Expanded Probability of Falling Victim to Jihadist Terror in the US

My last post laid out data collection and methodology to determine the probability that an American will be injured or killed by an Islamic terrorist. The answer was, based on the most previous seven years of data, you would have to live about 10,000,000 years in order to have about a 90% chance of  falling victim to Jihadist terror. This number is given the assumptions that all other factors remain constant.

If you’re interested in the methodology and the math, check out the post.

But a common criticism of this model is that I left out the 9/11 attacks. Surely they will skew the y-axis, but it’s not in good form to ignore data points. I left these out for a couple reasons. First, the 9/11 attacks were sufficiently in the past. But more important, terrorists are no longer spending $500,000 to plan single, spectacular attacks. They are going cheap. Even bombings are going out of style. Kalashnikov rifles and stolen trucks are much more in vogue. I find it unlikely we’ll see another 9/11-style attack (even dirty bombs are quite meaningless in terms of casualties, which will probably be the 3rd part of this series).

So I repeated the methodology, this time capturing the previous 20 years of data, picking up casualty figures for 9/11. I ran the same simulation, and my results are not that much different—relatively speaking, of course—from my first simulation.


Prob Casualty of Jihad Terror by Years2.jpg

In order to approach a 90% chance of falling victim to Jihadist terror in this updated model, you will have to live about 1.5 million years. The number we’re really interested in is 50%. To have a 50-50 shot of becoming a victim, you’ll need to live about 480,000 years. But remember, this model assumes there will be a 9/11 style attack every 20 years or so, so this number is probably hugely inaccurate. Personally I feel more comfortable with the first version of the model.

Either way, the probability of being injured or killed by an Islamic terrorist in the US during your lifetime is extraordinarily low. Of course these numbers are not meaningless when they aren’t zero. When the chance of being murdered is more than zero people respond in predictable ways, even if you’re more likely to win the lottery.

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Probability of Falling Victim to Jihadist Terror in the US: A Correction and Update

The other day I made a blog post pointing out the extraordinary unlikelihood of a person becoming victim to a Jihadist terrorist attack in the United States. I regret to write that I got the math wrong somewhat. The intuition was good, but I realized my model had statistical certainty when that is impossible when talking about probabilities. Therefore, I went back to my model and fixed it.

To recap how the basics of the model were constructed, first I obtained a list of every Jihad-inspired act of terror on US soil since 2010. Next I summed all deaths and injuries to obtain the total casualty amount. Next I divided this by 7 (the model accounts for 7 years of data) to get the average casualty count per year. Next this number was divided by 325 million (the approximate US population) to give us the probability that any person will be the casualty of a Jihadist terror attack in the US. As an extra step I next subtracted this number from 1 to give us the survival probability. All of these numbers are below.

Total deaths: 74
Total injuries: 420
Total casualties: 494
Average casualties per year: ~74.6
Probability of casualty: 0.0000002171
Probability of survival: 0.99999978

In order to determine how long a person would have to live in order to approximate a probability of 1 (or 100%), I took the casualty probability and assigned the year count as the exponent. So for one year casualty probability the exponent would be 1. For 20 year casualty probability the exponent would be 20. And so on.

But this model proved very time consuming, and it ate up a hell of a lot of computer resources (try running hundreds of millions of equations all at once). So I next assigned the exponents in 10s of thousands of years, beginning with 10,000 years.

This might sound crazy. No one lives 10,000 years! But trust me (you can do this yourself); even at 10,000 years the casualty rate is 0.002169073 (or about 1 person out of 500). In other words, you would have to live 10,000 years to have a probable casualty of 1/500. I finally assigned exponents in 10,000 year intervals up to 10,000,000 years. This meant I only had to do 1,000 equations simultaneously.

