Foolishness in My Hometown

Some blood-pressure-raising letters in today’s L.A. Times. In my series about risk, I’ve been making the point that we often waste resources and attention on small risks, rather than spending it on stuff that could really make a difference.

Here’s a textbook example from someone who believes no risk is too small and no inconvenience too great:

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Breathing New Life Into Smoke-Free Living

“Smoking at Home Targeted” (March 2) states that “people irritated by secondhand smoke call [Assemblyman Joe] Nation’s bill long overdue.” We wish it were as simple as an “irritation.”

Those of us who are making the call to action to which Nation, a San Rafael Democrat, has responded have illnesses such as migraines, lupus, heart disease, asthma and other serious lung diseases that are seriously made worse by tobacco smoke. As the American Lung Assn. states, “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

To say we must live with secondhand smoke in our homes to accommodate the smokers is absurd. To simply ask that we have the option to live in our apartment or condo smoke-free is not an unreasonable request. No one is saying smokers cannot smoke in their own homes; AB 210 merely protects nonsmokers by separating them from any designated “smoking sections.” Most condo associations and apartment landlords have either refused to provide safe, smoke-free homes or are waiting for laws that give them a safety net to do so. Tobacco smoke is dangerous. Far too many adults and children have been made very sick by their neighbor’s smoke. Therefore, legislation has become necessary.

Jacque Petterson
Acting Chair
Condo Owners
for Smokefree Living
Santa Clarita

And then this one from a deep moral thinker:

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
No Soldiers, No War; It’s as Simple as That

I am a little tired of reading sappy stories about reservists or regular soldiers going off to war (“Reservists Answer Call to Duty,” March 2). The popular attitude appears to be “support the soldiers, don’t support the war.” Well, you cannot do one without the other. Without soldiers even Hitler would have been just another megalomaniacal Austrian. And yes, those soldiers were told that Poland fired the first shots. (Saddam Hussein hasn’t even fired any shots yet.)

Whether for economic reasons, or out of conviction, any soldier or reservist makes himself or herself a weapon. The GI Bill might look good if your college funds are low, but consider that you are willing to pay a price in human lives — yours or Iraqis’. Our weapons are not smart enough to miss children, other civilians or even allies. War without soldiers is not possible. President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice are not going to strap on their six-guns and challenge Hussein to a gunfight at the Exxon corral. No soldiers, no war; it’s as simple as that.

Pauli Peter
Los Angeles

Damn, if only I’d realized how simple it is to bring on world peace; just disband the U.S. military, and we’ll get the WTC and our 3,000 dead back. It’s mindblowingly frustrating for me ly, that as I become increasingly convinced that Bush and his Administration are mendacious and lack the real clarity of moral vision and ability to broaden and sell that vision that is required to deal with the current world situation, I become more convinced that the people who oppose his policy are morons. It doesn’t leave me with a lot of places to stand on this.

There are two major studies on secondhand smoke as a health hazard; one by the EPA (a somewhat biased opposition commentary is here)which showed a weak correlation, and one by the WHO which did not. There is some controversy, to put it mildly, over the facts on the issue.

But that won’t stop Jacque’s group from working hard to pass policies that will be expensive in terms of their impacts and costs – and will cost lives, because other, more productive policies won’t make it to the table.

Risk and Reality (Part 3/6)

[Read Part 1: Risk | Part 2: Risky Business | Part 3: Risk & Reality | Part 4: Risk & Politics | Risk, Reality, & Bullsh-t ]

My dad was a gambler. He was an unusual gambler, because he won (sometimes quite a lot); in part this was because he was a brilliant mathematician – he’d been a cryptographer in Army Intelligence in Hawaii and India during World War II – and because he understood that the places to win lots of money were the places where the betting public…he had a less polite word for them…mispriced the real odds. A horse might really be a 25 – 1 shot, but if the parimutual odds on it were 500 – 1 and the conditions were right, it could definitely be a worthwhile bet. A series of those bets would certainly result in a profitable season.

What that gave me was an appreciation for the smell of cigar smoke, an eye for judging things in terms of risks and odds, and the sense that public perception of odds and costs might not really reflect the true risks involved.

