: This woman is mother to children whose average age is 10. Make something of that if you can! (Heh…one was born five minutes ago; the other just turned 20.)

    To quote NickM, more or less, statistics can be useful for suggesting a starting point for investigation.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Lee, I question two sentences that you wrote. (In the interest of intellectual exercise or analysis, not specifically that of refuting your your point.)

    If fear serves a rational purpose, the purpose is presumably survival.

    How do you fit the states of mind of the jumpers from the Twin Towers on 9/11 into that theory?

    And if there’s nothing you can do about a particular threat, there’s no point fearing it.

    If I were trapped in a burning building, I would certainly not cease to fear the fire. Although I grant there may be no specifically rational point in fearing it.

    And … fire again … suppose the forest behind me is ablaze and closing on me fast. My only chance of escape is the rope bridge over the chasm ahead of me. Yet that bridge is almost rotted through. I take my chances with it because that way there is some hope, i.e., I am less afraid of death from its failure than I am of death from the fire. (For two reasons: First, the bridge is not CERTAIN to fail, but the fire is certain to get me if I don’t risk the bridge; second, because, as with the jumpers, death by falling is probably preferable to death by burning.) Or if I am sufficiently phobic about heights, perhaps I hold out hope against the fire until past the last chance for escape.

    So in the real world, it comes to a balance of fears and a judgment about inevitability.

    Which observation in the end supports PapayaSF’s conclusion in his first comment above.

  • Lee Moore

    Yes, Julie. Not perhaps the most deeply thought through thing I have ever posted. (Nor is this.) I was reacting to PapayaSF and PeterT’s exchange, from which two points leapt out at me. (1) whether, and if so in what sense, it is “rational” to fear things and (2) the probability v expected value thing when considering dangers and what to do about them. And being an evolutionarily minded fellow, my immediate thought was to consider it from an evolutionary perspective.

    Fear is an emotional response and like any emotion has presumably been tailored by evolution. As with all evolutionary “purposes” , there isn’t really a purpose, it’s an effect that looks like a purpose because of the preferential inheritance of behaviours with useful effects. That’s why I say “serves a purpose” rather than “has a purpose”. Saying “serves a rational purpose” was just laziness. I should have said something like “if we try, rationally, to deduce what good effects the evolving fear emotion might have had, such that its possessors left more descendants than their competitors, then the good effects were probably extra escapes from death.” Which is a bit of a mouthful.

    So I’m not saying that fear is rational, nor that it always leads us to behaviour that can be justified rationally. Merely that we would expect fear, most of the time, to lead us towards behaviour that is – if considered rationally – good at helping us to survive. But only most of the time, and only if we are facing dangers that are similar to the sort of dangers that our ancestors faced. As you note, fear of death from falling must be a strongly ingrained fear, for obvious evolutionary reasons, so it requires something pretty unpleasant to out trump it. But actually choking for air, or feeling your body beginning to burn, might well be good enough trump cards.

    And on to statistics. I agree, working them out in the real world is pretty hard, aka impossible. But evolution isn’t an exercise in statistics. There are no statistical models, just a very large number of real world trials of Frog A v Frog B. We can then inspect the results using statistical techniques and insights. And one of the things we would expect from our knowledge of statistics is that evolution would have paid attention to the payoffs from responding to different kinds of threat, ie expected values, rather than merely the probabilities attached to particular threats.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Hoo boy! Now I must be very careful myself! *g*

    First, first sentence, first clause: I knew your bottom-line meaning there. As a matter of fact I absolutely agree with your discussion of “purpose” in biological mechanisms, whether evolutionary or individual, to the point that it’s a hobby-horse of mine. Personally, I try to say “function” instead of “purpose.” So, we absolutely agree. :>))

    But that was not my point. Instead, it was that (many, or most, of) the jumpers must have also feared the jump; so this is an example of a case where fear could not possibly lead to survival, both choices being likely fearful.

    So in this case anyway, I think fear did lead the jumpers to “behaviour that can be justified rationally.” Because fear of the fire led them to choose a (presumably) less horrible death.

    I’d bet there’s not much difference between us on the relationship of reason, or rationality, and emotion. I do not think that anyone has ever said to himself, “Now in this situation it is rational to feel X, so therefore I will feel X,” and then proceeded to feel exactly that emotion. But I do think it is possible to look at some emotional response and make a judgment as to whether that response was reasonable in the light of the circumstances, including what we know of the individual (who might be ourselves) human nature generally. In such a case, we might say “X was a rational [i.e., reasonable] response”; and that to fear the 9/11 fire was certainly rational.

    As to the statistics topic, I’m in agreement with your comment at 1:01, as is papayaSF, per his or her comment directly after that one. But it was pSF’s next comment that prompted my little harangue on statistics. I wasn’t thinking of any conjecture about statistics’ bearing on evolution at all.

    *giggle* You’re anthropomorphizing evolution in that last paragraph, y’know. But seriously, I should think “common sense” would suggest evolutionary payoffs from this response instead of that to a given threat, even if statistics had never been developed.

    Anyway, interesting discussion. Thanks. :>)

  • Lee Moore

    Agreed. Looking at it again “Evolution isn’t an exercise in statistics” was a very poor way of expressing myself. Evolution is to a significant extent an exercise in statistics. But what I was trying to say was that evolution does not grasp pencil and paper and try to calculate the statistics in advance. It just rolls the dice and writes down the scores.