I’ll get to the results in a minute. But first, let’s get this model’s assumptions out of the way. They’re pretty straightforward. Assume all other things (casualty rates, population size, terrorism rates, etc.) remain constant. We cannot tell the future. It could be Jihadist terrorism increases or decreases. Terrorists could adopt more sophisticated methods. Right now they seem to be going cheap—rifles (between $500-1,000 a pop) and driving trucks into crowds (this could be free if they steal a truck). It’s unlikely they will revert back to spending half a million to plan a 9/11 style attack. And bombs are sort of out of vogue. They are dangerous to the operator, they can be expensive, and in order to be effective you need to know more about chemistry than what you read on the Internet. That’s not to say there won’t be bomb attacks, but even if they did, no bombing in the US has ever killed more than a handful of people (save the Oklahoma City Bombing, which was not a Jihad-inspired bombing). In perspective a bombing last September injured 34, killing none. The Orlando Night Club shooter killed 49, injuring 53. Rifle attacks and truck attacks are much more efficient ways to kill people than bombs.

The Results

Prob Casualty of Jihad Terror by Years.jpg

In order to approach a 90% likelihood of falling victim to Jihadist terror, you would have to live more than 10,000,000 years. To have a 1% chance, you would have to live about 47,000 years.

This is a small part of a much larger project I’m working on, which I will continue to report on here. For now, however, take solace in the essential impossibility of being a victim of Jihadist terror in the US. And for any critic who condemns me for not including 9/11, I feel you. And the next part of this project will go back to 2000 to see how the probability changes (I can assure you it will pretty much stay the same).

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Trump Turned My University into a Liar and a Criminal Organization

Trump’s executive order last week temporarily restricting refugees and travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries has turned my university into a liar and a criminal organization—if you take it literally.

My university has a statement on the Office of Institutional Equity & Diversity website—indeed it’s part of our official mission statement. Officially we

ensure equal opportunity for all persons regardless of race, color, national origin, age, marital status, sex (including pregnancy), political affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, disability, religion, or veteran status in employment, educational programs and activities, and admissions.

Despite the fact that we are a public university, and thus an extension of the state, this statement is still on our website, and, indeed, we still stand by this statement.

But this makes us liars

Legally we cannot enforce our own statement on equal opportunity. Due to Trump’s executive order we officially cannot host new international students from seven countries, especially due to their religion and national origin. While few new students are going to be incoming during the next four months, some do come as part of various study abroad programs. And because we are part of the government, whatever the government says is what we are bound by. This means our diversity statement is a lie.

And it also makes us a criminal organization

I’m stretching the truth a little, but mild hyperbole is justified. While we’re not facing imminent arrest, we are in non-compliance of a direct order from the President of the United States. Our diversity statement directly contradicts Trump’s executive order. Despite being an arm of the US government, we proudly accept students from any religion and any national origin.

Of course my uni is not alone

I don’t think its accurate to say universities pride themselves in being diverse. Not being an asshole is not a question of pride. Being inclusive is just the right way to be. We don’t turn away students unless we have a justifiable reason—poor academic history or potential danger to other students. And I don’t think a single public university in the US is going to turn away students for religious or national purposes. Besides, doing so greatly tarnishes their reputation as centers for higher education.

Concluding thought

I study in and work for the graduate program in international fucking relations. This directly affects almost 9% of the students in our program (we went through the list today, and 9% come from these seven countries) and countless others who are afraid to apply or accept their Fulbright Scholarships. I cannot tell you how difficult the last few days have been for these students. It’s not just that they can’t go home; it’s also that they are afraid Trump will continue to ramp up the rhetoric. We wish the best for our students, but it’s difficult to focus on your studies when you’re legitimately afraid.

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Shocking Consciences: Things Aren’t as Bad as They Appear

For the last couple days—well, since Friday, anyway—my social circle, which is comprised mostly of college students, military members, and academics, has been shocked by the direction this country is going. When I say shocked, I mean their consciences have been horrified. Even apolitical friends are coming out supporting the fringe Left. Issues they long thought achieved suddenly become issues they fight to achieve. Environmental issues; gender issues, including family planning; LGBT issues—they have been thrusted back years, if not generations, or so they believe. I’m here to tell you all: Don’t fret. All is not lost. This is completely understandable, explainable, and predictable.

