Syrian skittles

On a politician’s CV, the ability to frame an issue with a colourful and inaccurate analogy must surely be in the top three useful skills.

Donald Trump can be proud that his son appears to have inherited this skill, with his (plagiarised) analogy about Syrian Refugees being akin to a bowl of skittles, three of which are lethal.

A bowl should hold about 300 skittles (say 350 ml volume, 0.75ml per skittle, 64% packing density), which gives a nicely rounded estimate of 1% of the Syrian refugees being terrorists.

Strictly speaking, the analogy suggested that each American citizen had a 1% chance of dying for every refugee the country took in – for each skittle “consumed”.

The analogy neatly conflated a handful of skittles which would be distributed over a country of 300 million people, with a personal risk to you of 1% per skittle in your hand. Admittedly, this is over an unspecified time period, but the poison analogy suggests the risk is immediate. In practice, the refugees would collectively need to kill about 3 million Americans per year in order to reach an annual risk level of 1% for each citizen. The analogy suggests a risk more like 10% (10 skittles in your hand), or 30 million deaths, over some unspecified time period – perhaps 20 years. If it were 20 years – in other words if any poisoned skittle you ate took 20 years to kill you, or you ate one potentially instantly lethal skittle every two years – the level of risk would be identical to that during the American Civil War, when about 0.5% of the population were killed each year.

Soooo yes, a slight exaggeration.

But, as any good politician knows, statistics and fear don’t really mix. When our brains are confronted with a threat, we don’t sit down and do the maths. In fact, the entire “rational” and “calculating” parts of our brain shut down, and everything is handled by our instinctive faculties. Incidentally, the same thing happens when appeals are made to our better nature – statistics about child mortality don’t raise any money, but a single photo of a drowned boy on a beach can be a game changer.

In response to the skittles analogy (and the general “fear of foreigners” theme to Trump’s campaign), liberals are duly outraged. They predictably “do the maths” in studies such as this one published by the Cato Institute in order to present the “facts”. However one meta-fact escapes them: the “fact” that political campaigns such as Trump’s (and the very similar themed Brexit) are “fact free” zones. Or, as The Economist calls them, “post-truth”.

As much as I like statistics about risk, there is one aspect these studies systematically ignore. As a corollary of the assumption that all lives are valued equally, all causes of death are valued equally.

Governments probably do need to value all lives equally, or perhaps (at most) base the cost of a death on “life years lost”. Even this is subjective: who is to say an old person’s life is worth less than a young person?

But the constant inability to recognise that all deaths are not equal is an enormous liberal political blind spot.

According to the Centre for Disease Control, 1,169 Americans died in 2014 choking on food (skittles?). Another 76,488 Americans died from diabetes and 6,892 from obesity directly (definitely skittles). Donald Trump Jr is right – (real) skittles are bloody dangerous.

Politically, no-one cares about deaths from chronic, non-infectious diseases. All lives may be equal, but some deaths are more equal than others. This is not “the fault of the media”. This is something instinctive to us, which the media responds to in order to provide us with information we care about.

Terrorists, air crashes and paedophiles (at least, those who are unrelated to their victims) occupy a special place in our fear register, and therefore in our politics. We systematically and massively over-react to the objective risk posed by these groups (why is a whole separate discussion). The same goes for foreigners (ethnic “out-groups”) in general (see On forests and trees). So when the terrorists are foreign, that presses two buttons at once.

By pretending that all deaths are equal, liberals automatically ensure that a lot of people stop listening – certainly anyone with ethno-centric beliefs. The facts are irrelevant because the sound is already switched to mute. The liberal response (in newspapers like the Guardian) to the “skittles scandal” is telling – they quote from the Cato Institute report that the risk of being killed by a refugee is one in 3.6 billion.

That is true – but unless you know how many refugees are in the United States, you can’t make an informed judgement on the risk posed by refugees on an individualised basis. Fortunately the (excellent) Cato study considers this question, and while refugees are exceptionally untalented at killing people (20 terrorist attacks resulted in only 3 deaths), they do actually represent a higher risk than most other categories of foreign visitor to the United States. Apart from people entering on fiancé visas (one incident: San Bernadino), asylum seekers are in fact the “most dangerous” type* in terms of terrorism – every 175,131 entrants generate a terrorism death. It is striking that there has not been a single terrorist death from the 388 million foreigners who came under the visa-waiver program (although three apparently incompetent terrorists were admitted this way). Moreover, historical data might not apply to a refugee crisis where terrorist groups in the countries of origin are explicitly targeting the countries which accept the refugees (e.g. Turkey).

These (perhaps uncomfortable) results were not presented in the liberal articles.

If we are going to discuss how we balance our humanitarian impulses with our (irrational, but real) fears, we need to start by acknowledging the latter. We also need to address the “fact” – speaking of facts – that all deaths are not equal. Murders are much worse than deaths from disease. Murders committed by “out-groups” (or strangers) are much worse than those committed by “in groups” (or people we know) – even if there is no philosophical or ethical reason for them to be. Instinctively – and therefore, politically – they are. Every state has some control over whom it admits, which places a higher degree of “control” (and therefore political responsibility) over crimes committed by foreigners.

Liberals who are more open to outsiders – and therefore more willing to consider their crimes “on par” with those committed by natives – are wasting their time by throwing statistics and insults at their political opponents. They may be xenophobes. So what? Soon the badge will be worn proudly, like the “deplorable” t-shirts being rushed into print after Hillary Clinton lambasted Trump’s supporters.

Liberals appear to be perplexed as to how to respond to xenophobia and complete indifference to “facts”. The alternative to presenting “facts” to their political opponents is “appeals to emotion” – such as the photo of the little Syrian boy covered in blood and dust sitting peacefully in an ambulance. The idea is that social conservatives might be xenophobic, but appeals to their strong protective and family instincts will melt the hardest hearts. In case the recent campaigns hadn’t made it clear, plenty of studies support the idea: emotion trumps facts.

This morning I read an article in the Guardian which dismissed both the “facts” and “emotion” approaches. It laid the blame on the usual suspects: neoliberalism, big corporations and free trade. The solution is to “share jobs more equitably” – based on the (ludicrous, but completely mainstream in France) left-wing notion that there is a “lump of labour” that we all need to divide between us.

And this is where the liberal left is just as happy to ignore the facts (and economics) as their political opponents: support for Trump is mostly not due to free trade, unemployment or globalisation. The Economist ran an interesting article which showed that “… people who lived in areas less affected by globalisation—whether the loss of manufacturing jobs or influxes of immigrants—were the ones more likely to view Mr Trump favourably” (my emphasis). In any case, unemployment in the US is lower now than it has been for eight years. When unemployment was high, they voted for a black, liberal president, not a white racist one.

What is the right response to the likes of Donald Trump, Nigel Farange, Marine le Pen and Pauline Hanson? I don’t know. But presumably it doesn’t start by telling oneself comforting lies.


* keeping in mind, of course, that US citizens regularly murder each other at a far higher rate that all types of foreign terrorists manage: 1 death per year for every 25,000 odd Americans (4 – 5 per 100,000)