Let me say publicly that DonBoy’s answer exudes a combination of intuitive genius and confidence that make me think DonBoy is going to do big things in his life. -- Steven D. Levitt (Freakonomics blog)
Saturday, April 03, 2004
The Ministry of Silly Graphics

Josh Marshall, on his way to establishing that the pre-9/11 Bush administration was obsessed with missile defense, refers us to a Pentagon "threat spectrum" graphic from that era; I've reproduced it below, only slightly deformed by the program I used to pull the graphics out of his pdf:

Now this is a beautiful example of a chart than looks like it means something, but doesn't, because there are either too many axes, or not enough. The x axis is labeled "Drain on Military Capability", and the y axis is labeled "Potential Damage to Vital Interests"; all of the threats mentioned here are arranged in a smoothly increasing diagonal from lower left to top right, and this resulting diagonal is labeled "Threat Continuum/Heightened Military Challenge". This seems to say that the order of the threats along the 2 axes is the same, but that would be quite a coincidence if true, and I don't think it is. For instance, "Terrorist attacks abroad" -- in the middle, yellow zone -- are listed as higher in "Drain on Military Capability" than are "Peacekeeping Operations (22 worldwide in 1998)". This can't be true (unless it means terrorist attacks on our military, but I don't think it does). I'd say the threats are in fact listed in order of "Potential Damage to Vital Interests".

And just when you've got that figured out, here comes the third "axis", which is "Probability of Occurrence". This arrow slopes downwards from left to right. Now we're being told that all those threats are conveniently also arranged in order of decreasing probability; given that the first few are things that are ongoing and/or routine, the line should at least have a plateau on the left.

All of which means that when Marshall points out:
Note how terrorist attacks fall right in the 'sweet spot' where the 'probability of occurrence' and 'threat continuum' lines meet.
--he's analyzing something that doesn't exist. Not his fault; the whole point of the graphic is to make it seem like there's more knowledge in it than there is.

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