Given thousands of years of data (yes, we really have that much) on how societies change, the good news is that we are always shifting to the left, even if an outlying reactionary movement pulls us to the right here and there. That is societies are constantly liberalizing. Even highly traditional societies in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab World are slowly drifting to the left. With each new generation, emancipation is always emerging. Things once considered normal are now ghastly unpopular today. Take for example race issues in the United States.

shifting political beliefs.jpg

Note: This graph is not to scale. It is merely a model to illustrate my point.

Refer to the model above. The red line represents the median voter. It is essential that someone running for office gets support from the median voter (although Trump won without the median voter’s support). Social and political realities are clustered around the MV. The error bars on the model represent the full range of political beliefs, from the far left to the far right.

In my model I’m using beliefs about race among voters (obviously blacks couldn’t vote in 1800, so keep that in mind). In 1800 only the fringe Left supported emancipating slaves and outlawing slavery. But society shifted left, and by time slavery was outlawed the median voter supported emancipation. Within a generation only the fringe Right supported going back to slavery. By time the Civil Rights Act was signed, essentially no one supported slavery. Indeed, the Civil Rights Act defied the median voter, but Johnson knew the society was shifting that way. Today essentially no one supports going back to separate but equal (despite what sensationalist news stories claim). The median voter certainly wouldn’t accept such a policy. A segregationist policy would shock the consciences of the median voter, destroying any hope of that political party remaining in power to continue these practices.

Usually the voting preferences of the median voter acts as a control over the decisions of lawmakers. The fact that Trump and some members of the GOP are defying the median voter means that what happened to Clinton in 1994 has been forgotten by Trump. Once again, when you shock the consciences of the median voter you lose their support.

we can apply this to any social issue. Environmental politics is shifting drastically to the right—towards unthinkable extremes—but the median voter is relatively constant on the left. In fact, there might be a counter reaction from the median voter to shift further left. Trump has said he wants to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Considering that only 19% of voters approve of this, and the vast majority of voters support abortion rights in at least certain circumstances (this number has held constant for 40+ years), taking away this right would certainly shock the conscience of the median voter. LGBT rights are relatively fledgling and, in many cases, not fully achieved, but the trend towards emancipation defies the current GOP position.

Even if Trump were successful in appointing justices to SCotUS that turned back the clock generations, the Court cannot take away the voting rights of citizens. The median voter will still hold considerable power in future elections, putting considerable pressure on the GOP to liberalize. In fact, the liberalization of the GOP, which has been occurring since its foundation, is precisely what the Alt-Right is fighting against. Unfortunately for the Alt-Right, it is on the fringes and will never convince a liberalizing median voter.

The present situation can be explained. As society continues to liberalize, people who hold traditional—often religious—beliefs about society feel as if their identities are being erased by society. This terrifies people more than the threat of death. For religiously inclined voters, death is often a transition, but to have that promise taken away by a society that rejects those religious claims means that the devout must react harshly to save their identities and thus their salvation. Fundamentalists fearing for their salvation will attempt to force society back to their position. But given a long enough timeline they will (literally) die off, and their more liberalized progeny will reject the unthinkable positions of their parents and grandparents.

In other words the median voter’s shift towards the left predicts a strong reaction from people who feel their ontological security—and thus their very salvation—is under assault.

Cheer up, friends. The findings from all available research into political psychology, political and social sciences, and hard statistical analyses are on your side. In the words of Tracy Turnblad, Link Larkin, Penny Pingleton, Seaweed J. Stubbs, Edna Turnblad, Wilbur Turnblad, Motor Mouth Maybelle, Velma Von Tussle, and Amber Von Tussle, “You can’t stop the beat!

