Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 18, 2015

Probability assessments

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on December 18, 2015

After Paris and before San Bernardino a Washington-Post ABC News poll found that 83 percent of registered voters perceive “a terrorist attack in the United States resulting in large casualties is likely in the near future.”

In a more recent poll seventy-seven percent of Americans express significant skepticism that  it is possible to stop terrorist attacks carried out by individuals, so-called “lone wolfs” or those inspired but not directed by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and similar organizations.  There is much more confidence that larger-scale coordinated attacks can be preempted.  But even here a majority of poll respondents doubt all such attacks can be stopped.

The media reports on these polls (linked above) tend to perceive increasing anxiety or fear and focus on political consequences.

But the more recent poll, conducted between December 10 – 13, also asked the question, “How worried are you that you or someone in your family will become a victim of terrorism?” Despite (because of?) the proximity of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks the percentage responding as “not too worried” or “not worried at all” increased from 49 percent in a June poll to 57 percent last week.

These survey results seem coherent with my own perceptions:

Continued terrorist attacks on the United States are likely. Variations of the Boston bombings or San Bernardino shootings are most likely.  An urban swarm attack, ala Mumbai or Paris, will — almost certainly — eventually be carried out.

We should be proactive and smart in taking reasonable and effective steps to reduce these probabilities. In the homeland security domain this ranges from a strategy of social solidarity to well-targeted intelligence operations.  But at some time and place all of our best efforts will fail.

In any case, these terrorist operations are unlikely to directly threaten me or my family directly.  They do not — or at least, need not — present an existential threat to the nation.

Given the polls reported above, other recent polls, and my own conversations with a wide range of Americans, it would seem that more than sixty percent share very similar views.  It is, it seems to me, a very realistic perspective on probabilities.

It is remarkable that political leadership seems unwilling or unable to build-on the realism of a significant majority of the population. It is even worse when some putative leaders are focused on stoking an unachievable fantasy of complete security on the part of a fearful minority.


UPDATE:  On December 16 the Department of Homeland Security released a National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin, a new approach to providing public alert.  Rather than the old (bad) color codes, it attempts to provide some context.  The first alert opens with:

We are in a new phase in the global threat environment, which has implications on the homeland.  Particularly with the rise in use by terrorist groups of  the Internet to inspire and recruit, we are concerned about the “self-radicalized” actor(s) who could strike with little or no notice. Recent attacks and attempted attacks internationally and in the homeland warrant increased security, as well as increased public vigilance and awareness.

This is hardly new, but perhaps someone had been waiting for “official” notice.


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Comment by William R. Cumming

December 18, 2015 @ 6:25 am

With respect to probabilities the level of confidence certainly not at the 95% Confidence Level which is the best the risk managers and risk assessors and statisticians can do. Just as with the range of error in political polling the calibration of probabilities is a difficult science given the usually short period of record and errors in the record. Or gaps!

And the real science of statistics [is it a science?] is the subject and problem of so-called OUTLIERS IMO! That is what data should be used to develop a record.

For example stream flow gage data and coastal storm data often include or exclude data from gages destroyed by flood or storm.

Barometric pressure is the key data even for hurricanes yet few homes have barometers any more.

Cause and effect in Western Civilization may be more cauistrey [sic] than anything else. But gradually the belief in the passage of time as a factor bringing human progress is dwindling as a key factor in the optimism in the Western mind.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 18, 2015 @ 7:10 am

Bill: Thanks. I have committed my life to causes that I knew going in had much less than a 95 percent confidence-level. A few times I have beat the odds.

Black swans are worth imagination, attention, and preparedness. And by the way, if you have ever seen an actual black swan, s/he can be as beautiful as unusual.

I have always, even as a child, considered the popular notion of progress innately unfolding as a kind of superstition. It strikes me as a perversion of history, a mistaken reading of Hegel, a cold (even tainted) leftover of Marxist theory.

Progress is made, not assured, and it is a messy, risky, always complicated, often complex process. Progress, if any, is innately paradoxical.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

December 18, 2015 @ 2:21 pm

Phil: I really don’t get what in the world you’re referring to as realistic probabilities in relation to the polls you’ve quoted (or even more so that should be more readily built upon by political leaders (and for???). It is far, far, far more likely that I will be set upon by a deluge of fans mistaking me for Sophia Vergara tomorrow when I step outside my front door than that I or anyone in my family will ever become a victim of terrorism – and especially international terrorism even more so. The risk is amazingly infinitesimal, and pretty much anybody who has ever even heard of a cell phone or cable tv should also know this full well. But according to the polls you’ve used, they definitely don’t – and that I put squarely at HS’ doorstep. I think DHS has done a very poor job of assessing and communicating terrorism risks properly to the public, especially regarding the comparative greater risks from domestic terrorism than international (ie., middle eastern) – and the whole country has and continues to pay dearly for that.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 18, 2015 @ 2:36 pm

Vicki: The poll results indicate that a significant majority of Americans perceive that their risk of actual harm is quite low, exactly as you and I perceive. Again here are the outcomes:

But the more recent poll, conducted between December 10 – 13, also asked the question, “How worried are you that you or someone in your family will become a victim of terrorism?” Despite (because of?) the proximity of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks the percentage responding as “not too worried” or “not worried at all” increased from 49 percent in a June poll to 57 percent last week.

This also means that a not insignificant minority — about one-third — are much more worried than they need to be. I’m sure DHS — and others — could do a much better job of risk communication. But my own experience suggests something between 20 to 30 percent of folks are predisposed to be afraid and it’s very difficult to adjust their perceptions.

What I am more concerned about is the lack of attention by DHS, responsible political leaders, and others to constructively engage the realism of the majority. Between fear-mongering by some and reassuring by others, terrorism is amplified far beyond its actual threat capability.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 18, 2015 @ 2:55 pm

Phil! No Hegel no Marx?

