Get a Grip!

A few days back, John Scalzi posted a piece celebrating YA books and authors, which included some reading recommendations. In the comments, a few people said that as childless adults they were reluctant to go into the YA section of the store, lest people think they were creeps looking for kids to prey upon.

I can honestly say that that would just never occur to me. I can't really imagine how skeevey somebody would need to look before I thought "Gee, I wonder if that guy is really a pedophile creep?" rather than "There's a guy looking for books for his kid."

Of course, the sad thing is that the people saying that might almost have a point, given the preposterous level of paranoia we have about evil creepy people stalking children.

A few weeks ago, when we toured the local hospital where FutureBaby will be delivered, a surprisingly large part of the tour was devoted to detailing the security precautions in place-- only certain nurses with special ID badges are allowed to transport babies from one place to another, and babies in the nursery have rings put around their ankles that will trigger a complete lockdown of the hospital if they come too close to any of the exit doors.

This, in spite of the fact that, as Slate points out, in 2002 there were a total of 115 "stereotypical kidnappings," which are the sort of thing that you think of when you think of creepy people hanging around in hospitals or bookstores: "a nonfamily abduction perpetrated by a slight acquaintance or stranger in which a child is detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom or abducted with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed." That's 115 in a nation of 300 million, for any child under 18. That hardly seems like a threat significant enough to require the indignity of fitting FutureBaby with a theft deterrent device like a discount CD at Best Buy.

(I half wanted to ask whether we could forgo the theft deterrent anklet, as FutureBaby, being a Baby of the Future, will be GPS-enabled from birth. I decided it probably required a little too much background information to get the joke, and would probably end up with me being put on a List somewhere...)

Also, before people jump on it, the Slate essay does note that "a 1997 study estimated that only 5 percent of nonfamily abductions (in which a nonfamily member detains a child using force for more than an hour) get reported to police," but even that would only bring the total to about 2,300, out of more that 73 million children under 18, meaning that the chance of a stranger abduction is really less than 1 in 30,000 for any given child. That's roughly comparable to your lifetime odds of dying in an accident involving electric power lines, and only a little better than your lifetime odds of being executed for a capital crime, according to this entertaining list of odds. Even in the worst case, we're not talking about a significant danger.

Of course, the theft deterrent anklets are really like the flight insurance mentioned in John Tierney's column in today's New York Times. The chances of anything actually happening are ridiculously small, but the consequences are sufficiently bad that it completely destroys our ability to gauge risk. This is a well-documented phenomenon:

Even people who consciously reject superstitions seem to have these gut feelings, says Orit Tykocinski, a professor of psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. She found that rationalists were just as likely as superstitious people to believe that insurance would ward off accidents.

In one of her experiments, players drew colored balls out of an urn and lost all their money if they picked a blue one. Some players were randomly forced to buy insurance policies that let them keep half their money if they drew a blue one. These policies didn't diminish their risk of drawing a blue ball -- but the insured players rated their risk lower than the uninsured players rated theirs.

That same magical thinking was evident when Dr. Tykocinski asked some people to imagine buying travel insurance before getting on a plane, and others to imagine not buying it because they ran out of time at the airport. Sure enough, the ones with insurance figured they were less likely to lose their bags, get sick or have an accident.

Putting electronic merchandise protection tags on babies is silly and unlikely to make the slightest bit of difference in anything. It's also pretty harmless and unobtrusive, relative to a lot of other things in our post-2001 culture of security theater.

Still, I can't help thinking that it's yet another example of a way in which life would be better if people could maintain some perspective about risks. If we could stop seeing terrorists at every ticket counter, pedophiles in every YA section, and baby-snatchers in every hospital, we'd be much happier and healthier as a society.

More like this

If you have the baby in a hospital, they will most likely put an ankle tag on the baby which triggers an alarm if the kid leaves the hospital front doors without being scanned...
especially so if you live in a quiet suburban small town kinda place which has not had any kidnapping in a century.
If you are lucky, the kid will manage to wiggle out of this thing and trigger a lockdown - ours did, I am proud to report.

Well, regarding the car seats, I think a *better* question is, why on earth aren't the adult seats that comfortable, and equipped with 5-point harnesses?

When my kids were young we used to take them to one of those hamster-maze playground places where child/parent pairs were tagged with matching bracelets and you couldn't leave with a child unless the bracelets matched. I knew at the time the risk was incredibly small, but all the same I liked it.

I was surprised at the high level of protectiveness that kicked in as soon as I became a father, an experience that may not be understandable to people who don't have children. I presume it's a sort of biologically-driven paranoia, but the evolutionary advantage is obvious.

While the risk-evaluation failure of humans in these circumstances is well-known, I can't help wondering how many of those procedures are actually mandated by the hospital's liability insurance. But then, I spent 15 years living in CA, where the things required by doctors liability insurance boggle the mind.


