Schneier confuses life with death

Steve [*] Schneier (security expert and tee-shirt provider to the cognoscenti) has a post in which he pokes at the massive costs of counter-terrorism, apparently out of all proportion to the threat. However, he has a bizarrely wrong calculation: I quote:

The death toll of all these is... sixteen deaths in the U.S. to terrorism in the past ten years. Given the credible estimate that we've spent $1 trillion on anti-terrorism security (this does not include our many foreign wars), that's $62.5 billion per life saved. Is there any other risk that we are even remotely as crazy about?

I'm happy with the last sentence, but not the one before it: no Steve, that is $62.5 billion per person killed not per person saved. We've got no idea form the info you quote how many people were saved, so we can't do the calculation you want to.

This obvious point is made in the comments, and SS even answers there, apparently failing to get the point. Certainly, he has updated the post several times, but still hasn't corrected this rather basic blunder.

And just so I'm not being purely negative in this post, here is a nice picture from mt:

(I don't agree with the exact shape, but the concept is correct)

[*] Ahem. See comments.

[Update: in the comments, MV manages to find a way to make BS's numbers work. I think it is somewhat smoke-n-mirrors, but the logic seems fine:

We assume that spending more resources leads to fewer deaths, but not to none. And we adopt the simplest possible model of this, viz:

R = k / D

Therefore, the cost of preventing one more death is (approximately) 1.dR/d(-D), which is

k / D^2 = R / D

Neat, eh?]


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Your argument is only slightly undermined by the fact that his name is Bruce, not Steve.

[Oh f*ck. I really hate it when I do that -W]

The person you're writing about is Bruce Scheier. Perhaps you're confusing him with Steve Schneider?

[I fear that may have been the source of my error. I did know the real answer, honest -W]

His name is Bruce and thinking sorts ought to completely ignore him [along with RPJr].

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

Your subconscious assumed that it was a "mind if we call you Bruce just to keep it clear" moment, and replaced it with the nearest match it could come up with :)

[:-) -W]

You're right Bruce has the sign reversed and we can't do the calculation, but there isn't much doubt about the calculation would unfavourable. I've heard it said here (australia) is that if you are spending more than $10 million per life saved you probably should rethink the policy. So for $1 trillion you'd want more than 100,000 deaths prevented

[Certainly. Don't mistake me - I think his essential argument - that we're spending far too much money, and paying far too much attention, on the "war on terror" is entirely correct -W]

1) Yes, we obviously spend too much on anti-terrorism. We should simply stop Muslim immigration, stop importing oil from anywhere except Canada and Mexico,

[This is a joke, I think, since the US would long ago have ground to a halt from lack of oil if you did so -W]

[More wildly OT stuff removed -W]

2) The graph seems to be an argument from popularity. Additionally, I'm not entirely sure how accurate the numbers are since most of the polls done on the subject seem to be by people who want to sell their books.

[More gone. TGL: you simply don't know enough about GW, or anything related to the debate, to say anything sensible, if what I removed is any guide. Alas the thread then degenerates into a pointless troll/anti-troll match (you may, if you please, decide for yourself which side you're on). Everyone else: if your responses are gone, it is because the originals to which you are replying have also vanished -W]

By TheGoodLocust (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

@Rocco I believe everything I typed except for the obvious jokes like destroying their spaceports and horses.

By TheGoodLocust (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

TheGoodLocust --- Meteorologists do not learn the fundamental physics; geophysicists do.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

Meteorologists do not learn the fundamental physics; geophysicists do.

Huh? By meteorologists do you mean TV weather people? Because research meteorologists and most operational meteorologists have somewhere between more than a cursory to a very extensive knowledge of physics.

Davey | August 29, 2011 8:28 PM --- It is obvious that meteorologists Lindzen, Spencer, Gray[sic?], ... simply fail to understand what is in Ray Pierrehumbert's book. Being good at atmospheric fluid dynamics just ain't enuf.

Many so-called physicists get it completely wrong as well, which is why I stated geophysicists --- somehow knowing string theory leads one off into another dimension...

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

PFF, what? What a bizarre post. Yours that is. You just complain about a trivial mistake and that's all you can think of to say on the issue?? He acknowledged it in the comments : "good point".

Clearly only the dregs are left here on sciblogs.