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What the Hell Happened to Our Fake News?

Being a skeptic is not trite, but it’s also not difficult. Simply put, don’t believe anything until you have a good reason to believe it. This is true for almost all claims. While it’s unreasonable to expect evidence for claims like “I have a pet hamster,” religious claims, political assertions, and wild accusations demand evidence and, in many cases, demonstration prior to acceptance.

During the most recent US presidential election I incorrectly assumed most voters would dismiss preposterous #pizzagate stories and their ilk as nothing more than Onion-esque comedy. Previously I chuckled at stories claiming the democrats were trying to marshal Sharia in Florida. I smirked when “ABC News” (dot co) alleged Hillary Clinton was paying actors to protest at Trump rallies. Who would believe these stories, especially when the sources are so ridiculously and obviously fake? Skepticism is easy.

As we know I was wrong. Many, many people believed these stories. An entire election was in some ways swayed because of fake news (although let’s not put all the blame on gullible voters). And post-election the problem has imploded, forcing Trump, religious pundits, and, well, everyone to acknowledge that fake news is a problem. Unfortunately, the laws of cognitive dissonance have stolen fake news criticism from skeptics.

The laws of cognitive dissonance per Leon Festinger (in no particular order)

  1. When confronted with truths that contrast with our beliefs we will either double down and deny the truth and hold onto our beliefs,
  2. or accept the truth and change our beliefs,
  3. or work the truth into our preexisting set of beliefs.

Number three appears to be what Trump and religious pundits are doing.

Recall Trump’s first post-election press conference where he attacked CNN and Buzz Feed News as “fake.” While Buzz Feed is strictly an entertainment website with left-leaning stories (and a lot of “facts” that don’t pass simple scrutiny), CNN is a strictly center entertainment news source.

Let me back up a second. CNN is not the Agence French Presse or the British Broadcasting Corporation or National Public Radio. CNN is concerned with selling adds more than providing substantive information. CNN’s job is to entertain us with sensational stories so that we tune in or click a headline. It’s important to understand the limits of CNN’s merit as a news organization, but CNN is—hands down—a much better source of correct and balanced information than Info Wars, Natural News, or RT. But to call CNN fake is problematic and dishonest.

Today I stumbled across this blog post by the Friendly Atheist. Apparently the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue has usurped the “fake news” accusation and lobbed it at a man who simply called his husband his husband. (Here is the press release where Donohue does this). The way he phrases it is very strange too. “The Catholic League does not tolerate fake news.” It’s as if he’s saying “You can always trust the Catholic League. Nothing we ever say is fake.”

I want my fake news back

Trump and Donohue (and scores of others) have been forced to accept fake news sources exist. For Trump, rather than accept that fake news propelled his campaign, he has turned fake news accusations back on a legitimate—albeit sensational—news source. He has worked the fledgling anti-fake news phenomenon to his advantage.

Donohue has taken the condemnation of fake news sites and worked it into his anti-same-sex-marriage beliefs.

Neither accepts the reality of fake news unless it gives them a narrative advantage.

This is frustrating, simply put. Both Donohue and Trump are influential enough that they can turn idiots into pseudo-skeptics who believe a news source must be fake simply because someone they admire calls it fake. From personal conversations I’ve had with friends, family members, and students, it appears more people believe CNN is an actual fake news organization.

Am I going to have to spend the next few years defending legitimate sources? What’s next—is Mike Pence going to call Nature a fake peer-review science journal?

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Simple Logic for Religion and Politics

Syllogisms are not what many people think they are, and the American political landscape is a testament to this fact. Too often I hear people construct logical arguments with sound sounding propositions but, taken together, are deeply flawed. Take this very simple syllogism and compare it to the common  political one that follows, which is a little more complicated:

Simple syllogism:

  • If 1 + 1 = 2
  • and 2 + 2 = 4,
  • then 1 + 1 (+) 1 + 1 = 4

Common political syllogism:

This syllogism was lifted from a pro-life website’s article that attempts to make a logical argument for why abortion should be illegal.

