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The Odds of Being Killed by an Immigrant

The Odds of Being Killed by an Immigrant

    I keep seeing tweets and articles saying the odds of an immigrant killing a citizen of the United States are approximately zero. Obviously those calculations assume that our past experiences do a good job of predicting what happens next. And this is good news. Really, really, good news.

    It’s good news because I used to be afraid of lots of stuff that never happened in the past. For example, I have never died from a nuclear attack, but now I understand that risk to be zero. We can dismantle our nuclear deterrents and relax. If a nuclear bomb hasn’t killed me in the past, I can safely conclude that it will never kill me in the future. I feel sorry for all of you science-deniers who think otherwise.

    I built a complicated prediction model to prove my point. The model only has one variable – the number of times I have died in nuclear blasts in the past. That number equals the number of times I will die in nuclear blasts in the future. Skeptics might doubt the credibility of my prediction model, but I would argue that it fits the past quite well. And that means it predicts the future too, unless you are ignorant of science and whatnot. 

    More good news: Climate change is not a risk in the future. Man-made warming has never destroyed civilization in the past, so that means there is no chance it will happen in the future. That’s how the past works; it tells you what happens in the future. And boy is that handy. Before I learned that secret I was just guessing.

    We all learned as kids that history repeats itself. You know it is true because you heard it when you were young and stupid, and it stuck in your head. That’s proof right there. And it fits your observations too. For example, look how many times the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. They must have done it thousands of times by now, just like they did the first time. You might think the airplane would stay invented. But that’s not how the past works, you ignoramus. The past repeats. Those brothers just keep inventing that airplane, over and over. Even after they died, which obviously they did not see coming because they had not died in the past.

    Now let me tell you a little secret about investing that will make all of you rich if you follow my advice. History repeats, so buy stocks that have already gone way up in value. Those stocks have no choice but to keep going up forever. Remember, history repeats. Those stocks have no choice. Easy money.

    You’re welcome!

    I left the best part for last. It turns out that you and I are immortal because we have never died in the past. And throw away those condoms because you can’t get any diseases or babies you don’t already have. Seatbelts are a waste of time too.

    I’m thinking about taking up smoking because I know a smoker who got hit by a car and died. If smoking didn’t kill that guy, I can be confident it will never kill me either. I’ve been living my life as a scaredy cat and never knew it.

    And someone needs to tell Trump he isn’t really the president. We’ve never had a real estate developer as president in the past, so obviously it didn’t happen this time either. 

    — sarcasm off —

    The idea that we can predict the future based on the past is one of our most persistent illusions. It isn’t rational (for the vast majority of situations) and it doesn’t match our observations. But we think it does. 

    The big problem is that we have lots of history from which to cherry-pick our predictions about the future. The only reason history repeats is because there is so much of it. Everything that happens today is bound to remind us of something that happened before, simply because lots of stuff happened before, and our minds are drawn to analogies. 

    History does repeat in the scientific sense. If you can rigorously control the variables of your experiment, you can expect the same outcomes almost every time. But the real world is not a controlled experiment. 

    That said, the odds of any one American getting killed by an immigrant is probably about zero. But the odds of at least one American getting killed by at least one immigrant in the next thousand years is close to 100%. It seems to me that the only honest and rational opinion about immigration is one that takes this form:

    Example rational and honest opinion:

    – I favor immigration of X type, and…

    – I understand that the likely cost in American lives will range between zero and several thousand dead and wounded over the next ten years. On top of that, I recognize that the families of the victims are destroyed at the same time, so perhaps 100,000 people will be adversely affected by looser immigration of the type I favor. I accept that risk to maintain the rights of non-Americans to immigrate here and to preserve the national character of the United States as a nation of immigrants. I also think it makes it easier to combat terrorism because it makes us look like less of an enemy to Islam.

    But you rarely hear an opinion that sounds like that. Instead we get various versions of this:

    Example irrational and dishonest opinion 1:

    – I favor immigration of X type, and…

    – There is no substantial risk because immigrants from the specific countries that are subject to the temporary ban have never killed any Americans in terrorist ways before.

    – Stop talking about rape, you racist.

    On the other side of the debate you see this:

    Example irrational and dishonest opinion 2:

    – I say I oppose immigration from Muslim countries because I want to protect myself and my country from potential terror attacks. And…

    – I’m not allowed to say that my real fear is that if Islam gets a large enough foothold in the United States we will be transitioning from a situation of assimilation to one of eventual conquest because Islam doesn’t like to play second fiddle.

    I don’t know how immigration will turn out. But I am confident that the outcome will not be based on reason. And that might be okay too. Citizens don’t like to live in fear, even if the fear is irrational. People who are afraid of flying find the experience deeply unsettling even if they understand the risks to be miniscule. Fear matters, and Americans have fear about immigration. Find a way to remove the fear – that doesn’t involve backwards-facing statistics – and you have the possibility of a rational solution. And the only way to remove fear is to eliminate terrorism by persuading terrorists to stop. 

    I’ll work on that for you.

    Scott Adams

    Co-founder of WhenHub, a link you clicked because you are curious

    Author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

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