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The Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw®
Life Extension NewsTM
Volume 8 No. 3 • July 2005


Search Studies Show Airline Baggage Inspections a Waste of Time and Resources

A short report in Nature1 found that, in searches for rare targets, the more infrequently the target is actually there, the greater the risk that human inspectors will miss it. The researchers compared the performance of searchers in an artificial baggage-screening task in which people were to look for “tools” among objects in other categories. The number of objects shown in a display was 3, 6, 12, or 18, and target prevalence was 1%, 10%, or 50%.

In the 1% prevalence condition, 12 paid volunteers searched in 2000 trials (broken into 250 trial blocks) that included 12 target-present trials. Each observer was also tested separately in over 200 trials of the 10% and 50% target-present trials. The 50% prevalence trials resulted in 7% miss errors (failing to notice a target), which (the authors say) is typical for laboratory search tasks of this sort. However, at 10% prevalence, the miss error was 16%, and errors were 30% at 1% prevalence.

These data suggest that the federal government is wasting everybody’s tax money on these searches, while wasting the time of those “inspected.” Where is the safety these inspections are supposed to foster when, supposing the appearance of actual important forbidden objects (such as knives, guns, etc.) is even as high as 1% (though this seems unlikely to us), 30% of these objects are likely to be missed. Add to that the fact that there is little or no accountability for searchers who habitually miss items, and you have to wonder whether these monopoly unionized federal inspectors are even doing so “well” as a 30% error rate.

Next time you or your baggage is searched at an airline, you might think of this. Of course, you mustn’t say anything to the nice inspector about these data, because your First Amendment rights to criticize “your” government do not apply when talking to federal airline inspectors, and you might get thrown off your flight (or fined or imprisoned) for “harassing” the government.

Reference

  1. Wolfe et al. Cognitive psychology: rare items often missed in visual searches. Nature 435:439-40 (2005).

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