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Many years ago, I subscribed to an early internet group called comp.risks. It was a group of smart people who were always thinking about subtle risks of technology. I learned a lot reading posts in the group, especially about how poor humans are at assessing risks. A classic example was people trying to make infants safer on planes by requiring infant seats. The upshot was that you could make infants safer that way — in the extremely unlikely event of a plane crash — but requiring people to purchase a plane ticket for an infant would result in many more people traveling by car, which is much less safe that air travel, which meant that infants were at a substantially greater actual risk.

Recently, the Trump administration, decided to ban Muslim refugees claiming that they posed an increased risk to Americans for terrorist attacks. Congressman Lieu from California pointed out that your chances of being killed by a refugee committing a terrorist act is 1 in 3.6 billion. Politifact finds that statement mostly true and points out other unlikely events (like being struck by lightning twice) as being significant *more* likely than this.

Unfortunately, the media doesn't get it and I've hear journalists asking what could be done to reduce the risk of terrorist attack. This is the wrong question. What they should be asking is "what are the actual risks that people face and how can we reduce those?" The actual risks that Americans face are mostly due to disease and accidents. We could reduce risks of disease by ensuring that everyone had good health care. And we could reduce a lot of accidents by having better gun control. Those are obvious things that could reduce premature deaths by thousands every year.

But what if we *really* want to reduce those 1 in 3.6 billion odds… How about these:

  • When you walk by someone smoking on the sidewalk, walk one extra foot away.
  • Wash your hands for one extra second once a day.
  • Wear a bicycle helmet while driving your car.

These probably still make you safer than Donald Trump's muslim ban, but at least we're getting close in terms of absolute reduction in risk. But unfortunately these all fail the key test that Republicans want, which is to demonize and punish The Other.