More people died on American highways the week before 9/11 than in those two towers.  But how much has been spent on guardrails compared to so-called homeland security?  Does this show that Americans care less about their loved ones being killed than at whose hands? If so the American people have the collective moral maturity of a five year old. So the more likely – not to mention more charitable – interpretation is that they’re just not very good at understanding probabilities. 

But if so they’re hardly alone. Darrell Huff wrote his manual on How to Lie with Statistics sixty-seven years ago, and not one of us has since improved his risk assessment skills by one iota. Apparently the human mind is simply incapable of distinguishing between the doubling of one’s income from, say, $50,000 last year to $100,000 this year, and the doubling of the number of murders in New York City from one to two. The former means a great deal. The latter means nothing at all.

In the eleven days leading up to the ceasefire this Thursday night, the kill ratio has been 20/1, i.e. 256 Palestinians to only 12 Israelis. From which it follows that … Nothing at all. I have it on good authority that 14 Israelis were killed in car accidents over the course of those same eleven days. So can anyone really think that Hamas could really think that its four thousand slingshots would change the course of history? Or that the Israelis could really think that Hamas would really let the loss of 256 of their countrymen, including 66 children, dissuade it from its course?

When combatants and non-combatants cannot be separated – as was the case in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, and now in both Israel and Palestine – war just is terrorism, because terrorism is the only way such wars can be fought. Neither 256 out of a population of two million, nor 12 out of a population of five and a half million, is going to make the slightest difference in a war of attrition like this.

It would if this were a war to-the-last-man-standing. But that’s not an arrangement either side is prepared to enter. Why not? Because were the Israelis to shift to a program of genocide, there’d be fifteen million Jewish corpses, including my own, strewn throughout the Diaspora.

The Israelis know this, the Palestinians know the Israelis know this, and the Israelis know the Palestinians know the Israelis know this. So if this isn’t a war to the last man standing, what is it? It’s the periodically necessary maintenance of an accommodation. 


It’s how these two people have decided to co-exist. Every three or four years we lose a few, you lose a few more, and then we carry on, because under these unfortunate circumstances, there’s no other way either of us can.

In the age of infotainment, the last eleven days have been newsworthy, but they haven’t been news. They’ve just been one demonstration among enumerably many of just how bad we are at understanding statistics.  

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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