This comes from an old conversation, and was recently recalled when the topic came up again years later, so I thought I’d post about it here. We were talking about terrorism; how terrorism is a rare event, and a person is extremely unlikely to die in a terror attack than from, well, almost any other cause. Despite this, the fear of terrorism seems ever-present in the mind of your average person. This has to do with the salience bias and the availability heuristic: terror attacks are more striking than other events, and information about them is oft-repeated, so we tend to perceive them as a greater threat to ourselves personally than they really are. This way of processing information made sense in the earlier days of humanity and probably aided our survival as a species, but often leads to logical fallacies and judgement errors in the modern, interconnected world.
Back in 2015, I went through cause of death statistics (for Canada). I believe the most recent data available at the time was for 2011, and the most recent comprehensive terrorism information I had was for the period 1970-2007, so this was the data I looked at. The purpose was to make a point in an argument, not to be scientifically rigorous, so there are definitely improvements to be made in the “analysis”. I’d like to approach the topic again sometime in the future, and perhaps compute probabilities for each year. Anyway, let’s dive into it!
Between 1970 and 2007 there were 336 terrorism-related deaths in Canada. This comes out to about 1 death in 3,800,000 or 9 deaths per year on average. Some years had more terrorism deaths, some years had less. Since terrorism is a relatively rare event, the sample size is small and year-to-year fluctuations are expected. If we assume 9 terrorism-related death per year, and assume that 2011 mortality-by-cause statistics are also typical, then the average person is:
- Two times as likely to die in childbirth than die in a terror attack
- Two times as likely to die due to “legal intervention” (killed by police) than die in a terror attack
- Four times as likely to die from a burst appendix
- Eight times as likely to die from tuberculosis
- 17 times as likely to die from surgical complications
- 27 times as likely to die from nutritional deficiencies (i.e. not getting enough food)
- 34 times as likely to die from HIV
- 51 times as likely to die from hepatitis
- 59 times as likely to die from homicide (usually by a person you know)
- 273 times as likely to die from sepsis, usually caused by an injury
- 316 times as likely to die from liver disease
- 366 times as likely to die from kidney disease
- 414 times as likely to die from suicide
- 641 times as likely to die from influenza or pneumonia
- 799 times as likely to die from diabetes
- 1191 times as likely to die in an accident (e.g. in the workplace or on the road)
- 1243 times as likely to die from a respiratory disease (not including tuberculosis)
- 1476 times as likely to die from stroke
- 5292 times as likely to die from some form of heart disease
- 8053 times as likely to die from some form of cancer
Of course, this is for a hypothetical “average person”. Personal risk will depend on a great many factors. Obviously men don’t die in childbirth. However, terrorism is such a rare event that risk of terrorism-caused mortality is minuscule regardless (maybe unless you’re in active service in JTF-2).
Some more terrorism trivia. On a global scale, any average person is more likely to die from falling out of bed than in a terror attack. On a low-terrorism year, globally more people are killed by hippos than by terrorists. On a high-terrorism year, about as many people are killed by terrorists as die from random lightning strikes.
I don’t mean to say that we can safely ignore global terrorism. Clearly, terrorism is doing the job it’s meant to do: inspire terror. Terrorism isn’t just about killing people, but about making people afraid that they might be the next victim. If we really want to fight terrorism, we need to acknowledge it but stop being afraid of it.
If we took our emotional response to terrorism and applied it elsewhere, to the real threats to our safety, we might make more progress on these fronts. Perhaps we’d be able to eradicate cancer and heart disease, the greatest threats to our lives. Or do something about the 246 people who died of malnutrition in Canada in 2011. It should be pretty clear, numbering among Canada’s greatest enemies are Coca Cola, Doritos, and the couch, not to mention our more insidious foes, major depressive disorder and the human appendix.