Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Are we at our best in airplanes?

June 7, 2016General

There are lots of reasons to think we're tragically awful drivers, each of us a menace on the roadways. I write about this whenever I'm extolling the advantages of the coming driverless cars. Some 30,000 of us are killed on U.S. roads and highways every year, and about 1.25 million globally.

The reason is that we behave like human beings. We argue, fall asleep, overrate our reflexes, answer the phone, scream at the kids, spill coffee. The list goes on, and it’s easy to conclude that we’re death at the wheel.

Look at all those great drivers

But when I drive here in New Jersey, or anywhere else, for that matter, I’m always impressed at how well the vast majority of us drives. I exit and enter streams of traffic heading down the Garden State Highway, or onto the George Washington Bridge. People, for the most part, are doing their part. Sure, there are a few wise guys shifting lanes, and an occasionally distracted driver leaks into the neighboring lane. But the others adapt to them, for the most part. They swing clear of them (sometimes adding a honk) and drive responsibly.

The trouble is that the occasional fender bender will jam up traffic for a half hour of crawling and rubber-necking. This leads thousands of frustrated commuters to the conclusion that we, as a people, are bad drivers.

I disagree.

And this disagreement extends to the air. I’m struck by how civilized people are. They smile at other people’s noisy kids, switch seats to let a couple sit together, and help each other heave outrageously heavy carry-on luggage into tiny overhead bins. They’re as diverse as America itself, and seem accepting of others, and considerate. They wait patiently for what seems like hours while the plane unloads. I’m almost always impressed, and appreciative.

Yet in this Washington Post story by Caitlin Gibson, the unquestioned premise is that we’re at our worst in the air: Rude, bullying, drunk, racist, paranoid, you name it. Of course, she has no trouble citing examples of all of the above.

But I would venture to guess that we behave better in the air than on the ground. In the air, after all, we’re under the surveillance of the entire security apparatus as well as that of our fellow passengers. We’re being watched. And I would also argue that most of us are decent and, without sacrificing too much, mean well.

Think about the numbers. There are some 28,000 flights a day in the United States alone. They carry 1.7 million people, about equal to the population of Philadelphia. Gibson reports that in the entire calendar year of 2015, the FAA recorded 99 incidents of unruly passengers. That means that on many days, 28,000 flights took off, flew and landed without a single reported incident. And yet we’re supposed to believe that we behave badly in the air?

Just imagine if those 1.7 million people spent their flying hours lazing around the house, down here on earth. I think they’d get into a lot more trouble. But that doesn’t fit the narrative of her story.

When confronted with outrageous conclusions drawn from anecdote, my mind automatically turns Trumpward.

Donald Trump is an expert of feeding myths, and his followers promptly hunt down examples to document them. It's not hard. Take any population of 11 million on earth, and you'll find certain numbers of criminals. Immigrants are no different. Yet single cases appear to justify Trump’s charges--even if, in fact, immigrants break the law less often than the rest of us. (After all, the consequences of a run-in can be ruinous for them. Indeed, President Obama, who voices sympathy for them as human beings, has been quietly jailing and deporting thousands, including women and children, as my son Jack Craver reported in the Progressive.)

Trump spins his ugly myths into perceived reality. And they’ll endure, long after he flies off for the last time in his 757.

Millions of Americans will no doubt continue to believe the most poisonous points of his message: that the American system of justice is rigged, that Mexico sends its criminals north, and that at least certain types of Americans invariably favor their particular clan over the law.

These points should not even be in discussion. But a insurgent set of beliefs is taking shape. It’s built on anecdotes masquerading as facts. It’s punishing our democracy.


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