Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Certainty Effect in an uncertain world

If all that Americans want is security, they can go to prison.
- President Dwight D. Eisenhower

In the wake of Jill Meagher’s disappearance, Robert Doyle and Ted Baillieu were quick to capitalise on people’s fears by calling for more CCTV. Most recently, Tony Abbott has pledged his support to such programs if he’s elected, offering $50 million from the Proceeds of Crime fund.

This is all fairly unsurprising - they’re motivated by a need to get (re)elected, and Doyle and Baillieu in particular have a history of blustering, “Tough On Crime” stances that look good to voters while trampling their rights. What’s interesting is the mindsets of the people who vote for them - and the media outlets who, in typically bureaucratic language, call for them to call for it.

There is an interesting principle that cognitive scientists have stumbled upon called the Certainty Effect. People will place an overwhelming premium on being 100% certain of something happening - that is, they won’t pay much to improve the odds from 90% to 95%, but they will pay through the nose to improve the odds from 95% to 100%. Uncertainty causes our brains a lot of anguish, so we’ll pay handsomely to get rid of that anguish and put it out of our minds completely.

But here’s the problem. Trying to build a CCTV web that will prevent crimes like this from happening with complete efficacy is flatly impossible. It’s like trying to build an unsinkable ship - there will always be some flaw, some way around it, and either a complacent friend or a resourceful foe will beat it eventually. You can never, ever be 100% certain - and when you apply this to real-world decisions, we’re paying in more than money.

The most vivid example of this principle is the US response to 9/11. Since 2001 they’ve spent an incredible amount of time and money on their airport security and so on, always combating the specific methods the terrorists used last time - which is why they have such oddly specific requirements about the size of liquid containers, and why they make you take your shoes off. Each of their little rules is designed to stop the terrorists from repeating the same tactics, which in military parlance is called “Fighting the last war.” Personally, I think it’s destined to become the historical example that replaces the Maginot Line - because the terrorists have no interest in repeating the same tactics twice. They’re a loose coalition of angry people, not a state-sanctioned standing army - their entire existence relies on being nimbler and less predictable than their opponents.

However, after such a terrifying event as the attacks on September 11, people are afraid. They had been living under the illusion of safety, and now that the illusion has been shattered, they need to feel safe again - and this is where the Certainty Effect comes in. People will trade a lot of taxpayer dollars, and a hell of a lot of their civil liberties, to make that jump from mostly-safe (the percentage of the population actually harmed by terrorists is, after all, tiny) to completely-safe.

Of course, because it is impossible to make the situation completely safe, you run into the law of diminishing returns: people trade more and more to get tinier steps closer to their goal - everything from undignified and potentially carcinogenic airport scanners to extrajudicial killings, torture, and mass surveillance of the civilian population. They pay so much attempting to eliminate one danger, in fact, that it introduces a new one - an increasingly powerful and unaccountable government.

In these situations, your average person can’t perform a proper cost-benefit analysis - and the kinds of people who benefit from mass surveillance or warmongering encourage them not to. In that old Mafia protection-money hustle, they whip up the fear then charge you to get rid of it. We cannot let that happen here.

The CCTV argument is built largely on the assumption that The Law was unable to watch the area closely enough, but one of the most important facts of the case (which has been completely ignored by the mainstream media) is that Brunswick police station is about 170m from the corner of Sydney Rd and Hope St, where Meagher was last seen. It’s not like she was in a lawless post-apocalyptic wasteland at the time - she was in a well-trafficked, well-policed area where crime rates are low.

Further, the data from countries like Britain show that widespread CCTV does not impact crime at anywhere near the level it’s promised. Many studies show that, for example, crime dips when the cameras are first introduced, but creeps back up as people get used to them.

None of this, of course, is to say we should do nothing. It’s not like we can put this in the too-hard basket and just give up. Furthermore, no statistic, no explanation of human behaviour, does anything to diminish the tragedy of Jill Meagher’s death.

But we’re fighting very hard to retain our privacy in other areas - most of them online - and it’d all be for nothing if we created a world where innocent people could not walk around without being constantly spied upon.

Instead of a knee-jerk reaction, what needs to happen is a calm, cogent look at exactly what we’re getting out of these programs - and just as importantly, what we’re giving up for them.

1 comment:

  1. You are very clever. I can't even begin to construct a reply worthy of your analysis. But...

    When I was in America, I was so surprised at the amount of security - police, anti terrorist military at the subway stations, and the September 11 memorial had airport like security. At LAX, the bomb squad were called over to inspect my 500 g jar of petroleum jelly tha I need for my skin - they had no idea what to do with it, whether it was a threat to air safety, despite my medical certificate. Oh and people aren't allows to have drinks on public transport

    Meanwhile it's legal to carry guns on the streets and in luggage. Is there enough CCTV to capture it all?

    I'm not sure whether that made any sense, but I guess my point is, protection via CCTV is big, but how effective is it when there's such little gun control?