Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Least Likely, Most Horrific Thing

I’m a stats guy, a data guy. You show me the data…from a reputable source…and I’ll believe you. Even if it’s not what I believed in the first place, if you can show me the data…once again, from a reputable source…you’ll sway me. Grudgingly, but you’ll convince me….or at least make me carefully re-examine my position.

But as much as I like to try to emulate Spock from Star Trek, and be logical all the time; unlike Spock, I’m fully human. And that means that sometimes my emotions get the better of me…despite what the statistics say.

Take for example flying. I joke that my favorite airline is Amtrak, and tell people that I’ve successfully avoided flying since 1987. I know what the statistics say; I know that flying is the safest way to travel. I know that, depending on who you ask, the odds of being in a plane crash are about 1 in 1.2 million, with the odds of dying in one being “only” 1 in 11 million. But I also know that my odds of walking away from an accident on the ground are pretty good. As a result, Amtrak gets my business because emotionally I’m swayed by the possibility of something horrific…but incredibly unlikely…happening.

And we’re all like this. Statisticians say that humans are terrible at assessing risk. We focus, as do I with flying, on the horrific, yet incredibly unlikely.

Which brings me to a group of people who are feared and have their own set of fears…police. A quick “back of the envelope” calculation says that with roughly one million police officers in the country, only about 333,000 of which are on duty at any particular point in time, and 24 hours in the day, there are a possible 8 million possible police interactions daily. Look at that over the course of the year and you get almost 3 billion possible interactions. And out of those 3 billion possible interactions about 500 go horribly wrong, resulting in the death of an unarmed civilian.

500 out of 3 billion. That works out to a 1 in 6 million chance of being shot by the police…whether your life is black, white, or purple. And let me be clear here, more unarmed whites are shot by police than unarmed blacks, but that’s a statistic for another day.

1 in 6 million. This tells us that the chances of being shot by a nervous police officer are five times less than being in a plane crash…and most of you have no problem with getting on a plane. This tells us that most police interactions with people go off without a hitch. But that ones that go wrong go so horrifically wrong that they grab our emotions and our attention, and take it away from the 2,999,999,500 times where everything went smoothly.

It’s the least likely, most horrific thing.

To be sure, even one death in a plane crash, and even one death of an unarmed person by a police officer is too many. But let’s not overstate the danger. Let’s not overstate the magnitude of the problem.

Let’s be logical, and not emotional, about this.

Even though you still won’t willingly get me on a plane.

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