Now THAT’S A Terrible Analogy…


Daniel L. Byman, a Brookings Institute researcher, authored an article on the organization’s site that would be fun to dissect in its entirety, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. I also have confidence that any half-objective reader can easily see through it without my assistance. Byman is determined to show that radical Islamic terrorism is nothing for U.S. citizens to get their panties in a bunch over, and like so much coming out of places like Brookings these days, his essay is part brief to absolve President Obama from all criticism. Byman also excels in torturing statistics to make his case, leading to the analogy in question:

“With this picture in mind, the challenges facing the United States [in dealing with terrorism] can be broken down into three issues. The first, of course, is the real risk to American lives and those of U.S. allies. In absolute terms, these are small in the United States and only slightly larger in Europe. The average American is more likely to be shot by an armed toddler than killed by a terrorist.”

I’ve had this quote stalled on a potential post list for a while, but the recent discussions here about argument fallacies revived it.

How many things are wrong with this analogy? Let’s see:

1. Byman, an alleged scholar, misstates the information from his source, which itself was being dishonest. He links to this article in the Huffington Post, which was titled,  “Toddlers Involved in More Shootings Than Terrorists in 2015.”  It was, as you might guess, an anti-gun ownership article, itself using sloppy reasoning and fallacious arguments, the main one being, in essense, “Why are Republicans clamoring to regulate Muslim immigration but unwilling to regulate guns?” Even the HuffPo piece, however, didn’t assert that “the average American is more likely to be shot by an armed toddler than killed by a terrorist.” Cherry-picking statistics and time-frames to make a false argument is bad enough; using the harvested cherries to make a general assertion is the worst of scholarly flim-flam.

2. As he does throughout his article, Byman omits the major terrorist attacks—the Twin Towers and Orlando—as anomalies. He never quite takes the next step of arguing that because they were anomalies, policies designed to prevent similar attacks are over-reactions; those arguments have been reserved for shameless ideologues like Michael Moore, whose favorite bad analogy is that automobiles kill far more Americans than terrorists, so it is silly to be afraid of terrorism when we accept the risks of driving. Leaving out large data points that defeat your argument is another fallacy, however: the Texas Sharpshooter, drawing a circle around where your bullets strike and calling it the target.

3. Byman’s analogy also cheats: Are more Americans killed by armed toddlers than by terrorists? No. Are more Americans wounded by armed toddlers than are wounded by terrorists? No, not in most years since 2001.  Hmmm. Wait, how about this: more Americans are killed or wounded by armed terrorist than are killed by terrorists! Byman’s source doesn’t even make that argument. Its claim is that in  2015, toddlers were responsible for more shootings, and shooting deaths, than terrorists. Those attacks by bomb, airplane, knife or automobile? They don’t count!

It’s a good thing, because your chances of being killed by a car driven by a toddler, or a plane hijacked by one, are exactly zip.

4. An average American has absolutely no chance of being shot by a toddler either. I don’t, for example. If you don’t have a toddler in your home, don’t own a gun and aren’t an idiot who keeps your gun loaded and within reach of said toddler (or don’t share your home with such an idiot), then you are completely safe from gunslinging tw0-year-olds. Any American, however, who ventures out of doors could be a victim of terrorism. The Pentagon was attacked less than five miles from my home.

5. Byman uses the term “American,” but appears not to be concerned about Americans abroad, who have been killed by terrorists. I can find no indication that any American has been killed or wounded abroad by armed toddlers.

I admit, I’m not sure how to categorize this….

Steve Green, one of Glenn Reynolds’ co-conservative bloggers on Instapundit, called Byman’s analogy “fake news.” I agree that bad statistics (“Women earn 77% of what men do for the same jobs;” “50% of marriages end in divorce”), are fake news. Are bad analogies fake news? No, but they are unethical arguments. Brookings has a reputation as a think tank, meaning its scholars and researchers are supposed to be smart. They are also supposed to be ethical. It’s a liberal think tank, so expecting it to be objective may be too much, but Byman’s toodler-terrorist analogy is just plain stupid, as well as misleading. Either he is stupid, or he is trying to decieve people who are.

Either way, Brookings shouldn’t have allowed that analogy to pollute its website.


Graphic: Enterrasolutions

24 thoughts on “Now THAT’S A Terrible Analogy…

  1. I hate silly articles like this. Regarding your point No. 4 though, I’d like to change the topic from toddler shootings to mass shootings.

