A ban to prevent terrorism

Trump. These days everybody, his supporters as well as his opponents, are non-stop talking about him. After just two weeks in office Donald Trump has caused more outrage than former president Obama in eight years. By far the most controversial action so far was his ‘Muslim Ban’: the decision to ban people from seven predominantly muslim countries from entering the US, even if they had valid visa. The  justification that Trump gave: he is trying to protect the people in his counrtry from the threat of terrorism.

The question here is though: how real is that threat?

A bias towards fear

To asses the danger of terrorism, one crucial thing is to note: in our modern society, where most experiences are second-hand (i.e. media, news), human beings have a hard time knowing what is a real danger and what risk is exaggerated. We only perceive as potentially threatening what we hear about. The severe dangers that are not extensively covered by the media however are often neglected. This is called the availability bias: when forming an opinion we can only take into account the information we have. But just because there is a lot of information about one thing doesn’t necessarily mean that this thing actually exists a lot.

Let’s take terrorist attacks: if they happen, they are covered extensively by all media. Facebook and Twitter are full of it, there is news on all channels, the newspapers print extra editions. But while terrorist attacks are undoubtedly horrible, the number of people getting killed in terrorist attacks is actually miniscule. Here is how likely it is for an American to get killed by a terrorist, compared to other deaths (taken from BusinessInsider):

  • 6 times more likely to die from a shark attack (one of the rarest forms of death on Earth)
  • 29 times more likely to die from a regional asteroid strike
  • 260 times more likely to be struck and killed by lightning
  • 4,700 times more likely to die in an airplane or spaceship accident
  • 129,000 times more likely to die in a gun assault
  • 407,000 times more likely to die in a motor vehicle incident
  • 6.9 million times more likely to die from cancer or heart disease

Availability Bias and terrorism

So while the risk of getting killed in a terrorist attack could be safely ignored when thinking rationally, unfortunately  our minds don’t work that way. Instead, we watch the news, and we blow things out of proportion. This way, the availability bias makes us fear islamic terror, while we don’t even think twice about driving a car. Trump is using this short-coming of our brain very effectively by constantly reminding everyone of the danger that is terrorism, thus increasing the bias further:

The best thing that could be done against this bias: to stop covering everything that Trump says. Our modern society is becoming more and more complex, but it is the responsibility of the media to try to report about it as accurately as possible. Donald Trump is painting a distorted picture of the world we live in and his rants should therefore get as little media coverage as possible. Only that way can we stop making irrational decisions based on fear rather than facts.


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