Monthly Archives: January 2011

Jared Loughner and the Quest for Certainty

Like many people, I’ve read many of the news reports on the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of several other people by Jared Loughner.  Two articles in yesterday’s (Monday) USA Today caught my eye.  The first one, on the front page, asked: “Have nasty politics gotten out of hand?”  This article, among a large number that can be found at various news outlets, essentially asked whether the strong partisanship and anti-government language that have become a hallmark of modern American politics might incite nutjobs like Loughner to violence against politicians.  The majority of readers don’t agree, and with good reason.  Certainly the current political climate preceded the recent shooting, but that doesn’t mean that it was necessarily a cause of the shooting; believing otherwise would commit the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Of course that doesn’t rule out the possibility that, in this case, it may have happened to be a cause.  So, what should we do?

I don’t think that it makes sense to tone down the nasty political rhetoric simply to prevent violence.  Why?  Well, one of the reasons why nutjobs like Loughner scare people so badly is because of their unpredictability; we just don’t know what will set them off.  Conceivably anything at all could set them off.  However, we can’t just stop doing everything for fear of setting off this very rare breed of person; it doesn’t make sense.

The other thing that I noticed was on the editorial page, a quote from The New Yorker, written by Amy Davidson:  “Where can you take a child in this country?  If to the supermarket, to meet her congresswoman, is no longer on that list, then we are in trouble.”  This seems like a highly irrational idea to me. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, there are around 50 million children aged 11 or under in the United States.  Out of all of these people, only one of them has been killed on a visit to meet his/her congressman/woman.  Odds of 1 in 50 million are pretty good, especially compared with the thousands of children killed each year in automobile accidents.  It’s still safe to go to the mall and see your congressman/woman; this was just an isolated incident.

I think that both of these opinions stem from a single erroneous belief, the belief that a risk-free world is possible. In the book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner, he writes about surveys done by Daniel Krewski that found that this incorrect belief is shared by about half of the Canadian population, and that these people expect that the government should protect them completely from all risk in their lives.  While this sounds nice, it simply isn’t possible because everything that one does involves risk.  There has never been a place where you can take a child where there is zero risk of anything bad happening.  If you take your child to see your congresswoman, there may be a tiny risk that they are shot and killed by a nutjob.  If you take them to karate instead, they may get injured performing a karate move, or they could get killed in a car accident on the way there.  If you have them stay at home, they could become obese and die early from diabetes or heart disease, or they could read extremist material on the Internet that triggers them to commit violent crime, or there could be an earthquake and the house could collapse on them.  No matter what you do, the possibility of something bad happening is always there; it’s just that the risk is usually so low that we don’t have to worry about it.  Certainly the chance of getting shot by an insane person is so incredibly low that we don’t need to worry about it.

So, to conclude, don’t change your life just because of Saturday’s shooting.  Just continue doing what you do best. Don’t worry that you’re going to set some nutjob off.  Don’t worry that you’re going to get caught in a shootout. The risk are just too low to waste your life worrying about, and life’s just too short to waste time worrying about stuff that most likely won’t happen to you.