Risk Intelligence, the Art of Uncertainty, and the Flawed Psychology of Airport Security
What the TSA has to do with Rilke and the boundaries of knowledge.
By Maria Popova
“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” Rilke advised. “Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty,” asserted Stuart Firestein in his fantastic book on the value of ignorance. “You live out the confusions until they become clear, Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary. Uncertainty has even been shown to be the key to happiness.
In Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty (public library), Dylan Evans explores the psychology, sociology, and politics of uncertainty through what he calls “risk intelligence” — the essential skill of learning the boundaries of our knowledge and using that insight in honing our humanly flawed decision-making.
At the heart of risk intelligence lies the ability to gauge the limits of your own knowledge — to be cautious when you don’t know much, and to be confident when, by contrast, you know a lot. People with high risk intelligence tend to be on the button in doing this.
This is a vital skill to develop, as our ability to cope with uncertainty is one of the most important requirements for success in life, yet also one of the most neglected. We may not appreciate just how often we’re required to exercise it, and how much impact our ability to do so can have on our lives, and even on the whole of society.
As a frequent traveler who resents the tedium, frustration, and time-sink of airport procedures — so much so that I’ve begun turning down speaking appearances solely on the basis of travel time involved — I found particularly fascinating Evans’s exploration of risk intelligence through the lens of airport security:
The security expert Bruce Schneier has dubbed many of the [airport security] measures “security theater” on the grounds that they serve merely to create an appearance that the authorities are doing something but do nothing to reduce the actual risk of a terrorist attack. Indeed, it is intelligence tip-offs, not airport checkpoints, that have foiled the vast majority of attempted attacks on aircraft.
Schneier may be right that many of the new airport security procedures are purely theatrical, but that begs the question as to why they are such good theater. In other words, it is not enough to point out the mismatch between feeling safe and being safe; if we want to understand this blind spot in our risk intelligence, we need to know why things such as taking one’s shoes off and walking through a body scanner are so effective in creating such (objectively unreliable) feelings of safety. It probably has something to do with their visibility; intelligence gathering may be more effective at reducing the risk of a terrorist attack, but it is by its very nature invisible to the general public. The illusion of control may be another factor; when we do something active such as taking our shoes off, we tend to feel more in control of the situation, but when we sit back and let others (such as spies gathering intelligence) do all the work, we feel passive and impotent. Maybe there’s a ritual aspect here, too, as in the joke “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.” The default assumption is that the “something” is good, and we feel better. Psychologists have long known that the illusion of control is a key factor in risk perception; it is probably one of the main reasons why people feel safer driving than when flying, even though driving is more dangerous.
Politicians, Evans points out, have a vested interest in putting on this security theater, which lets them get credit for taking action. But current security measures are orchestrated on the presumption that every single person is equally likely to be a perpetrator, which is statistically inaccurate, can be avoided with better pre-screening measures, and proves highly costly on many levels:
To gauge the true cost of screening passengers at airports in the United States, it is not enough to look at the TSA’s operating budget; we should also take into account the extra time passengers have spent waiting in line, taking their shoes off, and so on. Robert Poole , a member of the National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel in the Government Accountability Office, has calculated that the additional time spent waiting at airports since 9/11 has cost the nation about $8 billion a year. It is by no means clear that this was the wisest use of the security budget. Every dollar spent on one security measure is a dollar that can’t be spent on an alternative one. The costs of the new security procedures do not end there. Long lines at airports have prompted more people to drive rather than fly, and that has cost lives because driving is so much more dangerous than flying. The economist Garrick Blalock estimated that from September 2001 to October 2003, enhanced airport security measures led to 2,300 more road fatalities than would otherwise have occurred. Those deaths represent a victory for Al Qaeda.
One of the principal goals of terrorism is to provoke overreactions that damage the target far more than the terrorist acts themselves, but such knee-jerk responses also depend on our unwillingness to think things through carefully. As long as we react fearfully to each new mode of attack, democratic governments are likely to continue to implement security theater to appease our fears. Indeed, this is the Achilles’ heel of democracy that terrorists exploit. One thing we could all do to help combat terrorism is to protect this Achilles’ heel by developing our risk intelligence.
The rest of Risk Intelligence goes on to explore everything from the mechanisms of climate change misinformation to how “the CSI effect” makes jurors in real-life criminal trials hold evidence to the impossible standards of fictionalized TV dramas. Underpinning these broader insights is a practical toolkit for enhancing our own risk intelligence in a way that translates into better, smarter everyday decision-making.
Published August 16, 2012