Here, in this blog, we’re talking about the possible emotional mistreatment of children by teachers who use them to act out their political agendas…at the expense of the children’s well-being.

I wrote about this recently, and asked if it was a ‘problem’ or an ‘incident'; there’s an important difference here that I should elaborate on.

Bad things happen. My local paper today has an article about a young woman here in L.A. who was abducted by a slimeball who promised her a shot at celebrity and instead murdered her and dumped her body in the Hollywood Hills. This is a horrible event…but is it a ‘problem’ in our community? A ‘problem’ to me is something that materially affects the community as a whole. In reality they are just two points on a spectrum; there is no magic threshold where ‘incidents’ become a ‘problem’. But we treat them differently; we externalize the costs of problems while we leave individuals to deal with the consequences of incidents.

Another way of looking at it would be to ask how safe is your car? In reality, it could be made much safer…we could, for example, use racing-type fuel cells essentially rubber bladders inside of reinforced gas tanks), which would effectively eliminate fires as a consequence of accidents. But in reality, these cells are very expensive, and relatively few people are injured or die in automobile fires. So how much are we all prepared to spend – to bet, in essence – in order to get what kind of payoff – how many lives saved?

Sometimes the bet (cost) is financial – adding race-car quality fuel cells to cars would cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to the cost of a car. Sometimes it is behavioral – getting people to drive slower. Each one has a payoff (increased safety) and a cost (financial or behavioral).

In an ideal world, we’d carefully look at the payoff and the cost of our choices, and do what good managers do – pick the high-payoff/low-cost actions to do first, and work our way down from there.

We seldom do.
We don’t for two basic reasons; because we misperceive the true odds – we think we are more likely to win (or lose) than we really are, and we don’t look at the total cost of the choices we make, because we try hard to externalize the costs – to get other people to pay on our behalf.

We misperceive the true odds for a variety of reasons. One of the ones that I tend to focus on is that we misperceive things because the dramatic nature of the event, and how it interacts with preexisting ways in which we view the world, and both reinforces what we already believe and serves as a factual argument to support our beliefs.

So let’s take a case and explore it a bit.

Over at Armed Liberal, I raised the point that gun-control opponents typically leverage children’s injuries and deaths from firearms as a justification for stricter regulation of guns.

My response was that this was, to be generous, disingenuous as swimming pools are far more hazardous to children than firearms are, and we don’t see an aggressive effort to ban or restrict the ownership of swimming pools.

So I went to the CDC data. Take a look at the tables below; in the ‘accidental’ category, drownings represent 10 times the deaths caused by firearms (868 vs 85); when we include homicide and suicide, drownings still represent more than twice the deaths (881 vs 410). After adding homicides and suicides, firearms deaths (410) represent less than 20% of the deaths caused by car crashes (2,220).

Here are some numbers, from the CDC data for the year 2000. These are summaries that I did from their tables of the causes death for children 1-4, 5-9, and 10-14. Here are the Top 10 overall causes of death:

All Deaths 12,392 100.00%
Unintentional Injury 4805 38.78%
All Others 2,459 19.84%
Malignant Neoplasms 1,434 11.57%
Congenital Anomalies 894 7.21%
Homicide 727 5.87%
Heart Disease 452 3.65%
Suicide 307 2.48%
Influenza & Pneumonia 190 1.53%
Chronic Low. Respiratory Disease 190 1.53%
Septicemia 162 1.31%

Drilling down into the ‘Unintentional Injury’ category gives us this table:

MV Traffic 2210 45.99%
Drowning 868 18.06%
Fire/burn 564 11.74%
Suffocation 268 5.58%
“Pedestrian, Other” 166 3.45%
Other Land Transport 144 3.00%
Firearm 85 1.77%
Poisoning 77 1.60%
Fall 73 1.52%
Natural/ Environment 67 1.39%
Struck by or Against 64 1.33%
Other Transport 52 1.08%
Unspecified 50 1.04%
Other Spec., classifiable 38 0.79%
Pedal cyclist, Other 32 0.67%
Other Spec., NEC 24 0.50%
Machinery 18 0.37%
Cut/pierce 5 0.10%
TOTAL 4805