Comment by Vicki Campbell

December 18, 2015 @ 3:58 pm

Phil, I do know what you said, but I disagree that 57% is close to a significant majority of anything – and given the ridiculously small actual risk, which should be clear to everyone who has electricity by now, that’s unacceptable in supposedly the greatest, most exceptional nation on earth, IMHO. It means that almost half don’t really fundamentally get that – which is just ridiculous in 2015. And my wild guess would be that it’s precisely the lack of enough difference in the 2 perspectives that lure “political” (to be distinguished in theory from governmental) leaders into the trap of trying to have it both ways. That was my point. And yeah, I’m annoyed as heck at DHS generally about all this, because it should in fact be clear to the overwhelming majority of Americans that this is not anything close to a serious threat to them or our country, period – except as we allow politicians to use it to their advantage because of our inordinate ignorance or fear.

Re: “between 20 to 30 percent of folks are predisposed to be afraid and it’s very difficult to adjust their perceptions,” that’s not close to a meaningful statement, and it just clouds the issues. Neither you nor I could begin to make one about such an assessment, even if it was capable of being assessed more formally than I would probably be willing to bet it actually can be. Many feel that Americans as a group are inordinately fearful, and that this fearfulness is what drives the exceptional levels of violence in our society – but that doesn’t make it so, nor is it close to telling us anything about how many, or why.

So again, I don’t see nearly enough realism to begin with compared to the extraordinarily minuscule risk, which in fact does not seem to have gotten through to the vast majority of Americans, although a little more than half do seem to be catching on, and that is a very good thing. And its the lack of clear, accurate, consistent, credible risk communication that is the most troubling, which I submit should in no way be shaped to take advantage of anything on the part of a majority or minority – because that is precisely when the message and the messenger loses credibility, which this government has way too little of to begin with at this point. Perhaps even more so, in dealing with this specific type of threat, the government should be clearly, consistently and forcefully calling out and properly countering any public or private entity that is causing a warping of the public’s understanding of accurate risk assessments – such as the pathetic excuse for a news media we currently have in this country, that cares considerably more about maximizing their corporate profits than they do conveying accurate information to the public. I’ve honestly never seen the American for-profit corporate media function so generally poorly, and alternately deceptively and just plain dishonestly in my lifetime as it currently does It really needs to challenged a lot more effectively than it is currently being – and I think in a manner that can only be done by the government itself.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 18, 2015 @ 3:59 pm

Bill: The notion of history having a purposeful (and positive) direction is often traced to Hegel. I think Marx and many others misread Hegel’s whole approach to the “dialectic” (a word Hegel barely used). So… my own sense of how reality develops is, I would argue, very Hegelian, but not in the typical way it is understood. And even if this was the place to make the case (and it’s probably not), I am out of time today. Maybe for a bilateral exchange?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 18, 2015 @ 4:09 pm

Vicki: I find it fascinating that you and I can, apparently, substantively and mostly agree (again), but still find a way to argue as if we don’t. There are substantive distinctions that’s for sure. Rhetorically we’re almost night and day. But even with–what?–80 percent congruence we end up on what feels like different sides. I am running and will be off-line the rest of tonight. Hope this quick response is not entirely inappropriate.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

December 19, 2015 @ 2:05 am

Phil, No its not inappropriate, and I basically agree. Even before your response I found myself thinking ‘Vicki, you’re mostly just arguing semantics. Why?’ The answer is because I actually feel very critical about another forum/post entirely (several really), but have been trying to avoid saying so. But since I started the argument for no particularly good reason, let me finish it. What I meant to say was that I think the figure of those with a more realistic understanding of the terrorism risk should be much higher than 57%, and would be if the Obama administration in general, and DHS and Jeh Johnson in particular had been doing a much better, more consistent, objective, and credible job of risk assessment and communication to the public. I really do. And I definitely don’t think they have been.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 19, 2015 @ 4:58 am

Vicki: Thank you. I think our rhetorical/semantic collisions may actually be relevant to your (our) substantive issue. It seems to me that something has happened to the way Americans use language and, especially, the way we converse that seriously complicates — often undermines — our ability to communicate. This impacts risk assessment and communication to the public and much more.

I first noticed this almost twenty years ago, it seems to be getting worse, and I don’t have a well-considered hypothesis… just a bunch of unorganized evidence. There may be, however, some meaningful diagnosis underway, especially by political professionals. They know that what once worked is no longer working and they have the money and near-term motivation to try to practically solve. But I am also concerned their real-world experiments could blow up in our collective faces.

To specify my concern a bit: I do not speak much Japanese, but in my life I have worked — reasonably effectively and comfortably — in Japan. The people of West Texas and I allegedly speak the same language, but every encounter between us has been mutually frustrating and, in some ways, destructive. Somehow I can overcome a language barrier in Japan, but I cannot overcome a cultural-barrier in West Texas. Over the last two decades I have had more and more “West Texas” experiences all over the United States.

In our particular case, we don’t “know” each other, we just blog “at” each other. We share similar concerns, but we come at them from very different angles. Blogging is inherently spasmodic, which doesn’t help. Maybe we have entirely different purposes. I don’t know. But our challenge communicating could reflect something beyond just us.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 20, 2015 @ 7:43 am

The cultural landscape of Texas changed a great deal after oil discovered in the Permian Basin. IMO of course.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 24, 2015 @ 6:13 am

Is it odd that we hated high price for gas and now even that expenditure seems destined to have been mispent by the oil and gas industry leading to economic chaos for a dollar largely propped up by oil.

Perhaps the poets correct” Not with a Bang but a Whimper!

Happy New Years All!

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