Innumeracy is a serious problem in this country, especially when it afflicts our elected representatives. The phenomenon manifests itself in lots of ways, some of them deadly. Here is one from this morning.
Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn was on Morning Joe today, dismissing the idea that Congress would have to help his state through the recovery from the tornado disaster. Existing FEMA funds would cover it, he said. No problem with that, nor with his opinion, voiced a few minutes later, that it should be up to Oklahomans to decide whether to regulate the construction of storm shelters in new buildings. It's what he said next that was the problem. The exchange begins at about the 5:00 point of this clip.
"If you're living in that area of Moore, in Oklahoma, the likelihood of being hit by another tornado is about zero, in terms of odds." The interviewer tries to correct him, explaining that being hit by tornadoes twice in fourteen years doesn't affect the odds of being hit again, but Coburn doubles down, finishing up by saying "You need to check your statistics class."
I find this astonishing, not because I expect members of congress to be good at math, but because I expect them--especially those from western states--to be good at gambling. Has Coburn played games with dice? Does he really think that rolling snake eyes once makes it less likely to happen again? I suppose that even experienced gamblers believe such things, but that is where we should hope for better from the people who are throwing billions and trillions of our dollars at real and imagined problems.
There is a joke about a corporate executive who asks the odds of being on an airplane with a bomb, and is given a number, one in a million. He then asks what are the odds of being on a plane with TWO bombs, and is told one in a trillion. "Great," he says. "From now on I'm taking a bomb with me wherever I travel." Perhaps the Senator will want to make the country safer by urging us all to follow that strategy.