Immigrants, Jellybeans, And Fear Mongering

Even though evidence indicates the Paris attackers weren’t Syrian refugees a lot of assholes have been exploiting the tragedy to forward their xenophobic agenda. One such meme created by these xenophobes goes something like this:

If i gave you a bag of 50,000 jellybeans and told you 100 are poisonous, you wouldnt accept them right? Then why would we accept 50,000 refugees if some of them are bad?

This meme just goes to show, once again, that humans are naturally bad at risk assessment. The Foundation for Economic Freedom address this issue by pointing out some much scarier numbers:

I like jelly beans and numbers so I did a back of the envelope calculation. In the US there are about 15,000 murders per year. Most murderers kill only one person. Even serial killers kill only 2.8 people on average. Thus, 15,000 is also approximately the number of murderers in a year.*


The current US population is 322 million, so there are .0023 murderers per capita, or 2.33 murderers per 1,000, or 116 murderers per 50,000 people in the United States.

Put differently, about 116 American babies out of every 50,000 will grow up to murder someone. (Perhaps the NYMag should rerun its poll?). In contrast, only 100 of the 50,000 jelly beans were poisonous.

People tend to worry about situations where large numbers of people die at once more than situations where one or two people die even when the latter occurs frequently enough where the total number of dead is higher than the former. This is why a lot of people are scared to fly but think nothing about driving from home and work everyday.

Another problem people have with risk assessment is worrying about things they know nothing about more than things they understand well even if the latter is far more dangerous than the former. That is why many people are scared of allowing in Syrian refugees, a group of people they know little or nothing about, even though no terrorist acts have been perpetrated by a Syrian refugee in the United States and domestic terrorists have killed more people than Middle Eastern terrorists. In fact that brings up another interesting situation few people worry about:

WASHINGTON — In the 14 years since Al Qaeda carried out attacks on New York and the Pentagon, extremists have regularly executed smaller lethal assaults in the United States, explaining their motives in online manifestoes or social media rants.

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.

Overall, since 9/11, there have been 48 people killed by non-Muslim extremists. Meanwhile over 1,000 people have been killed by police this year alone. Yet most people would rate the threat of domestic extremists higher than the risks of domestic police. Why? Because few people actually know any domestic extremists and most people believe the vast majority of police officers are good guys.

I could play with numbers all day in an attempt to generate fear of anything I personally dislike. But I feel my time is more productively spent explaining risk assessment so those of you reading this can avoid falling into scary number traps.