Friday, December 3, 2010

Security Screening and Probability Denial

“Probability is the very guide of life.” — Joseph Butler, 18th century theologian

The Transportation Security Administration’s controversial passenger screening policies demonstrate just how distorted our priorities have become. We have maneuvered ourselves into being more terrified of being accused of racism than we are of death.

Political correctness is the equivalent of a societal lobotomy. Political correctness prevents us from using basic logic and common sense when we make large and small choices. We know what we need to do to make ourselves safer but we’re in denial about what we know.

As John Smith, a columnist for Las Vegas Review-Journal, asked in a recent column, “Patting down my disabled daughter makes us safer?” The answer to that question is no, and everyone knows the answer is no. The obvious absurdity of our policies is the backdrop of why so many travelers are frustrated and angry.

How ridiculous is it to pretend that all passengers have an equal probability of carrying weapons or explosives? Our rejection of profiling is a rejection of behavior that we use so much we lose sight of how essential it is in our lives. The TSA is behaving as if there are no outward signs of a passenger’s likelihood of committing a terrorist act.

Our policy makers are pretending that probability is irrelevant in making choices and designing policies. Taking into account probability is second nature to any normal person. If probability didn’t matter, you might as well go fishing on dry land as on a lake or river.

When we refuse to consider probability we severely reduce the probability of achieving our objectives—in this case preventing the violent deaths of innocent people. Refusal to consider probability in making choices is a symptom of insanity. A strong intuitive sense of probability is an indicator of intelligence.

Political correctness is making us look like fools who don’t even have an instinct for self-preservation. We demonstrate a lack of seriousness. Is that a message we want to send to our enemies?

We do not have unlimited resources at our disposal to combat terrorism (or any other objective, for that matter). Resources we devote to preventing low probability problems are unavailable for high probability problems. There is no free lunch and there is no free PC. Patting down 80-year-old ladies and three-year-old children is actually making us less safe.

Even animals, whether by instinct or experience, consider probability. Predators look for prey where they have had previous success. That’s where the probability for future success is highest. Taking probability into account is essential to their survival.

The public’s strong reaction to the latest TSA policies goes beyond scanners and body searches. Nobody appreciates being inconvenienced or feeling violated. What makes it especially infuriating is feeling that it is not necessary or useful and that there are more effective alternatives staring us right in the face.

The traveling public has shown admirable patience with screening procedures to date. People are far more tolerant of necessity than they are of stupidity. Much of the travelling public seems to have reached the conclusion that the new security measures are more the result of cowardice than necessity.

Security Screening and Probability Denial December 2, 2010

Ron Ross Ph.D. is a former economics professor and author of The Unbeatable Market. Ron resides in Arcata, California and is a founder of Premier Financial Group, a wealth management firm located in Eureka, California. He is a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be reached at

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