    Personally, I am EQUALLY scared of mass shootings as I am of terrorist attacks, or, to put it another way, I am equally certain that the likelihood of me or my family dying in either one of these events is pretty low. I am smart and I read, but I’ll admit it — there is a (tiny) part of me that fears dropping my kids off at school every day. Their school is a huge open campus (25 acres) with dozens (hundreds?) points of entry. Each classroom is its own separate building with plenty of windows and no place to hide. But, I have to admit that is pretty irrational of me to think that there is anything I can do — absent home schooling my children — to eliminate this risk, however small. Also, every time I go to the airport, the National Mall, etc., I am obviously increasing my risk of dying in a terrorist attack as well. Should my kids never experience 4th of July on the mall because their mother is a crazy person?

    My point in all of this is that why I disagree with this author’s approach and analysis, the question remains about how much legislation, security, increased spending, checkpoints, disruption in our daily lives, etc. is warranted and desired to protect ourselves from nominal risks? I don’t know the answer, but I do not like the trend of stripping our privacy and other rights away because of fear of terrorism or mass shootings. Obviously, some regulations are necessary, but how much?

    • Eh, it’s human nature, and especially as a mother of presumably young children, it’s healthy, as long as it doesn’t lead to irrational behavior. My wife had a neighbor knock on the door the other day to ask if she was aware that my young daughter was playing in our front yard by herself.

      Well meaning, I’m sure, but now my wife is questioning whether she should ever allow our children to be out of eyesight. Looking at statistics and seeing how statistically unlikely it is for my child to be snapped up by a random stranger does little to assuage her newfound fear.

      And that’s why it’s so dangerous to legislate based on fear, especially after a tragedy. “Think of the children” is possibly one of the most effective rationalizations, because it speaks to our deepest fears.

    • That’s the barn door problem, and I agree with you. But people will give up freedom for safety, which is one reason to try to stop another major attack. The next one, I fear, will really have people clamoring for more laws and restrictions on freedom.

      • And further Sparty, if you were an elected official charged with, among other things, protecting the public, where would you draw the line. You’re a conscientious person. Wouldn’t you err on the side of “safety first?”

        • Probably not. I may be liberal, but I am also a lawyer and lived half my life in a libertarian community. For e.g., I could never see myself ordering a drone strike or condoning an illegal search & seizure. And I certainly never would write such actions into policy. The policy piece is the most dangerous precedent. However, before you see myself as a paragon of virtue, I could see myself ordering an assassination James Bond style if it meant the evil-megalomaniac-living-in-the-dormant-volcano doesn’t get his hands on the nuclear weapon and there is no time to pursue legal routes. But that execution would be happening quietly and off the books — also, I would be willing to face punishment if my illegal actions were discovered.

            • I don’t pretend to be an expert on this, I would have let the evil megalomaniac Hussein deal with him (i.e., he would still be alive). Or Russia — they do wonders with plutonium. Or maybe “accidentally” passed the information to Mossad. I wouldn’t have publicly gone in for the kill, exposing Americans to increased terror at home and abroad.

                • No, no. That sounds too much like “policy.” I’m talking about Dr. No. and Goldfinger types, not “people.” The minions in matching jumpsuits just need to be reprogrammed or rendered powerless.

  2. Curiously enough, I saw “Patriot’s Day” last night which was about the 2013 Terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon. The carnage that the Islamic terrorists inflicted there on the participants and onlookers was horrific. I guess Mr. Bryman would argue that you are more likely to have a stroke or heart attack in a marathon than be murdered by terrorists. What a disingenuous jerk!

  3. “Toodler-terrorist” in the third-to-last sentence. Is this the suicide terrorist that says “Toodles!” as he blow himself up? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

  4. Besides all of the wrangling over statistics, there’s a reason we are (and should be) more concerned about terror than about toddlers with guns, car accidents, etc.

    Getting into a car crash, a firearms accident, or really any kind of accident, is an accepted risk that we wordlessly agree to assume every day. Every time we operate heavy machinery, walk through a crowded city, or ride in an elevator, we know that we are taking a risk and we have decided that the freedom and ability to do these things outweighs the small amount of risk. Thus, accidents, weather events, even sickness, are part of our ordered society. Not a pleasant part, sure, but these risks belong where they are. They are not a conscious attempt by a hostile force to violate us.

    A terror attack is more horrifying and disruptive than an accident, because a force outside of our society is basically assaulting ALL of us with criminal intent. If a missile from China hit Santa Barbara tomorrow, killing 25 people, it’s a safe bet that pundits wouldn’t take to their TV cameras to tell us, “it’s only 25 people, more people die from toddlers with guns than from missiles launched from China!” That would be absurd on its face, and yet, here we are.

    A government’s job isn’t to shelter us from the risks of day-to-day life, but it is and should be their job to protect us from foreign threats. The body counts are not relevant.

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