Jihadists, Refugees, and the Use/Misuse of Statistics

Facebook feeds are fascinating to watch these days, with a lot of misleading graphs and statistics about the realities of terrorism. Take this one from the Dec 4 issue of the New York Times (click on to enlarge):


Robert Spencer explains why this graph is ridiculous:

1. It begins after 9/11. Including nearly 3,000 jihad deaths on 9/11 would make it look significantly different.

2. It does not include foiled plots, which also would make the jihadi line dwarf the non-jihadi line.

3. It does not include the global component of the problem. There is a global jihad. Jihadis have murdered people all over the world. There is no global “right-wing extremist,” “white male Christian” threat.

4. It ignores the fact that a minuscule part of the U.S. population — Muslims — is responsible for around half of the successful attacks represented on the graph. (Whites make up 77% of the population, Muslims less than 1%, and yet even without counting 9/11, Muslims are responsible for half of these killings.)

5. It lumps together shootings by clearly deranged people such as James Holmes with those of other deranged people who seem to have some ideology, such as Adam Lanza, to create the impression that there is some ideological movement and threat equivalent to that of Islamic jihad.

He’s right. There is no justification for graphing terrorist patterns since 9/11 without including 9/11 itself. (If, on the other hand, the New York Times could somehow have worked in the Timothy McVeigh bombing of 1995 without having to include the jihadist attack of 2001, you can be sure they would have.) There have been many foiled jihad plots, which obviously count in assessing proportions of danger. The third point is one that I dealt with at some length my Top Five Attacks in America Committed By Christian Terrorists, showing why comparisons between Christian and Islamic terrorism hardly even constitute such. Spencer is right about the media’s ongoing failure in using statistics properly, and the New York Times graph is laughable.

On the other hand…

I disagree with someone like Spencer on the refugee question. Acknowledging Islam as an especially problematic religion, and jihadism as a disproportionate threat, doesn’t justify sweeping measures against Muslims as people. Barring refugees isn’t a proper way of dealing with refugee plights. If I’m more likely to get killed by a jihadist than a Christian extremist, I am still, for example,

1904 times more likely to get killed in a car accident driving to work in the morning

452 times more likely to die from risky sexual behavior

just as likely to be crushed to death by moving heavy furniture around my home

Recently John Oliver (who I’m no fan of) made the point that we can never eliminate risk entirely, only manage it as best we can. He’s right: risk is built into our everyday lives. In considering refugees we have to balance the huge numbers of Muslims who need our help against the comparatively few jihadists who will get through. I’m certainly not trying to minimize the jihad threat. Even a few getting through is bad, and liberals are wrong to ignore this by comparing Muslim refugees to the Jewish refugees in WWII or the Vietnamese during that war, who obviously didn’t pose any threat at all. But we also have to keep a humane perspective, and be careful how we apply statistics — even the correct ones — and exactly what questions we’re trying to answer.

One thought on “Jihadists, Refugees, and the Use/Misuse of Statistics

  1. An excellent analysis, Loren. Although I disagree with you in part on admitting large numbers of refugees en mass under current conditions, I think you’re also right to invoke the humanitarian angle and to condemn tests based on religion or ethnicity. But I think there is very good reason to halt the current process of admitting thousands of Syrian refugees until better screening can be accomplished. More important than any of this, though, is for the president to take charge in leading a global effort to crush these crazed jihadists. They’re not going to just fade away or magically transform into peace loving citizens of the world. They have to be broken and eradicated as a global movement. Until we do that, they will just keep metastasizing.

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