Tag: probability neglect

Mueller Right; Terror Experts Wrong

John Mueller was right and everyone else was wrong. (Well, not everyone else…)

That’s Cato senior fellow John Mueller. He noted on the National Interest blog last week that 79 per cent of top terrorism experts queried in 2006 thought it was likely or certain that there would be another major terrorist attack in the United States by the end of 2011. They got it wrong.

When the survey came out, it touted these experts as the “very people who have run America’s national-security apparatus over the past half century.” Mueller lampoons them thus:

The Very People’s 79 percent error rate is especially impressive because, although there had been quite a bit of terrorist activity in Iraq and elsewhere during the four-and-a-half years between 9/11 and when the survey was conducted, none of these attacks even remotely approached the destruction of the one on September 11. Nor, for that matter, had any terrorist attack during the four-and-a-half millennia previous to that date. In addition, although terrorist plots have been rolled up within the United States, none of the plotters threatened to wreak destruction on anything like the scale of 9/11, except perhaps in a few moments of movieland-fantasy musings.

Mueller was one of few suggesting in 2006—and well before—that 9/11 might be more of an aberration than a harbinger.

Mueller’s studied correctness so far is not proof of what the future holds, of course. If you want to, it is certainly possible to cling to the threat of terrorism and the metastasis of policies that purport to address your fears. Part of terrorism’s design is its operation on fear to produce cognitive errors like probability neglect, for example.

But thanks to Mueller, terrorism is holding fewer and fewer people in thrall. It is a serious, but manageable security threat. Those still transfixed by terrorism may add another fear to their long list: They may be mocked by the man who knows the subject matter better.