Another day, another illustration of the base rate fallacy (a/k/a probability neglect)?

Update (3/14): Elon Musk agrees with our analysis.

As you may have heard by now, President Donald J. Trump has restricted travel between the United States and most of Europe for 30 days, while Adam Silver, the Commissioner of the NBA, took the even more drastic step of suspending all the remaining games left in the 2019-20 NBA season (after a single player tested positive for the Coronavirus), but by any measure you are more likely to die in a car accident than of dying from the Coronavirus, so why aren’t we treating cars and trucks like a risky and costly pandemic? One possible answer is that our leaders and the public at large have all fallen prey to the base rate fallacy: we are more worried about dying from some mysterious virus than dying from a familiar or routine form of death, even when the probability of the latter is far greater than the former.

Of course (contra Elon Musk), one way to rationally distinguish between virus deaths and car accident deaths is by pointing out that the number of deaths in the latter category is either stable or in decline (depending on how such fatalities are measured), while the number of deaths in the former category (Coronavirus deaths) could increase exponentially if the epidemic continues to spread. But at the same time, why should the rate of death matter, i.e. why should it matter whether the death rate in a particular category is increasing exponentially or is stable or is in gradual decline, especially since this statistic is so easy to manipulate depending on one’s methods of measurement? If we really want to save the greatest number of lives overall, why don’t we urge our lawmakers to close down dangerous highways like the I-4 in Central Florida, impose strict curfews on younger and older drivers, aggressively enforce speed limits and stop signals, etc., etc.?

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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3 Responses to Another day, another illustration of the base rate fallacy (a/k/a probability neglect)?

  1. Dave says:

    This comparison doesn’t apply very well if we believe that COVID-19 could cause 1+ million deaths in the U.S., which seems to be the case. In 2018, I see total U.S. motor vehicle crash deaths of about 37k. (Per IIHS, and that includes pedestrians and bicyclists killed in crashes with motor vehicles).

    I think that U.S. number potentially could be well above 1 million if the number of cases overwhelms the healthcare system. Some of the people who have recovered have required weeks of very extensive care (ICU with a ventilator).

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