[You're not thinking. It isn't a trivial point. It is a fundamental error in his post, which is not recoverable. As far as I can tell, he hasn't even realised that, much less acknowledged it -W]

[Snips - W]

Essentially, the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming can be summed up by three logical fallacies:

1) Argumentum ad verecundiam - We have credentials and spiffy international organizations behind us.

2) Argumentum ad populum - So many people believe it.

3) Argumentum ad ignorantiam - There can't be any significant negative feedbacks because we haven't thought of them.

[You're not thinking (and no, please don't reply here, this is the wrong post). GW is based on the science; but since you know none of it, and refuse to even look at it, you cannot say anything interesting about it -W]

By TheGoodLocust (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

TheGoodLocust | August 29, 2011 9:51 PM --- Paragraph (1) I don't believe you. Paragraph (2) --- You are flat out wrong.

I'll try again, since surely Pierrehumbert's book is too difficult for you: David Archer has made videos of his beginning climatology class available on-line
so you can actually learn some beginning climatology [instead of just spouting off about matters far beyond your current comprehension.]

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

Can't you two get a room?

Davey, I suspect that if they did David would be forced to use argumentum ad baculum!

By Rattus Norvegicus (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

In all this I did learn something. Argumentum ad verecundiam is a completely legitmate form of inductive reasoning (when correctly applied):

As science is enitrely inductive subject, that is, always subject to empirical verification (or the opposite), a.a.v. is appropriate for discussions of matters scientific.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

Rattus Norvegicus | August 29, 2011 10:59 PM --- I'm retired now.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

TheGoodLocust | August 29, 2011 11:11 PM --- What is the obvious (but minor error) in Chapter 1 of Pierrehumbert's book?

My judgement that you appear willfully ignorant is your appearent refusal to even consider reading my recommended sources (along with many other previous comments of yours). But I'll try once more, suggesting it because it is quite short.
"Why does climate change? Causes and Timescales" by Chris Colose…

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

TheGoodLocust | August 29, 2011 11:22 PM --- In science (as opposed to deductive logic and mathematics), nothing is "true". Learn some inductive logic and [the same thing] Bayesian reasoning.

Appeals to the foolishness of some regarding Einstein's General Relativity are completely missing the point. [But incidently, while mathematical relativity theory is moving along, with a good review article in a quite recent issue of the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, its status as being applicable to the large scale structure of the universe remains in doubt.]

Nothing so seemingly sophisticated is required to begin to undeerstand planetary climates. However, while I readily profit from most of the articles and reviews in the aforementioned publication, I'll readily admit that Pierehumbert's book is one of the more challenging I've attempted [and I don't think I've lost that many brain cells yet.]

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

It seems that several professors of philosophy distinguish between the Method of Authority and a.a.v. The Wikipedia article does not, but shows when the Method Of Authority provides (subjective) evididence which can be used to from (subjective) posterior probabilities.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink


I'm curious how evolution "contradict[s] hypothetical catastrophe from increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.", since I'd say I have a pretty strong grasp of the mechanics behind evolution and nothing in particular stands out to me regarding AGW.

[If that comment makes little sense in the current state, it is because of the vast swathes my censorship scythe have cut through the comments -W]

TheGoodLocust | August 29, 2011 11:51 PM --- Ok, it sounds as if you probably don't need David Archer's basic lectures, so I recommend starting right in on Raymond's book. I read it through once and am now going at it mcuh more slowly; however, some of the exercises are distinctly difficult so it appears I'll have to do a third time before I can claim to have a good (amateur) understanding of the subject.

[Your last paragraph-sentence once again tends to confirm my sense you don't know WTF you are talking about. Try understanding just what d18O measurements imply; the starters are in chapter 2 of the Pierrehumbert volume.]

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

TheGoodLocust --- (1) Clearly you fail to understand the adoptation (evolution) problem. For some background on evolution, look to many fine posts on Carl Zimmer's blog [not to mention his suburb books]. As for enough CO2, ponder the situation during LGM. Here is something to consider:

(2) First read Pierrehumbert's book; nay, study it. Then you'll begin to be in a position to consider the climatology of Terra's present and near future. As it is, you are stumbling in the dark. Sorry about that.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

Obviously wikilawyer TGL had to learn the basics of the scientific arguments in order to come up with that sort of bullshit (it's how wikilawyerin' is done, doncha know). Which makes him just a liar. He's not worth the time, David, besides which I suspect most of that tendentious blather will be expunged not long after the first rays of the sun strike Cambridge.

