When Smart People Have Stupid Ideas

The co-author of Freakonomics, the celebrated economist Steve Levitt, who recently moved his blog to NY Times asks in his Aug 8th post “If You Were a Terrorist, How Would You Attack?” He states that his general view of the world is that simpler is better (and I agree with him on that) and goes on to wonder about simpler, more efficient ways of creating terror. He asks his readers to think creatively about how they would go about the business of terrorism.

I would love to hear them. Consider that posting them could be a form of public service: I presume that a lot more folks who oppose and fight terror read this blog than actual terrorists. So by getting these ideas out in the open, it gives terror fighters a chance to consider and plan for these scenarios before they occur.

As can be expected given the lethal combination of a widely-read newspaper of record, a highly visible best-selling author, an extremely important topic, and a very controversial stance, nearly 600 comments poured in (further comments are disallowed now.)

I am more than a little surprised by the post by Levitt. I agree that anti-terrorism readers of a NYTimes blog outnumber pro-terrorism readers by orders of magnitude. But then non-terrorists do outnumber terrorists by equal orders of magnitude in the general population. Yet the latter group imposes costs on the former group, not the other way around. The numbers argument is meaningless in this context. A hundred thousand benign readers engaged in an intellectual exercise could still help out a handful of terrorists with ideas that they may not have considered before.

Is soliciting ideas on efficient terror methods a good idea? I don’t think so. Here’s why. The claim is made by some that the terrorists are not stupid and therefore if non-terrorists can think up of great ideas, so can terrorists. That is the “$20 bill on the side-walk” argument. It says that if you were to find a $20 bill on the sidewalk, don’t bother picking it up because if it were genuine, someone would have already picked it up. Levitt surely knows the fallacy of that argument given that it is commonly cited by economists.

The fact is that one does not have to be stupid to not have considered every conceivable idea. Ideas are informational goods. I can on my own come up with only some ideas. And if we all pool our ideas, we each can have a lot of ideas most of which we did not originate. It is the collective idea-generating power of human society that makes us so powerful, either to create wealth or to wreak havoc. To the collective, no idea is unknown. But to an individual, most of the ideas are unknown. That is a very powerful distinction that we ignore at our own peril.

By collecting all the great ideas on tactics that can be used for terrorism in one handy-dandy widely accessible site, one is tempting fate a bit too much.

One mistake that Levitt makes is his implicit assumption that the entire population of readers can be exhaustively partitioned into two groups: normal people and terrorists. But why not into, say, three groups: normal people, terrorists, and psychopaths. The last group could use “good” ideas as well. The Tylenol tampering case comes to mind. Also, the phenomenon of copycat behavior is widely known, from school-shootings to suicides. That depends on the transmission of ideas. So even if the ideas are collectively not new to the terrorists, the ideas are certainly made more accessible to psychopaths and crazies.

Some argue that if Levitt’s post stands indicted, so do all the books and movies that deal with terror, assassination, etc, because terrorists can gain insight from them as well. I agree that The Day of the Jackal could be good training material for a would-be assassin. But merely because a bad thing exists is not good enough excuse for compounding the bad thing. Moreover, it does make a difference if one were to collect a lot of great ideas in one place. I am sure that there are lots of good ideas on improvised explosive devices (IED) scattered all over the internet. Would I be helping or hurting society if I were to collect them all into a wiki using the collective knowledge of experts on explosives? If I were to do that, it would be true that curious readers who have no intentions of making a homemade bomb would outnumber the misfits looking for help on bomb making. But it would increase the number of successful bombs going off in society.

It seems to me that Levitt says that the costs in terms of giving new ideas to terrorists is low because they already know it. It is reminiscent of the argument for burning the libraries: if the libraries contain knowledge that is consistent with the Koran, they are superfluous; if they contain matter that is not in the Koran, they are blasphemous. So libraries have books that are either superfluous or blasphemous and therefore must be burnt. In our case, if the ideas expressed are “good” terror ideas, the terrorists already know them; if they are bad, no harm done.

So let’s assume that the costs are low. Now what about the benefits? Levitt point is that by tapping into the wisdom (as it were) of the crowds regarding terror tactics, it would help those in the business of fighting terror in preventing terrorism. Plausible argument but I think it is flawed because the truth is that broadly speaking terrorism cannot be prevented. One determined to do so can wreak havoc at very little costs. That is, it is relatively cheap to inflict harm but to prevent which would be prohibitively expensive. Most of the ideas expressed in the comments to that article are quite do-able but nearly impossible to guard against.

Levitt is a smart guy. But no one, including smart guys, is immune from very stupid ideas. In a sense, it was good for me to read that post because it underlines for me the idea that I too can be very stupid at times. I only hope that there are others who will point out the flaws in my reasoning. I thank the lord (Ganesh in this case) that there are wiser people than I around.

