The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Just You Wait!

September 7, 2016

The doomsayers’ answer to failed predictions

This article was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine Vol. 36, No. 6. in September 2016.

If I had to summarize Phil Torres’ thoughtful analysis of the existential threat of terrorism (“There’s No Time to Wait”) in a phrase it would be “just you wait!” So 68 national security experts of the 85 surveyed in 2005 gave the bookmaker’s odds of a terrorist nuclear detonation on American soil by 2015 at an average of 29.2% (and a range of 10 to 50%), but since it didn’t happen what do such failed predictions mean? The odds makers are wrong? Fissile material is hard to procure? Nuclear weapons are difficult to build? Our national security agencies are doing their job? Terrorists are too incompetent to pull it off? No, says Torres, the only reason we escaped the projected decade unscathed by nuclear fallout is…luck! Plain old dumb luck, the same reason we narrowly escaped thermonuclear doomsday for the 45 years of the Cold War.

The “luck” explanation implies that it is only a matter of time before the die come up snake eyes (or double sixes if you prefer) and mushroom clouds are rising above our cities. This is a “just you wait” explanation that doomsayers decry when their predictions fail. It’s a timeframe problem—move the time horizon out far enough and the laws of probability must strike against us. But this assumes that human behavior is subject to the same laws as those governing the roll of die, which it isn’t. It also discounts the game theory strategic efforts during the Cold War such as Mutual Assured Destruction, negotiation, and tit-for-tat reciprocity, all of which were in play during the Cuban Missile Crisis that really did forestall nuclear Armageddon. But luck had little to do with it. Kennedy and Khrushchev and their respective cabinets reasoned their way to a solution to untie the knotted rope each side had helped to tighten. And it sells short the heroic efforts of our intelligence agents who have, to date, prevented the terrorist apocalyptic nuclear scenarios in the offing.

Where Torres and I are in agreement is over the religious motives of today’s Islamist terrorists with their apocalyptic visage of a world under sharia law, which should and does concern me, given the power of beliefs to drive actions. But let’s not forget the motives of the secular terrorists of the bad old days of the 1970s when their attacks were nearly a daily feature on the nightly news and during which there were so many different organizations that Monty Python could spoof them in a bit on the People’s Front of Judea versus the Judean People’s Front. Marxism is a faux religion, and as such Torres’ descriptors “cosmic struggle between good and evil,” “culmination of world history,” and “exaggerated sense of moral urgency” applies equally well to yesterday’s Marxist terrorists as it does to today’s Islamist terrorists.

History is our database and as such there is much reason for optimism in the decline of violence and the bending of the moral arc, as Steven Pinker and I each track in our respective books. Still, what Torres has outlined is not impossible, and even though the threat is not governed by iron laws of probability, they are under the sway of human emotion and irrationality, so all the more reason we must remain vigilant. The undisputed terrorist threat today is Islamist jihadists, and as such it is they from whom we must never divert our attention.

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