[You may well be right, I haven't got to his comments yet, only the replies. I have noticed that TGL has fared much better over the nuclear issues than over climate; to each their own. I do wish people wouldn't reply to trolling, though -W]

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

Steve Bloom | August 30, 2011 12:54 AM --- Well, I learned something about the Method of Authority. That will surely prove useful in countered mistaken claims of (illegitamate) a.a.v.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

I noticed 39 comments on the post.
I never thought it would be just trolling.

My advice: TGL is a D-U-M-B T-R-O-L-L. Act accordingly

Grasshopper: twaddle and nonsense. I don't go to the TV weather man for advice on heart surgery, and nor do I go to him for advice on atmospheric physics.

For expert advice, I consult the authorities - and the authorities' opinions on climate change are - as represented in that graph above - largely to the right of the conservative line presented by the IPCC.

The opinions to the left of the IPCC in the graph above are largely the opinions of non-experts, kooks, ego-maniacs, and energy-industry stooges.

Feel free to use the TV weather man for your expert advice, but don't expect anybody to respect your resultingly ineducated opinion on the matter.

By Vince whirlwind (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

Actually, playing devil's advocate, I think I can see where Schneier's argument is coming from. As so often in economics, there is a law of diminishing returns, also price elasticity. Using a simple model relating the resources spent R to the outcome D (which will be the number of people still dying), if we guesstulate [yep, that's from guess and postulate]

R = C/D

it follows for the marginal cost of preventing a death

dR/d(-D) = C/D^2 = R/D.

QED ;-)

[Hmmm, nice equations, but what do they mean? R is resources ($). D is deaths. So C is "costs", but in units of "$ people" - ie, not in the units of $/people, which is what you might expect costs to be in. That doesn't seem right -W]

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

@WMC No, it isn't a joke. The US already gets much of its oil from Canada and Mexico (imports to US from other countries in k's of barrels):

Country Jun-11 May-11 YTD 2011 Jun-10 YTD 2010
CANADA 2,085 2,006 2,110 2,174 1,969
SAUDI ARABIA 1,164 1,197 1,129 1,120 1,076
MEXICO 1,108 1,154 1,108 1,076 1,121
VENEZUELA 1,012 895 933 850 906
NIGERIA 813 808 871 1,064 994
IRAQ 559 407 435 630 508
ANGOLA 373 356 319 425 411
RUSSIA 335 339 248 416 277
COLOMBIA 272 414 334 387 320
BRAZIL 269 260 222 307 281
KUWAIT 238 200 158 217 204
ECUADOR 219 134 175 245 200
ALGERIA 110 263 229 375 323
CHAD 87 55 53 0 8
CONGO (BRAZZAVILLE) 77 59 65 34 81

(I didn't post the link because there was an annoying error on the website)

In any case, with a vast expansion of nuclear and natural gas power we could simply convert our coal into diesel much like Nazi Germany and South Africa did.

It is entirely feasible to starve the Middle East.

I'm also disappointed that you'd delete my comments since I was being quite civil.

[You've done pretty well for that, thank you. But you've gone somewhat off topic, and rather more, you (and those you're talking to) have fallen into the last-word fallacy, which happens so often. If people could only learn to stop saying things when they have nothing new to say, that would be wonderful -W]

By TheGoodLocust (not verified) on 30 Aug 2011 #permalink

William, yes the unit for C is dollars-people. It is the constant defining the relationship. And no, it is not "costs", it's "constant".

BTW an easy generalization:

R = CD-a,

with a a number close to unity. For a between 0.3 and 3, you will find that Schneier's result is order-of-magnitude correct.

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 30 Aug 2011 #permalink

William I vaguely suspect that Bruce Schneier has seen this logic demonstrated to him a long time ago, and remembered it, sort-of, kind-of, but messed up the rendering. A different kind of confusion ;-)

Restated in words (for those who hate math): if a change of 1% in resources used (R) leads to a change of -1% in the number of people getting killed (D) -- a not implausible behaviour --, then the ratio of the absolute changes dR:dD will equal minus the ratio of the absolute numbers R:D (because, obviously, both dR/R and -dD/D equal 1% = 0.01 -- sigh, I don't seem to manage without math :-( )

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 01 Sep 2011 #permalink