The One-Percent Doctrine

June 21, 2006 | By | 10 Replies More

The “One Percent Doctrine” is the title of a new book by Ron Suskind about the so-called “strategic thinking” of our current presidential administration. In case you are still wondering why we attacked Iraq, and you don’t buy any of the president’s ever-changing explanations, you might want to check out Mr. Suskind’s book.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me state that I haven’t read the book yet, but Mr. Suskind’s previous books have been excellent, and this one got positive reviews in The New York Times and The Washington Post. My interest in this post is just to examine the phrase itself. More disclosure: I’m a PhD statistician and sometimes amuse myself by picking statistical-sounding phrases out of the news media.

As cited in Ruskin, and quoted in the NYT, shortly after 9/11 Dick Cheney said: “if there was even a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction—and there has been a small probability of such an occurrence for some time—the United States must now act as if it were a certainty.” What I would like to know is:

  1. Can I see the calculations that produced the “1 percent” estimate?
  2. What is the confidence interval of this estimate?
  3. What are the effect sizes for improving port security versus torturing innocent people of Middle Eastern heritage?
  4. How often do you recalculate this estimate? What was it in the week before 9/11?
  5. Since there’s a “small probability” of almost anything happening, including President Bush taking up the study of Mathematical Statistics, exactly how low does that probability need to be to prevent the United States from attacking sovereign nations?



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Category: Iraq, Politics, Reading - Books and Magazines, Statistics

About the Author ()

I'm a biostatistician for BJC HealthCare and an adjunct professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO. In my spare time, I'm a musician, work on several kdhx-tv shows and write on various topics.

Comments (10)

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  1. Sarah Boslaugh says:

    Don't know if it's legal to comment on my own post, but I am reminded of Richard Feynman's story about investigating the Challenger explosion. The estimates of the probability of something going wrong varied widely between administrators (who were unreasonably optimistic) and engineers, who had a much better sense of how things really worked. In the terrorism case the incentives work in the opposite direction (Cheney et al. have every reason to claim a higher probability for terrorists having a WMB) but the point remains valid.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    I'd be interested to know the statistics of how likely it is for an American to die from a terrorist attack versus dying from all the other things Americans die from. For example, medical experts say that over 100,000 Americans die every year from human errors in hospitals. About 60,000 Americans die every year from pneumonia. About 35,000 die from the flu. To put 3,000 in perspective (the number that died five years ago from the worst terrorist attack in US history — an outlying data point from a statistical perspective): that's how many people die annually in Wisconsin from colon cancer. I don't see anyone in Washington calling for a "war" on colon cancer in Wisconsin.

    Indeed, Bush's death toll of US soldiers from his unnecessary invasion now exceeds 2,500, and will undoubtedly surpass parity with the 9/11 attack. How about we have a "war" on incompetent, arrogant, lying bozos in the Whitehouse?

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Now, now, Grumpy. That's some heavy flaming rhetoric there. I would suggest that you take a deep breath before you go so far as to call the occupants of the Whitehouse "arrogant."

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Why aren't we hearing THIS from the Whitehouse:

    “If there was even a 1 percent chance that continued fossil fuel use will cause global warming that will flood all major coastal cities–and there has been a small probability of such an occurrence for some time–the United States must now act as if it were a certainty.”

    For everyone who hasn't yet seen Al Gore's movie, check out the link to "An Inconvenient Truth" on the Environment links on the right side column of the DI homepage.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Sarah, I just can't get your post out of my mind. What about this application of the doctrine?

    “If there was even a 1 percent chance that invading Iraq will cause millions MORE people to hate us enough to try to destroy America–and there has been a small probability of such an occurrence for some time–the United States must now act as if it were a certainty. Therefore, we must not invade Iraq."

    This one-percent doctrine justifies all kinds of things, some of them worthy and necessary.

  6. Sarah Boslaugh says:

    Just to make you feel really bad, the official body count released to the press is lower than the one reported in The Army Times because the media count includes only "combat" deaths and specifically excludes accidental deaths, suicides or deaths to/from the battle. So we don't know how many American soldiers have died in Iraq, at least not from what is reported in the mainstream media.

    More to the point: If Bush's friends could make money off a war on colon cancer in Wisconsin, it would already be happening. Too bad there's not much economic incentive to keep people healthy.

  7. Sarah Boslaugh says:

    Erich, you're looking at this wrong. The true Cheney statement is:

    If there's even [made-up number] percent chance of [horrible consequence which will blind everyone with fright] then it justifies [whatever I want to do anyway].

  8. Erich Vieth says:


    Your last comment doesn't remind me of anything I was taught in my grade school government class. I hope they've upgraded those civics class books to accurately represent the way government now works.

  9. grumpypilgrim says:

    I can't stop laughing…and feeling disturbed…about Sarah's Cheney quote. Indeed, that describes him all too well. The Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal lives and breathes conspiracy theories (just like when they were together in the Nixon administration), and they've figured out they can get anything they want just by pressing the "war on terrorism" button.

    The question we should ask, though, is whether we should blame them for doing it, or blame the rest of the country for letting it happen. If a child can get whatever he wants by throwing a temper tantrum, then should we blame him, or his parents, when he continues to throw tantrums? Had Americans, especially the ones in Congress, been even a slightly discerning about the huge gaps in pre-war intelligence, we might not be in the Iraq mess today. Unfortunately, Congressional Republicans, and most Congressional Democrats, were all too eager to be yes-men for Bush Administration neo-cons…all too eager to let Cheney make unchallenged assertions, such as the one Sarah describes.

    If there is anything positive to come out of Iraq, I hope it will be the reminder to never assume politicians are telling the truth, especially when the rhetoric is obviously charged with emotion and hyperbole. As a noted statistician once said, "In God we trust. All others must show data."

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Sara: You're fourth point is an especially good one: "How often do you recalculate this estimate? What was it in the week before 9/11?" But there seems to be growing evidence that there were Iraq invasion plans fermenting in the White House even before 9/11. That would suggest that Cheney's "calculus" was consistently requiring the same invasion pre and post 9/11.  I would suspect that there is a "9/11" variable in this fictitious calculation.

    Your overall point prevails. 1 percent of WHAT? What is the metric? If a single national reporter had forced this issue–by handing Cheney a paper and pencil and asking him to do the calculation on the spot–it could have exposed Cheny's jingoistic rhetoric for what it was.

    Einstein combined time and space into space-time. There is an inextricable relationship between the two. Same thing goes for politics and media. We should probably call it politics-media to remind ourselves that the independence of the media is a myth.

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