  • It is prima facie immoral to kill a human being
  • Abortion kills a human being
  • Therefore, abortion is immoral

This is followed up with a third premise and a second conclusion:

  • The unjustified killing of human beings is illegal (e.g. murder)
  • Therefore, abortion should be illegal

Without getting into a political discussion about whether or not abortion should be illegal or legal, this is a horribly constructed syllogism that combines the is with the ought-to-be. The author of this syllogism even used the words “is” in the first premise and “should be” in the second conclusion. I’ve said this a thousand times; there is no logical way to get from the is to the ought-to-be.

Transforming subjective reasoning into objective reasoning

Why does this bother me so much? Because these kinds of arguments are cloaked in objective authority, but underneath it belies logic and is nothing more than a subjective claim—an opinion. This is very much politics at the street level. I don’t even pretend that there will ever be a solution to this problem. People are idiots, even I, but you—reader—you might learn to be less of an idiot if you take this to heart.

It bothers me so much because people actually believe there is some kind of objective truth behind their claims. This allows for deeply religious beliefs to stand on the merits of logical arguments rather than an ancient book. Religion can sneak into the conversation without us even knowing it. Call people out on this bullshit, and be prepared to confess the subjectivity of your own arguments.

We can construct a new syllogism about abortion that keeps us in the is territory:

  • If no murder is legal,
  • and if some abortions are legal,
  • then some abortions are not murder

(This of course depends on 1) the current status of abortion in your country, and 2) the definition of murder—for the purpose of the syllogism I added the caveat “no” to denote that we are not talking about legal homicides, such as self defense or executions. A second caveat is the use of the word “some” to denote the difference between partial birth abortions and your everyday termination in a clinic).

The only way to construct a syllogism about what should be is to admit that this is merely an opinion. The premises do not address the objectivity of your beliefs, but rather the objectivity that your beliefs exist. For example:

  • If you believe murder is wrong,
  • and if you believe abortion is murder,
  • then you probably believe abortion is wrong


  • If you want abortion to be illegal,
  • and if electing candidate X will help make abortion illegal,
  • then you probably want to elect candidate X

There’s no other way around it. Even with this I had to add the caveat “probably” because there really is no objective opinion. There are no objective truths in people’s preferences other than the fact that preferences exist. The next time you hear “1 + 1 = 2, and 2 + 2 = 4, therefore, we should blah, blah, blah,” call them out on their bullshit. They will try to present their opinion as an objective truth when it certainly isn’t. As soon as we all come to accept that religion and politics are personal and subjective, we might be able to have more constructive conversations about what should be.

All this said, once we’ve accepted that the ought-to-be is merely based on our preferences and is subjected to the individual, there certainly is a logical way we can reach our preferred ought-t0-be state, even if it’s as complicated as a political opinion, which I will present in a future post (it’s an incredibly “messy” model—hint).

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A New Religion That’ll Bring You to Your Knees: My Father’s God Has Orange Hair

Being a political scientist is not what many think. We are not politicians drafting legislation. We are not activists trying to make the world a better place, according to our own preferences. And we certainly aren’t trying to get people to believe what we believe. Instead we strive to explain incredibly complicated phenomena by use of empirical data, simulations, and, where those are not possible, qualitative analysis. Because most people don’t understand this, we are often dragged into meaningless conversations about religion politics. People are always trying to tell us what they believe. And to be honest, I don’t care about your beliefs.

A Short Anecdote

Prior to Trumpism I was able to hold intelligent conversations with my father about political science. He would call, asking about the Russian annexation of Crimea, or some other major event, and I would attempt to explain it using traditional international relations theories. Although my father and I sit at divergent ends of a political spectrum, our conversations always centered on what is, and never what either of us believed ought to be.