This obviously doesn’t include all the children who die from firearms; the homicide and suicide classifications obviously include deaths that would change these numbers. Taking the homicide and suicide causes of death, and mapping the clear overlaps (firearms, drowning, suffocation, etc.), we get a final table that looks like this:

MV Traffic 2220 40.50%
Drowning 881 16.07%
Fire/burn 601 10.96%
Suffocation 494 9.01%
Firearm 410 7.48%
Pedestrian, Other 166 3.03%
Other Land Transport 144 2.63%
Poisoning 98 1.79%
Fall 73 1.33%
Natural/ Environment 67 1.22%
Struck by or Against 64 1.17%
Other Transport 52 0.95%
Unspecified 50 0.91%
Cut/pierce 50 0.91%
Other Spec., classifiable” 38 0.69%
Pedal cyclist, Other 32 0.58%
Other Spec., NEC 24 0.44%
Machinery 18 0.33%
TOTAL 5482

Look, each of these deaths is itself an unspeakable tragedy. As a father, it is unimaginably painful for me to look at these tables and recognize that each number could represent one of my sons.

But if our goal is to try and reduce the overall number of these tragedies, and we have a finite amount of effort, political capital, and money doesn’t it make sense to spend the effort, political capital, and money where it will have a greater effect?

In other words, how do we make good bets?

How much has Canada spent on their failing gun registry? How many lives did it save, and how many would have been saved had those dollars been spent elsewhere…for example on giving car seats away, on drivers training for young mothers, on subsidized loans for swimming pool fences, or on water-safety classes in kindergartens and elementary schools?

And a part of it becomes one of setting priorities – of making good bets.

We do this in part by trying to agree, as a society when something is an ‘incident’ – even if tragic – and when it becomes a ‘problem’ – an issue where there are enough related incidents that by changing something we get a positive return on our effort.

We need to be conscious of getting a return, because we don’t live in a world in infinite effort or resources; we have to choose the places to spend attention and effort.

That’s the danger, as I see it, of misperception of risk. We spend what limited resources and attention we have on low-impact, high-cost solutions where we could have been solving high-impact low-cost problems.

And part of what we do is to place unrealistically low perceived risks on things that we control, or where we disproportionately benefit, and outrageously high perceived risks on things where we have little control or gain little direct benefit.

Having a swimming pool is probably significantly more dangerous that having a gun; more than twice as many children die from drowning as from firearms, and fewer people have pools than guns. But first, those who have pools benefit from them, and (often tragically) misperceive the risks involved. And secondly, the dramatic image of a child shot and killed or shot and wounded is so great – even though the real agony of a parent who loses a child found quietly drowned in a back-yard pool is certainly no less.

And for those who have a strong set of beliefs about the world – that guns are bad – those dramatic images drive your perception of the world, regardless of the true level of problem or the cost of dealing with it.

If you already believe that guns are bad, then every incident feeds your perception and is used to strengthen your argument that they are a ‘problem’. The young woman was murdered by a male sexual predator; if you believe that all males are sexual predators, and that all relations between men and women are defined by this – here’s evidence.

And the same thing is true if you believe that liberals are bad; every incident of bad behavior by a liberal is amplified into a groundswell of abusive teachers.

Why is this a problem?

Because on one hand, we live in a world where incredible anxiety about objectively low risks changes our public policies and gets us to spend limited attention, energy and wealth on solutions.

And on the other, we ignore, or lack the will to spend the resources on objectively more serious risks that we undervalue and so we remain exposed to them.

Conversely, recent studies have been done among gay and bisexual men, American heterosexuals and women in Africa which show that they dramatically underestimate their risk of STD’s and AIDS – meaning that the behavioral changes that would make it less likely that they would contract or spread HIV aren’t on their plate, because they don’t see any reason to make those changes.

“At the XIV International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Dr. Ron Valdiserri, deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) programs, released alarming data on the occurrence of unrecognized HIV infection and misperception of risk among young African American “men who have sex with men” (MSM) – the center’s technical designation for gay and bisexual men.

