Terroristic chairs

Andrew Shaver, a Princeton U. public policy PhD student, trots out the usual tired argument that you should be more afraid of furniture than of terrorists (“whether an Islamist radical or some other variety” — natch). My first impulse was to dismiss this as a rare events fallacy, but Scott Alexander even calls the “rare” into question. He exposes Shaver’s shenanigans on loopy death-toll accounting, undercutting his “basic human psychology” factoid that “individuals have strong tendencies to miscalculate risk likelihood in predictable ways”. Alexander comes across as orders of magnitude more nuanced, informed, and intelligent than Shave — and yet I think he too misses a basic point.

I don’t care how many Americans are killed by furniture annually (50? 500? 5000? — not one iota of difference). I imagine if I’d heard of anyone dying from a chair malfunction, I might look into securing my own chairs. But that’s the point: I’m in control. Similarly, I couldn’t care less how many people accidentally shoot themselves. It’s their business, their problem — and those worried about accidentally shooting themselves are free not to own a gun. On the other hand, I emphatically do care how many people are shot by criminals in a given region. Unlike the chairs or guns in my household, I have no control over a criminal’s or a terrorist’s mind.

Furniture and gun accidents are problems largely under the control of the individuals involved. Invest in good furniture and you won’t be killed by falling shelves; invest in gun safety training and you won’t shoot yourself. These tragedies are preventable, and the people affected are largely the ones who didn’t take the necessary precautions (or their friends and family, I suppose). It’s a different story with terrorism and crime. There is only so much an individual can do to prevent being a victim of either; that’s why these are hotly debated public policy issues. The public’s concern about furniture safety is — correctly! — dwarfed by its concern regarding terrorism and crime; the actual figures are practically irrelevant. And all the smug deathtoll-by-chair people can take a hike.


Update: The “I couldn’t care less” shouldn’t be interpreted as callous indifference towards others’ death and suffering, but rather the irrelevance of these figures in my safety calculus. The latter also requires a caveat: the actual numbers are irrelevant only to a point. Fifty million Americans being killed by chairs in one year is not something anyone can ignore. The furniture vs. terrorism statistics don’t matter as long as they are within a couple of orders of magnitude of each other.

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