11 thoughts on “When Smart People Have Stupid Ideas

  1. Michael Friday August 10, 2007 / 7:37 pm

    It is a stupid idea not only to collect the knowledge and make it accessible at zero cost but also to persuade people to think along such lines.

    And I think what you said – it is relatively cheap to inflict harm but to prevent which would be prohibitively expensive – invalidates his central point of posting his insane idea.

    -Mike

    Like

  2. Amit Kulkarni Saturday August 11, 2007 / 12:08 am

    I am reacting to your education posts.

    Do you remember the story of how Lord Ganesh and Lord Karthikeya were each told by Lord Shiva (or was it Goddess Parvati?) to circumnavigate the world.

    Well, Lord Karthikeya physically visited the world in his peacock chariot while Ganesh merely circled once around his parents.

    My question to you, can you do critical self-analysis and figure out what you are advocating wrong, much like Lord Karthikeya was doing in a very roundabout and literal way?

    Remember:
    We just need food, water, air, and shelter and a few things to occupy us and pass the time, nothing else is really needed.

    Like

  3. little Ram Monday August 13, 2007 / 11:45 am

    I am amazed that Levitt could have reached the conclusions he did

    Like

  4. shiv Tuesday August 14, 2007 / 1:16 pm

    Terrorism is a well researched and practiced concept. What is your police force and the army ? State terrorism’s bunsiness end ! You kill one man and you are a murderer, you bomb a thousand you are a hero. Thus works human society. What you gentelmen are against is someone encroching on the state’s monopoly on terror.An easy abstraction will be to imagine a US marine in Iraq. Who is the terrorist, the marine or the Iraqi who sets off the roadside bomb ? You can transplant the same logic to Kashmir and suddenly the roles are reversed (at least to most indians) ! In a way you will have to learn to live with this as this seems to be the darwinian way of limiting our population. After all we are the apex predator and have to evolve mechanism’s to keep natural selection going. In this context Levit does not seem so foolish after all. He is probably expressing the gene that controls our poplutation. Maybe that is a meme and not a gene.

    Like

  5. shadows Thursday August 16, 2007 / 9:03 pm

    Atanu,

    If not NY Times, then Jang and other Paki newspapers will ask for ideas. And they will surely get a lot more responses than NY Times 🙂

    If 1% of the muslims in the world are terrorist-minded and they share ideas….

    Like

  6. vj Monday August 20, 2007 / 3:33 pm

    I am wondering he is trying to prove one of his theories he proposes the Freakonomics book.
    Tts been some time since I read it, but in the book there is a chapter about a guy who is the KKK who publish or talk on radio about the KKK’s dark secrets. As a result over a period the people loose interest in the ultra secretive klan.
    I guess Levitts want some insider to revel the plans!
    I know its naive at best, may be it will work!!;)

    Like

  7. PC Monday August 27, 2007 / 6:01 pm

    Hi Atanu,

    I tend to agree with Levitt’s methods because transperency is always the best way to deal with these things.
    What is the alternative? Closed door focus groups? How will those help you or me to save ourselves if need be someday. You are thinking only in terms of the state providing security. Think more in terms of all of us getting a chance to do a little bit to make ourselves a little more safe.

    Maybe the blog will give me an adequate warning that i didn’t have before. Maybe i will revise my probabilities. for eg. if the hit to cost ratio for gas attacks is very high, i may start carrying a gas-mask, the way i carry a laptop bag.

    Like

  8. rishi Saturday September 1, 2007 / 8:36 am

    – Why do you not view this as a negative side effect of something that will eventually make our systems more robust?

    – Lets say there are X such ideas out there, I would guess it would be a largish number. Wouldn’t it be wrong to assume that a terrorist couldn’t come up with even one(on his own)? Because at the end of the day he just needs one.

    – Wouldn’t it be wrong to say that we shoudlnt talk about defects openly because they are hard to fix or because they could give ideas to crack-pots?

    – How do you reconcile this belief of yours with advances in understanding the human genome or any other technology which can possibly have disastrous negative side effects?

    Like

  9. rishi Saturday September 1, 2007 / 8:37 am

    – Why do you not view this as a negative side effect of something that will eventually make our systems more robust?

    – Lets say there are X such ideas out there, I would guess it would be a largish number. Wouldn’t it be wrong to assume that a terrorist couldn’t come up with even one(on his own)? Because at the end of the day he just needs one.

    – Wouldn’t it be wrong to say that we shoudlnt talk about defects openly because they are hard to fix or because they could give ideas to crack-pots?

    – How do you reconcile this belief of yours with advances in understanding of human genome or any other technology which can possibly have disastrous negative side effects?

    Like

Comments are closed.