Whether or not you will still think of 1:30000 as a small number after FutureBaby is born, my guess is that, at the very least, it will not appear as small then as it does now.

I have some experience with the whole "oh no! an adult in the children's section" - I'm fairly short- if I shave very well I look like a child, if I have a lot of facial hair I look like a stereotypical middle easterner (hence terrorist) and when I have 1-5 days of growth I look like a creepy pedophile.

I suspect Mary Kay is right about the origins of the policy. The chances of kidnapping happening to any given baby may be small, but I can envision a scenario where one hospital, somewhere in the US, had this problem and came up with this solution, which then got passed around the whole country as a "one size fits all" mandate. A similar thing happened with airbags: for most adults they save lives in a head-on collision, but they turned out to be potentially fatal to children and small adults, especially when wearing seat belts (which are more effective at preventing injury anyway).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 06 May 2008 #permalink

You did note that the first statistic for abduction doesn't match the second. One involves being held overnight and one being held for an hour.

I think what many parents fear - and judging by the number of registered sex offenders in any community: a valid fear - is the temporary abduction for rape. Unfortunately in any city the number of accounts you hear of that is quite high. The 'traditional' kidnapping for a long period is probably over feared (and over-reported) but the quick abduction and rape is more common.

I'm curious about how many babies were accidentally switched at birth before the ID bracelets for mom, dad, and baby were required. It's a situation that could easily go unnoticed, since it's a zero-sum issue - no baby went missing. I remember some cases reported many years ago where the mistake was figured out 10-20 years after. I'm sure it's rare, but by the nature of the problem, there is no way to know the stats without massive DNA sampling and cross-checking.

I think a different way to look at the response to those odds is to say that the odds are very low that anything will happen, but the consequences are so great that it makes sense to take reasonable steps to prevent it. Now there are other questions, like how reasonable (expensive?) are those steps, and what are the negative consequences of those steps?

Frank: Whether or not you will still think of 1:30000 as a small number after FutureBaby is born, my guess is that, at the very least, it will not appear as small then as it does now.

That may be.
I'm going to make every effort to maintain a sense of perspective, though. 1 in 30,000 is a small number, and not a level of risk that demands a great deal of fretting.

Mark P: I think a different way to look at the response to those odds is to say that the odds are very low that anything will happen, but the consequences are so great that it makes sense to take reasonable steps to prevent it. Now there are other questions, like how reasonable (expensive?) are those steps, and what are the negative consequences of those steps?

The chief negative consequence is really creating needless stress among prospective parents, who may not have thought to be paranoid about creepy people snatching babies from the hospital without the chirpy lecture about the wonderful security system in place to prevent it.

Creating needless stress is one of the things our medical system excels at, though.

I suspect hospitals don't measure risk with the same statistical objectivity as yourself. The issue for them is not --is 115 stereotypical kidnappings in a population 300 million an acceptable risk-- the issue is how much damage could some shyster ambulance chasing lawyer do to the hospital if just one of those stereotypical kidnappings happened on site.

I think that New York Times article has the causation wrong. This isn't magical thinking -- people don't say "purchasing insurance will decrease my risk". Instead, the possibility of the bad thing induces fear and the fear causes people to overestimate the risk. Insurance gets rid of some of the bad thing, reducing the fear, which stops people from overestimating.

One of the saddest cases I heard of magical thinking as risk reduction was as follows.

The 3rd grade girl was wheeled into the ambulance, having been struck by a car while crossing the street.

"I don't understand," she said, weeping. "I did just what I was taught. Look to the left. Look to the right. Then cross the street."

Nobody had explained effectively that it is not a magic spell to ward off cars. The mantra should be "Look to the left and see if any cars are coming. Look to the right and see if any cars are coming. If there are no cars coming, then cross the street."

We are all being treated as children by Homeland Security. If all liquids are emptied from all container before the flight, and we've taken off our shoes going through the metal detector, and all the other well-intentioned rituals, then we are magically safe while flying.

My son emails me from Law School to say (now that I have his permission):

I had forgotten that story -- a horrific thought. Ultimately I think the entire problem is self-perpetuating. So long as most people are zombies performing magical rituals without understanding how they help, then it is increasingly necessary for an aware and risk-averse person to implement ridiculously over-the-top precautionary measures where doing so would be unnecessary in a society where people were rational about their conduct. So long as some hospitals are run by idiots just going through the motions, parents who become aware of a concern can only be placated by a showing that this hospital is run by observant and rational employees, or by buying fancy baby-anklets that foolproof the system. I figure it is cheaper to just buy the damn anklets than to rely on the rationality of your employees. Short of a nation-wide educational reform raising a generation without mystical teachings, I just don't see a way out of the cycle.