Sunday, July 21, 2002


The New York Times' prominent treatment of an article on civilian casualties in Afghanistan makes me want to ask: Has there ever been another war in history where civilian casualties were so few that journalists could track down virtually all of them individually? Civilian casualties are a tragedy, to be sure, but all wars have them, and most wars have them to a much greater extent. And there's a danger here.

Due to a cognitive bias called the "availability heuristic," people tend to overestimate the prevalence of anything when they can readily think of even one example. Thus, when people are asked whether more words begin with "r" or have "r" as the third letter, people wrongly say that more words begin with "r" -- because it is easier to think of such examples.

As I argued in an earlier web article, police shootings in New York were falling at the time of Amadou Diallo's shooting, but the publicity given that shooting made people think that shootings had risen. The same could happen here: Precisely because the number of civilian deaths in the Afghan war has been so low, journalists can more readily track down individual examples and publicize them, which in turn could make people think (erroneously) that civilian casualties are more prevalent now than before.


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