This latest CDC data revealed that nine out of ten HIV positive African Americans who participated in a study of young gay men were unaware of their HIV status.

Dr. Valdiserri also released data that indicates that rates of HIV infection have stabilized in the U.S. in recent years. Meanwhile, the widespread use of antiretroviral therapy in the U.S. has dramatically reduced the number of AIDS cases and deaths in adults and children since 1996. Since 1998, the reported AIDS cases have remained at approximately 40,000 AIDS cases per year in the U.S.

And it’s not limited to gays:

New Survey Reveals Americans Underestimate Their Risk for Contracting Genital Herpes
April 26, 2000
Contact Tracey Adams
Director, Media Relations
(919) 361- 4811
(919) 361- 4815 (fax)

Research Triangle Park, NC — A new survey by the American Social Health Association (ASHA) shows that many adults in a high-risk category scored themselves as having no risk of contracting genital herpes, one of the nation’s most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

In a Web-based survey of 1,414 individuals conducted for National STD Awareness Month, ASHA found that 46 percent of men and 39 percent of women believe they are not at risk for genital herpes despite the fact that they currently have multiple sex partners. This significant misperception of risk contrasts sharply with high knowledge scores on several questions, including risk factors.

“This is what we call ‘the herpes disconnect,” says Linda L. Alexander, PhD, FAAN, president of ASHA. “Three out of four people will tell you the ways that genital herpes is transmitted and will tell you that having multiple partners is a risk factor. But when you ask them about their own risk, all too many throw out the facts and minimize the risk.”

Or to the US:

In eight countries in which HIV/ AIDS has reached epidemic levels, with 5% or more of the population infected, a significant proportion of sexually active girls (aged 15-19) think they face no risk of contracting the disease, according to results of recent surveys.

In three countries – Haiti, Zambia and Zimbabwe – the misperception of risk was shared by 63%, 52% and 50% of girls, respectively, and by more than 40% of girls in three other countries surveyed.

So we drive SUV’s we choose for perceived safety (where the numbers are relatively clear there is no safety advantage) while talking on our cellphones (where the numbers are becoming clear that there are substantial risks from their use while driving and the evidence on other health effects is murky) to the home we bought far from powerlines (where there is no evidence of health effects) to microwave our dinners (which can generate greater EMF than living next door to powerlines).

It’s insane. We make bets each time we make a decision based on risk. We bet that the bank will be solvent, the car safe, the medicine will work without ill effect. But we’re choosing to make the sucker bets while leaving all the winning bets unmade. No wonder we’re going broke.

And beyond this, I’ll suggest that there is a deeper philosophical problem.

The flip side of risk is hope. Risk is the perception of negative consequence; hope the desire for the positive outcome.

We are driven by both, by a desire to avoid the bad and to grasp the good.

The world today suffers from a crisis of hope.

I wonder how deep it is, or if it is primarily in the educated media-spinning classes which makes it appear pervasive.

This is Part I
This is Part II
Part III is here
Parts IV > VI aren’t written yet.

More Maine

I’m watching the teachers story with interest and concern.

My concern is threefold: First, and foremost, for any children who may be involved; second for my liberal peers who – if this story proves out – have shot themselves in the foot again; and finally for my peers on this blog – Joe and Trent.

The first two are self-explanatory.

The last requires some explanation. And it will provide a nice springboard to my next blog post on risk as well.

I’ve got to walk a somewhat fine line here. I’ve followed this with some interest, and some concern. As I’ve said a bunch, my belief is that the left in this society needs to rediscover its relationship with patriotism.

And as a parent, the idea of my sons being singled out and abused because of a teacher’s political discomfort with me sends my temper soaring.

So, to the extent that teachers are harassing military children because their parents are following their legally constituted orders, I think they’re abusing the children.

But…

…is this a problem?

Asking whether it’s a problem isn’t the same as suggesting that it’s OK. It is not even denying the reality of several instances. But when something gets elevated to the status of a ‘problem’, it implies that it is systemic and pervasive as opposed to infrequent. Lots of bad things happen to people which may or may not be problems.

