FASS dean awarded Distinguished Fulbright Research Chair at Yale

- January 24, 2018

Dean of Arts and Social Sciences Frank Harvey.
Dean of Arts and Social Sciences Frank Harvey.

Frank P. Harvey, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, has been awarded and accepted a Distinguished Fulbright Research Chair position in the Department of Political Science and the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International Studies at Yale University.

The Fulbright Distinguished Chair Awards are viewed as among the most prestigious appointments in the Fulbright Scholar Program. According to the Fulbright website, candidates should be eminent scholars and have a significant publication and teaching record. Part of the commitment of Fulbright grantees is also to develop international understanding and to establish open communication and long-term cooperative relationships.

Dr. Harvey will spend much of the winter term at Yale — specifically, January 22 through April 27. (Jure Gantar, associate dean academic and faculty member in the Fountain School of Performing Arts, is serving as acting dean in his absence).

At Yale, Dr. Harvey plans to reengage his SSHRC research project on Canada-US border security. We connected with him just prior to his departure about his work for a quick Q&A.

What is the core research question at the centre of your Fulbright project?

My project will focus on developing clearer explanations for our perceptions of security threats and the effects of these perception on security spending in the US and Canada.

What are the most common explanations?

The most widely accepted explanation for overblown fears of terrorism and the security expenditures they generate typically highlights the role of political officials and risk entrepreneurs who intentionally exaggerate the threat of terrorism for political or financial gains. Fear is apparently great for business and politics.

Security spending, according to this view, has created a well-funded network of risk entrepreneurs who have every incentive to fabricate terrorist threats. How else would one explain decisions by the White House and Congress to spend about $70-$80 billion a year on homeland security when only a few hundred people are killed by terrorists worldwide each year - close to the number of bathtub fatalities or deaths from falling coconuts. The 9/11 attacks account for approximately the same number of deaths as a typical month of U.S. traffic fatalities.

Do you subscribe to this popular explanation for the very high levels of security spending we see in the US today?

Not exactly. As I have made clear in some of my other work, if facts, statistics and rational responses to comparative risks guided our perceptions and choices, insurance companies, lotteries, and the tobacco, fast food, and gambling industries would not be among the most profitable businesses in the world. Humans are notoriously bad at performing relatively straightforward calculations of probabilities based on common sense or observable data.

The pathology in question is associated with probability neglect, a phenomenon that reveals serious deficiencies with standard explanations for American threat perceptions, and uncovers several logical and practical problems with the ‘obvious’ solutions offered by those who subscribe to the conventional view.

Why are we so bad at estimating risks and acting accordingly?
Humans predictably overestimate some risks and underestimate others for reasons that have everything to do with perceptions of the specific risks and threats in question. Research has shown repeatedly that the level of risk people assign to specific events is a function of, among other things, familiarity and controllability; it is almost never a function of facts, statistics or probabilities. Easily controllable risks associated with personal choices or habits are usually perceived as less serious than those over which we have no real control.

This basic human tendency explains why familiar and controllable risks related to smoking, drinking, or driving a car are typically underestimated, despite the fact that each of these activities virtually guarantees thousands of deaths each year. Terrorist attacks are rare, unfamiliar, uncontrollable, spectacular and dreaded, so a large segment of the population consistently overestimates the real risks.

What specific research questions will you be addressing during your tenure at Yale?

My plan is to focus on several questions. For example, of the two competing explanations (risk entrepreneurs vs. probability neglect) which one is generally accepted by senior Canadian and American officials? How pervasive are these competing perspectives across individuals and departments responsible for border security, public safety and critical infrastructure in Canada and the US? Are Canadian officials viewed by their American counterparts as credible partners? And how do these perceptions and pattern affect public policy?


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