In many ways, the recent revelation of the NSA's secret PRISM domestic spying program was reminiscent of Lance Armstrong's appearance on Oprah, where he admitted to doping throughout his cycling career. In neither case was any reflective person shocked. We'd always suspected as much. But even strong suspicion is not knowing. Before the revelation, discussion inevitably focuses on the what the true facts are. Once things are in the open, however, attention turns to the how, the why, the scope, the legality, and perhaps the morality.
Whatever your view of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the issue his disclosure has raised is one that any genuinely democratic society needs to have ongoing public debate about, particularly the US, which since its birth has seen itself as a global beacon of democracy.
Unfortunately, given the nature of national security, which involves the balancing of risks, for that debate to amount to more than mere opinions, one of several basic cognitive abilities the participants need to have is a good, general sense of quantity. Yet as mathematician and author John Allen Paulos observed in his 1988 bestselling book Innumeracy, the US, in particular, fares poorly in that crucial twenty-first century life skill.
With our education system focusing largely on drilling students to carry out mathematical procedures that can now be done effortlessly on cheap devices we carry in our pockets, the hugely important ability known as quantitative literacy goes undeveloped.
The price we are now paying as a nation for this educational neglect is driven home dramatically in the Pew Research Center's June 10 report, headlined Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-terror Tactic.
As a naturalized American, I have an immigrant's reverence for those words of our National Anthem, "Land of the free, home of the brave." For many of my fellow citizens born here, I fear these are just words they learned to recite in elementary school. For the fact that 56% of Americans declare that they would give away fundamental freedoms to reduce the risk of terrorist attack indicates that we may become the "land of the enslaved, home of the scared." (Imagine another J Edgar Hoover, but with today's information infrastructure at his disposal.)
If there really were a terrorist threat, this willingness to trade-off our Constitutional rights might be understandable - though surely nothing to be proud of. But the plain fact is, US citizens living on US soil do not face a terrorist threat of any significance. We simply don't. The false belief that we do is where our nation's lack of basic quantitative literacy comes home to roost. Bigtime, with potentially major consequences.
Yes, those images of the Twin Towers falling were, and remain, vivid to civilized people the world over. In my case, they resulted in my changing my career, and directing my mathematical research skills to a series of projects for the Department of Defense - so I take the threat seriously. But I have never made the mistake of thinking it is a major threat for which we should give up the basic freedoms the Founding Fathers fought for and enshrined in our Constitution. I worked on intelligence analysis because my skills are of particular relevance there and I was in a position to do my bit. But I could have far great impact on protecting my fellow Americans had my expertise been in, say, medicine or public policy.
The fact is, it does not require my level of mathematical training to recognize that we do not face a credible terrorist threat. All it needs to put those terrifying images into proper context is basic quantitative literacy; in particular, the ability to assess and balance risks. It's not rocket science. Heavens, it's not even shopping sense!
Take the ten year period starting with the 9/11 attack through to 2011. That includes the one and only significant loss of life in the US due to terrorism, when over 3,000 people died, so in terms of risk assessment it is an anomalous spike, but le's go with it. In that same period, roughly 360,000 Americans lost their lives in traffic accidents. Over 100 deaths for every one terrorism death. (In fact, the greatest loss of life due to 9/11 was not in the Twin Towers but on the US roads, caused by an increase in traffic deaths during the months when few people were flying!)
About 10,000 of the 30,000 annual traffic deaths in the US are caused by drunk drivers. Yet despite the fact that every one of us is over thirty times more likely to be killed by a drunk driver than to be a victim in a terrorist attack, no one has argued that we should give up basic Constitutional freedoms to reduce drunk driving. Or cell phone use or texting while driving. Or smoking. Or obesity. All far greater killers than a terrorist attack.
True, there is an extensive research literature analyzing why humans give irrationally inflated significance to dramatic forms of death such as airplane crashes or terrorist attacks. But those misperceptions are easily countered with just a modicum of quantitative literacy. We're not talking mathematics, which most of us (I definitely include myself) find difficult. No fancy calculation is required. Just a general sense of number - a reliable sense of risk - which anyone can acquire with just a little coaching.
When you realize that, as an American, you are far more likely to die in your bathtub than in a terrorist attack, you can live your entire life free of any fear of terrorism - and fear of taking baths, since that risk, while greater than a terrorist attack, is still tiny.
We Americans are so attached to our personal freedoms that many argue fiercely to maintain the right to fill their closets with assault rifles (accidental deaths by guns are a significant risk in the US, much higher than terrorism) and rally against universal health care (which would drastically reduce our third-world-level infant mortality figures). (Count me in the freedom camp but not the other two.)
Yet 56% of us would ditch the Fourth Amendment, and perhaps the First as well, to reduce a risk that is already lower than we incur when we take a bath!
Are we really, as a nation, going to give up personal freedoms that are the envy of the world - a beacon to humanity - because of a collective numerical stupidity which could be eradicated in a single generation by a small change in K-12 education?