I’m working on the next post in ‘Risk’ in which I talk about risks to children. We tend to misperceive risks, which itself causes all kinds of problems.

In this case, there are a few possibilities:

It never happened.
It happened a few times.
It’s widespread.

In order to figure out our response, it helps to have some base of fact that we can use to figure out what we’re dealing with.

We don’t yet have them.

First, the better, which has me laying some “fact checking” on myself. It looks like my earlier report of problems in Texas was a emotion driven misinterpretation on my part of an e-mail sent to me. The gentleman involved said he would not be surprised that there were several incidences in Texas, not that he knew of several incidences in Texas. I apologize for that. Growing up as a military dependent, I let my anger over this color my objectivity.

OK, so it’s not happening in Texas.

Now for the “worse” part: further checking of the report from Kansas revealed that the Gulf War in question was 1991, not 2003. I thought this was an improvement, at first. Then I went to our track back “linkie love” and found this from Emily’s blog:

“…Teachers are entitled to their opinions the same as everybody else, but they should be expressly forbidden for making their students suffer by them, especially when those students happen to be between the ages of 7 and 9 years old.

My fourth grade teacher, a judgmental sixties throwback, was very cruel to me once he found out that my father was an officer in the Air Force and had served in Cambodia. He taunted and picked on me, even humiliated me on more than one occasion in the front of the entire class. I feel for these children so badly, almost to tears. Here their parents have made a tremendous sacrifice for their country, followed their orders as they promised, and are putting their very lives on the line and these… people make their kids feel like worm-rot? I’m with Joe: MAKE THEM PAY.”

So this sort of thing hasn’t just happened before, it has happened repeatedly over the decades, and it was done by individuals associating themselves with the anti-war movement. It just hasn’t had the Web to advertise these abuses (and >AMEN< to Emily's last line above).

OK, so it’s not happening in Kansas, either.

Unfortunately for these child abusing low lives nationwide, I was not the only one fact checking for this abusive behavior. For one, I now have an e-mail reply from a really pissed off mother from New York about a teacher cursing her son in class for enlisting. The wider media has started to run with the Maine story as well. Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh have all picked up this story as has Fox News, CNN, ABC News, World Net Daily, and the Washington Times.

There are two things I have not seen in this story yet from the mainstream media, and they very much worse, as far as the abuse of military dependents is concerned. The first is from of all places a BBS for the science fiction publisher Baen (registration is required for posting there):

“The bad news is that it is a dozen confirmed cases, more cases are being checked, and it is widespread with complaints being documented in Portland, Bangor, and Augusta. Also, kids being kids, it has been confirmed as well that this has now gone to the playground and such, with the other kids taking the cue from the teachers and taunting the kids of the troops.”

The fact that we have three separate places where teachers did the same thing at the same time suggests a coordinated campaign. Whether this was simply a group of people sharing the same feelings spinning each other up to vent on kids at the same time, or active and coordinated malice, is something that needs to be investigated and not swept under the rug.

No political movement is so noble and just that it doesn’t attract its share of nuts. On that basis, an acquaintance from my “list of usual suspects” mailing list suggested looking at the Maine Chapter of “Educators for Social Responsibility.” The “ESR” is a spin-off from the 1980’s anti-nuclear group “Physicists for Social Responsibility.” The largest and most active chapter of the ESR was in Maine. My acquaintance, who is a very leftist college professor, viewed the support of the Maine chapter of the ESR for the anti-nuclear movement, and other leftist causes, “in the same way Republicans would view the support of a chapter of the KKK.”

I don’t know for a fact if this organization is involved or if it is just a “cultural marker” for the politics of Maine academia. I do think it is a good starting point for people investigating these incidences in Maine to run down.

Uh, a good place for people investigating this to start would be to try and identify and call out the specific cases. Second-hand tales are enough to raise concern, but like the Internet tales about JATO-powered Chevys, more scrutiny is required. Or not. We don’t know. We need to.

When you Google search “Maine Teachers” most of the first 20 stories are about Maine teachers abusing military children.

Trent…because we have been running the story and other blogs have followed our lead.

