Cognitive Bias and the Pundit Class

Those of us who think we're overreacting to terrorism should remember that we're in a tiny minority.

Bruce Schneier, perhaps the most prominent opponent of post-9/11 “security theater,” says that we should shut down the Washington Monument to “serve as a constant reminder to those on Capitol Hill that they are afraid of the terrorists and what they could do.”  Like me, Kevin Drum is largely sympathetic to this attitude (if not the proposal, which is presumably tongue-in-cheek).

There’s a certain class of people to whom his prescription sounds great. Refuse to be terrorized! Stop being such babies! I’m a member of that class. I would happily accept a slightly increased risk of terrorist attack in return for a less intrusive security regime. I think we’re way too willing to let fear rule our culture. On a purely personal level, this stuff infuriates me.

But those of us who feel that way really have an obligation to understand just how out of the mainstream we are. I’m willing to bet that most of us are a bit nerdy, sort of hyperanalytical, maybe even slightly Aspergers-ish. We’re comfortable — too comfortable, probably — viewing the ebb and flow of human lives as an accounting exercise. We’re also very sure of ourselves, generally pretty verbal, and we have soapboxes to shout from.

And, at a guess, we represent maybe 10% of the population. At most.

There are a number of issues, with this being perhaps the best recent example, where my views are firmly grounded in reason, passionately held, and yet in the decided minority.   Like Kevin, I’m both eager to advocate my views and attempt to persuade those who disagree of the irrationality of their position and try to be cognizant that I’m an anomaly.

Most of us in the punditry game are INTJ types whose analytical mindsets have been reinforced by academic training and career choices.  We tend to be driven by data and accepting of the random chaos of the universe in a way that normal people aren’t.   And, as I constantly point out, we’re also freakishly interested in politics and policy, whereas the vast majority of our fellow citizens have enough sense to ignore these things until a couple weeks before the election.

Some of us are at least self aware enough to realize how unusual we are.  In my own case, it’s likely a result of having spent several years teaching undergraduates.

The harder thing, especially for those who are “slightly Aspergers-ish,” is to avoid concluding that everyone who disagrees with you is therefore an over-emotional moron.  Kevin again:

I’m only saying that we hypereducated types need to at least try to understand how most people react to the prospect of directed violence. If, for example, I hear one more person compare the number of deaths from terrorism to the number of deaths from car accidents, I think I’m going to scream. Human beings react differently to accidental death than they do to deliberate attacks from other human beings. This is human nature 101. If you honestly think that the car-terrorism comparison is persuasive to anyone, you are so wildly out of touch with your fellow humans that there’s probably no hope for you.

Liberals lost massive amounts of trust among ordinary voters in the 60s and 70s by not taking crime seriously. The result was catastrophic: a massive overreaction led by conservatives that was made possible because liberals didn’t have the credibility to offer any pushback at all. In fact, it was worse than that: for a good many years, liberal opposition to crime measures probably made them more popular. That’s what happens when you fall too far out of touch with the lived experiences of everyday people.

Mass visceral reaction, like deep religious faith, is virtually impossible to comprehend from a purely analytical perspective. But you can’t understand politics without accounting for them.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Terrorism, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rock says:

    For several years my youngest son taught at a local university here in Texas. He is now working at another university perusing his doctorate in computer science. His goal is to become a tenured professor somewhere. He is a raging liberal democrat with low tolerance for opinions contrary to his. His only real work experience has been in academia. He also sees himself as a political policy guru because he gets all his news from Jon Stewart and because of his superior education. I pitied his students when he was teaching and really feel sorry for his future students even more.

  2. Mr. Prosser says:

    I read Drum’s piece before coming over here. I think both you and he are correct. There are those of us who probably are Asbergers-ish. Is that bad? No, but it’s always a shock when we discover how small a minority we are. The comparisons of accidental deaths to terrorist deaths is inane on all levels and the psychological effect of imagining being trapped on a plane at 30,000 feet with a suicide bomber with no possibility of survival is different than the effect of being at a pro football stadium with a bomber, there is the possibility of survival or not being injured at all. This is why security theater works. The great majority of the population believes in the competence of the system and the need for intrusivness. They believe 24, CSI and The Unit portray how the bad guys can be defeated.

  3. john personna says:

    This old article at Time about how we perceive risk is still one of the best:,9171,1562978,00.html

    Though, I’m not ready to yield that “typical” risk perception is in any way “laudable.”

  4. ponce says:

    A few years back the U.S. government was spending more money to defeat I.E.D.s than it was to defeat cancer.

    There’s certainly no reason the celebrate the dumb decisions the government makes because of irrational fears.

  5. ratufa says:


    Unless you know something about your son’s teaching that you aren’t saying, I wouldn’t automatically feel sorry for his students. Effectiveness at teaching computer science has little/nothing to do with the teacher’s political beliefs.

  6. bk says:

    Rock – I feel sorry for the students of that Cornell law professor who “writes” the “Legal Insurrection” blog.

  7. ponce says:

    “I feel sorry for the students of that Cornell law professor who “writes” the “Legal Insurrection” blog.”

    Agreed, my opinion of law professors in general has plummeted since the advent of blogging.

    My opinion of econ professors has risen, though.

  8. anjin-san says:

    > Effectiveness at teaching computer science has little/nothing to do with the teacher’s political beliefs.

    Agreed. And a public rant directed at your own son because you don’t care for his politics tells us a great deal about your character, none of it good.

  9. Trumwill says:

    John Personna, you need to start a blog or at least set up a Diigo/Delicious account so that the rest of us can see these links that you are storing away. You’re one of the few commenters whose links I almost always follow.

  10. john personna says:

    Thanks man, I did the blog thing for a while, but lost energy. I like OTB as my clubhouse now.

  11. TG Chicago says:

    “A few years back the U.S. government was spending more money to defeat I.E.D.s than it was to defeat cancer.

    There’s certainly no reason the celebrate the dumb decisions the government makes because of irrational fears.”

    Given that many Americans were dying from IED attacks a few years back, I don’t consider that irrational. Yes, those Americans were/are part of an invading foreign army and, yes, the IED deaths suffered by Americans never came close to the number of cancer deaths. But I imagine that not much money had been put into combatting IED deaths prior to the Iraq invasion while huge amounts of money had been put into fighting cancer. Thus it’s entirely possible that the influx of IED-fighting cash could have more utility than putting those same dollars into fighting cancer. So I don’t view that decision as irrational.