Post November election everything has changed. My father, emboldened by (what I can only describe as) a “personal” victory in the electoral college, calls me thrice a day to berate my beliefs, demonize everyone left of him (which, considering how far right he is, is pretty much everyone), and to tell me why Trump is the Lord and Savior will be the best president since Madison.

A Short List of What My Dad Believes Trump Will Do

This list is frustratingly stupid, according to a political scientist (me).

  • He will send troops to Israel, storm the West Bank and Gaza, and kill every Palestinian that doesn’t leave the newly annexed Israeli territories.
  • He will label political rivals Islamic terrorists and have them sent to Gitmo, where they will languish without trial.
  • He will both (contradictorily) reinforce the Cuban embargo as well as “liberate the Cuban people” by installing American democracy.
  • He will declare war on China by nuking major cities.
  • He will unilaterally declare war on any UN member state that attempts to prevent any of the above actions.
  • He will fire, arrest, and/or execute for treason any judge who stands in the way of the above actions.

What the Hell?

My father not only believes Trump will do these things; he supports Trump doing these things!

  • He literally said, “Genocide isn’t a war crime if no one can stop you. And who’s powerful enough to stop the US?”
  • He literally said, “I don’t care if Trump has to lie and label democrats Islamic terrorists. If they don’t support Trump, they are just as bad as terrorists.”
  • He literally said, “We need to liberate the Cuban people. They need American democracy, and we’re going to override Obama’s dangerous relationship with a dictator.”
  • He literally said, after I explained how Chinese mercantilism is not easily combatted, “Trust me, Trump is going to give them one chance to play nice. If they don’t take the hint, we’ll wipe out a few cities, kill a few million of their people, and then they’ll play nice.”
  • He literally said, after I explained international law and how diplomacy and multilateralism are viable alternatives to unilateralism and war, “No one in the UN can stop us. If we have to nuke every other country to save our reputation as the big kid on the block, Trump will do it.”
  • He literally said, after I explained the separation of powers (elementary stuff), “No judge is going to stop Trump. He’ll just fire any judge [including Supreme Court justices] who won’t let him do what America needs” and “If that means throwing them in jail and executing them for treason, so be it. I won’t lose any sleep over it.”

What the Hell Happened?

My father had Reagan, and he had W. He supported and worked for Oliver North’s senatorial campaign. He has always been a staunch republican, loyal to the party. But with Trump he became a fanatic. He’s disavowed the US constitution, the Geneva Convention (and many, many others), human rights, rule of law (maybe that’s redundant), and the very reality we understand in a multipolar nuclear world (mutual assured destruction). So what happened?

Notice none of the above points mentions ISIS or terrorism (except to label rivals as terrorists). He refuses to accept it, but the answer is he is terrified that Islamic fundamentalists are going to kill him and erase his identity.

Populism is a social response to the threat to either existential or ontological security. Trumpism is the response to both. My father non-sequiturally colors his proscriptive statements, a la Trump, with “ISIS is going to keep killing us” and “Muslims want to create a Muslim theocracy in America.” Back him into a corner, and he’ll bring up either ISIS or Muslims (unable to differentiate between the two). And it’s always about them killing us or erasing our identity as a liberal democracy, which, ironically, is precisely what he wants to do.

My father has never been a religious person, although he views himself as a Southern Baptist. But now he is a devout and pious Trumpist. Somehow he believes in the teachings of Trump with the same fervor religious fanatics believe their books. And, not to let that pesky thing called cognitive dissonance get in the way, he is willing to kill his neighbors and dismantle the American system of governance in exchange for a totalitarian regime—in order to save the lives of his neighbors from people who want to dismantle the American system of governance in exchange for a totalitarian regime.

My greatest fear is sitting through these kinds of conversations when people find out I’m a political scientist. I never thought my father would find religion and try to convert me. And I certainly fear Trumpism will continue to produce such dedicated adherents who want to teach me a thing or two about how the world should work.

I’m sure there are many others out there. My dad can’t be the only one.

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