The primary world image of Maine teachers is that they are child abusers. This is something Maine residents know and have been debating over on places like the “As Maine Goes” BBS (registration required). Maine State Rep. Michael Vaughan, R-Durham, has set up his own clearing house e-mail address at repmavaughan@hotmail.com for parents of children victimized by this or others knowledgeable of this matter to contact. He has also called for the dismissal of the teachers involved.

Trent, can we have a trial before we have the hanging? Can we calmly gather some facts and make considered decisions?

The problem here is that neither the Maine education establishment, nor their supporters in the Maine Democratic Party, have realized the potential for violence and negative stereotyping here. They are too busy covering up, papering over, and spinning. If they do not see to it that the teachers involved are suspended at the very least for these actions, they are ratifying, condoning and endorsing them.

How about proving that these things really happened? How about citing facts? Trent, you make a series of unsubstantiated accusations and then call for action based on the hysteria these accusations create. You can do better. You need to, because you’re not just talking to five friends in a bar here. The Wall Street Journal is amplifying your accusations, and what’s not happening yet is a simple recitation of facts and numbers that would tells us that one Maine teacher has been abusive to five students because their parents are in the military, five Maine teachers have been abusive to ten soldier’s children, or a thousand Maine teachers have been abusive to ten thousand military children. We don’t know, and we can’t know because you make accusations based on facts you won’t publicly support. And then you – as we say in Los Angeles – jump the shark.

The most important point of public justice is to preempt people taking private justice. This was the real and ignored lesson of Waco and the run up to the Murrah building bombing.

In this context, Trent, that’s a damn dangerous thing to say. I’m reminded of the staunch Chamber of Commerce types in the South in the 50’s who explained that none of those regrettable church bombings would have happened if it wasn’t for those pesky Northern agitators.

The BATF’s screw ups and abuse of power that caused the Branch Davidian stand off were ignored by the Clinton Administration, the mainstream media, and the then Democratically controlled Congress. Newt Gingrich and the NRA used the public discontent with that outcome in mailings and talk radio to build a really poisonous public climate that resulted in the 1994 Republican take over of the Congress.

This is a brilliant and honest analysis – but do you really want to acknowledge this? That the root of the modern Republican electoral majority is “a really poisonous public climate“? Atrios will be thrilled.

Gingrich and his crowd ran like scalded dogs from that hate talk when the Murrah building bombing happened. They did this in large part because of the picture of the fireman carrying a dead child from the wreckage of the Murrah Building’s day care center. That image overpowered anything the Republicans and the NRA could say. This turn of events let Clinton stereotype Republicans as “mean and evil haters of women and children” for the 1996 election.

Perhaps the problem wasn’t the photographic image, but the hate talk itself? Perhaps it was the toxic, partisan atmosphere itself?

What is different this time around is that the Maine establish cannot spin this for public sympathy like the Clinton Administration did. They are not protecting children from David Koresh’s child abuse. They are protecting child abusing teachers from the public. That makes all the difference in the world.

The Maine education establishment is ignoring this at its peril. The names of the teachers who did this *will* become public domain. If they are not punished by the school system, and the school system actively frustrates attempts by the public’s political representatives to do so, they may be punished by vigilantes via physical violence.

Please note carefully that I am not advocating or condoning violence. It’s just that I’ve seen this before.

Before we accuse the Maine administrators of ‘protecting child abusing teachers’, let’s prove that the abuse is happening, that it isn’t an aberration, but a pattern. If it is, let’s root it out.

But until we provide some hard evidence, we’re the ones out on a limb here.

THINGS THAT SHOULD BE OBVIOUS, EVEN TO ME

You know how, if you kind of know you way around mechanically, you decide whether to have the disc brake rotors on your car turned when you’re going to do the brakes?
You check to see if they’re warped, and whether they have been scored by the old pads.
You shouldn’t, however, drive home down a 1,000 foot hill, pull into your driveway, get out of the car, and reach past the mag wheels to run your fingers over the (hot!! damn!! damn hot!! really damn hot!!) rotor.
I’ll be typing with my left hand for a day or so until the blisters on my fingertips go down…