Claim 3: If it saves even one life
The famous “precautionary principle” eventually gets applied to almost every security or health discussion. Advocacy of absolutist principles like this one usually arise from inattention to secondary effects—a blindness famously pilloried by Frédéric Bastiat in his pamphlet What is Seen and What is Unseen.
Bjørn Lomborg provided a particularly good modern example in an interview with ICIS Chemical Business Americas of a campaign against cancers caused by residual pesticides on grocery store produce. It is estimated that 20 people in the United States die yearly as a result of cancer attributable to those pesticide residuals. Mandating healthier, organic produce was one suggested fix. On the face this sounds like a win-win, and most the advocates of a mandate focus on this upside. After digging a bit deeper it turns out the increased cost of organic produce is estimated to reduce consumption rates between 10 and 15%. The reduced consumption would lead to an increase of approximately 26,000 deaths yearly because of reduced intake of vitamins, antioxidants, etc.
The application in this context is that it appears a large number of people, particularly those on shorter “puddle-jumper” flights or traveling purely for pleasure, will be discouraged from flying by the new procedures. By no means am I arguing that everyone will do this, but declines of 1% or more wouldn’t be entirely beyond reason. Most statistical studies suggest driving is much less safe than flying, usually by an order of magnitude. It is impossible to estimate yet how many people are likely to die as a result of driving when they would have flown, but the numbers would suggest that the tally will be far higher than those saved even had a terrorist attack succeeded.
The latter is a hard pill to swallow, but there is a statistical likelihood of causing 10 or even 100 times (depending on the study) more deaths on the highways than will be saved in flying. It is the aviation equivalent of the anti-cancer mandate that saves 20 but kills 26,000.
The numbers get even worse when one tries to examine the effectiveness of the new machines and methods, because of course we cannot (as advocates would like) count every attack prevented. To evaluate its effectiveness, we can only count the attacks that are prevented that would not be prevented under the earlier methods. This is a largely impossible exercise, but there is little evidence to suggest that the number is large.
We all draw this line somewhere. Few would advocate full and true strip- and body-cavity searches of all passengers, even if that increased safety measurably. Risk must be balanced against the costs of eliminating it. Banning flying entirely would be the only measure that could be adopted to ensure that there would be no aviation related deaths, but almost everyone agrees that is too high a price to pay. If, like NASCAR racers, every car on the highway had five point harnesses, roll cages, and driver’s wearing flame proof garb and crash helmets, driving would be much safer, but few people truly dream of that day.
A significant number believes submitting to nude pictures or strangers touching their genitals is too far as well. Statistics are their side, as even with simple magnetometers and other pre-9/11 security measures, aviation safety far exceeded the risks we regularly assume by doing tasks we take for granted, such as walking up the stairs, driving to the post office, or eating at a restaurant. When combined with the near certainty that more lives will be lost than saved, the application of the “precautionary principle” here, as in almost every other instance, will do more harm than good.