Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Don't let the numbers stand in the way of the story you want to tell

A week or two ago, The New York Times had an article, Homegrown Extremists Tied to Deadlier Toll Than Jihadists in U.S. Since 9/11 by Scott Shane. My initial response was, "Hmm. . . I wouldn't have thought so but let's see their evidence."

I had three parallel thoughts before reading the article.
1) This sure sounds like Eric Holder's and the Southern Poverty Law Center's sustained efforts in recent years to define anything at odds with the Administration as either a Hate Group or domestic terrorism. Much palaver over right-wing extremists such as The Tea Party, Knights of Columbus, etc. has been jawboned into the national conversation. Holder and SPLC are unable to distinguish thoughtful and legitimate opposition from things that are actually bad and are ever eager to demonize such opposition as "The Other" to be shunned, ostracized and destroyed. Even if those "others" are simply fellow Americans who disagree with SPLC, Holder & Company. The New York Times has been in close company with SPLC, Holder & Company in this incomprehension.

2) This seems both a trivialization and misdirection. They are focusing on fine distinctions and precious definitions regarding 74 deaths over nearly fifteen years. That is in comparison to some total of nearly 200,000 murders in the same time. Every premature death is a tragedy but surely the facts and circumstances of some 199,926 murders call for greater analysis than 74. The 74 are largely random and unpredictable whereas there are well established patterns and causes for the 199,926. Where are you going to invest your time and efforts in order to achieve the greatest benefits? And if this is such a miniscule issue (in terms of numbers), why is the NYT calling attention to it? It seems dramatically disrespectful to that hugely greater population who are suffering from run-of-the-mill violence compared to the rare exotica of terrorism.

3) This almost seems intended to diminish the perception that Islamic terrorists pose a real threat to the American public. A reeducation campaign, as it were. In one sense, the NYT is right. One is at far greater risk of being killed driving than flying, of being killed by a neighbor than a terrorist, etc. We have a cognitive bias that exaggerates the unusual over the quotidian and that bias is the bane of public policy making. The Public in general and Policy Makers in particular are dreadful at making fact-based risk decisions. But the source of the biased fear is not without a rationale. People fear most that over which they understand themselves to have the least control. We think we can maintain good relations with our crazy neighbor but there is nothing we can do to forestall a terrorist's actions.
The NYT lost me in the second paragraph where the import of their methodology struck me.
But the breakdown of extremist ideologies behind those attacks may come as a surprise. Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, including the recent mass killing in Charleston, S.C., compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.
It is one of the oldest tricks in the statistical book. Change the base of your axis in order to overemphasize or deemphasize the point you want to make. In this instance, why not look at Jihadist terrorist attacks 2000-2010 or 2000-2015? Nice standard time increments. But no. Their starting point is September 12, 2001, thus omitting the 3,000 dead from jihadist terrorist attacks on September 11. Adjusting to more standard time frames, now we are looking at 3,026 deaths from jihadist terror attacks versus a purported 48 from domestic terrorists. But that is apparently, for whatever reason, not the story the NYT wanted to tell.

Things began to get clearer in the fifth paragraph.
Non-Muslim extremists have carried out 19 such attacks since Sept. 11, according to the latest count, compiled by David Sterman, a New America program associate, and overseen by Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert. By comparison, seven lethal attacks by Islamic militants have taken place in the same period.
So this isn't actually NYT original investigative reporting being given prominence. This is press release journalism promulgating a study from a think-tank. Now, since this isn't really NYT investigative reporting, we have to figure out the credibility of the New America think-tank. Too much bother and too many possible agendas. This whole article goes into the cognitive pollution pot.

But not before this brief paragraph caught my eye.
Counting terrorism cases is a subjective enterprise, relying on shifting definitions and judgment calls.
Indeed. How many of those purported 48 domestic terrorist attacks are objectively and irrefutably domestic ideological terrorism comparable to the attacks of jihadists? Depends on your definitions and at this point I have no confidence in either the NYT or the unknown New America think-tank to produce solid data, particularly given the terribly small sample size.

I had thought to blog about this article at the time but there is only so much time you can invest in revealing cognitive pollution. I was hoping some intrepid journalist would expose the statistical shenanigans of the NYT/New America. And heeeeeeeres ....Megan McArdle with Tallying Right-Wing Terror vs. Jihad. Not as complete a take down as I think could have been done, but she hits the main points. Thank you Ms. McArdle for maintaining some journalistic sense of numeracy and Truth.

Why is catching and exposing cognitive pollution important? If I ever had any doubts, and I did not, they would have been allayed by this report of the public shaming of a leading and immensely productive global scientist through a false allegation by a radical feminist with a thin and mostly false resume of work experience. Regardless of how we feel about the truth, it is what we should always seek rather than pandering to our emotions and our ideological ideals. This account is shocking. A very flawed accuser: Investigation into the academic who hounded a Nobel Prize winning scientist out of his job reveals troubling questions about her testimony by Guy Adams.

That prompts the question - Why on earth do we in the US, with our huge media complex, have to rely on British tabloids to provide information that gives us more than one side of a story?

UPDATE: Balko makes some similar and related points, The good news about extremist violence in the United States: It’s vanishingly rare by Radley Balko.

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