Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Lawnmowers, terrorists, and other major threats

Lawnmowers, terrorists, and other major threatsI do not wish to alarm the public, but I must urgently report the discovery of a disturbing fact: It seems that in 2006 -- according to the most recent StatsCan data -- two Canadians were killed by lawn mowers. As I said, disturbing. And there's more. Much more. Also in 2006, nine Canadians were killed in accidents involving kayaks or canoes. Three were killed by dogs. Six by hot tap water. Thirty-two drowned in pools. Fifty-four were killed by falls from ladders, while three more died after falling from trees. One person was killed by contact with a thorny plant. Another died after being stung by an unspecified "nonvenomous insect." Medical "misadventure" claimed the lives of 18 more. Four were struck dead by lightning. Forty-one were killed by accidents in bathtubs. One Canadian was killed by "exposure to high and low air pressure and changes in air pressure." I don't know how someone can be killed by changes in air pressure. But I'm sure I don't want it to happen to me. And I'm sure I find this all very terrifying. After all, these figures mean the number of Canadians killed in 2006 by sloppy doctors, for example, was a staggering 18 times greater than the number of Canadians killed by terrorists. Well, sort of. The actual number of Canadians killed by terrorists in 2006 was zero. As it is most years. And 18 times zero is zero. But just to keep the math simple, let's pretend that one Canadian was killed by terrorists. Now, think of all the hype about terrorism, all the official hyperventilation, all the media shrieking, all the fear and alarm. And multiply it many times over: That is how frightened we should be about sloppy doctors, bathtubs, ladders, and lawnmowers. Like I said, terrifying. Or perhaps not. My analysis only works if the hand-wringing about terrorism is reasonable, which is to say that it is proportionate to the actual threat. It may not be. It may be exaggerated. Inflated. As pumped up and hollow as the Goodyear blimp. And, if that is the case, it may be that neither lawnmowers nor terrorists are a significant threat to the safety of the average Canadian. Conservatives like to appeal to a deity they call "common sense" and I wonder which analysis is more appealing to that omniscient being: That ordinary Canadians should fear hot tap water, air pressure, lawnmowers, and terrorists? Or that we should all have a gin and tonic with a chaser of sang froid and calm the hell down? I'd probably put my money on the latter. Of course, this conclusion is rather at odds with recent events. Only last week, suspected terrorists were arrested! In Ottawa! They were going to make bombs! Bombs, I tell you! Nothing less than "national security" was in danger! Oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth! Every day, another "Japs Bomb Pearl Harbor" headline. Another talk radio host bellowing like an elephant as mice scurry over his toes. Another bug-eyed police chief warning citizens to be vigilant. Another terrorism expert peddling fantastic scenarios of Armageddon. Another politician promising to stand tall against the massed ranks of Evil. And Gardner dares compare terrorists and lawnmowers? Outrageous! Terrorism may not have taken any lives in 2006. But it could. Any day now. And it might not be one or two lives. It might be a catastrophe. Why, it might be as bad as the London bombings of 2005. Leaving aside the small matter of probability -- why bother with details? -- this is not quite the conclusive argument some think it to be. The London bombings were a horrible crime, to be sure, but they killed 52 people. That is less than half the number of Canadians who choked to death on their food in 2006, and I don't recall any official warning that the continued gagging of the citizenry would imperil the nation. Oh, but it could be even worse! What about 9/11? Doesn't that change everything? Well, terrorism is a very old and widespread phenomenon and one could argue that it is bizarre to use such a singular event -- 9/11 was the deadliest terrorist attack by an order of magnitude -- to judge the threat of terrorism generally. But such finer points of reason aren't likely to carry the day. So let's agree to use that yardstick. The death toll in 9/11 was 2,996 (including the 19 terrorists). In 2006, the total number of Canadians killed in transportation-related accidents was 3,097. Similar losses are suffered each and every year. Yet life goes on. Of course the people hyping terrorism seldom debate these points directly. For the most part, they prefer to ignore critics. Or they erect a straw man and give him a good thrashing. "Terrorism remains a real threat to the safety and security of Canadians," the government's Integrated Threat Assessment Centre says on its website. And voilĂ ! Last week, the police arrested alleged terrorists. So it's case closed. "I do think this incident once again serves to remind us that Canada does face some very real threats in the troubled world in which we live," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said. But no sane person has ever suggested that terrorism isn't a real threat. Or that it is not a hideous crime that must be vigorously investigated and punished. And it's only reasonable that questions of immigration and integration should be explored (although much of the discussion on that score has been about as enlightening as the thoughts of Archie Bunker). How big is the threat? That is what's in dispute. For reasons that I discuss at length in my book, Risk, I believe that terrorism is nothing more than one item on a very long list of relatively modest threats we cope with in modern life. Perceptions to the contrary are the product not of evidence and reason, but of flawed media reporting, self-interested hype and unfortunate foibles inherent in human psychology. What really underscores that point aren't the stats about death by bathtub and all the others listed above. Like terrorism, those are all external causes of death. What really kills people -- what we really should worry about -- are the internal killers. In 2006, cancer killed 67,807 people. Heart disease took the lives of 49,893 more. And so it goes down the list. Influenza killed 5,152; Alzheimer's 5,675; suicide 3,512. Diabetes killed 7,261 Canadians. That's 139 people every week. Number of front-page stories about diabetes during the last week of shrieking hysteria? Zero.