Likert scales and the terrorism threat

The verbal gymnastics that Tom Ridge is going through in explaining the weekend increase in the terrorism threat here in the U.S. should be no surprise to sociologists, statisticians, and other users of Likert scales (named after Rensis Likert). There are five points — green, blue, yellow, orange, and red — in the Homeland Security scale, not unlike having a typical five-point Likert scale that goes from Very Unhappy, through Neutral, to Very Happy. The tendency is to sit at the middle-position in such scales — it just seems safer (no pun intended).

And that is what Ridge has done, with the index sitting at Yellow for all but eight days since being created in 2002. We have never seen green, and we have never seen red. The result, of course, is that there is no way for citizens and officials to differentiate among raised threat indicators — why is this increase to orange different than a prior increase to orange? Better would be to lower to blue, and move the indicator around more regularly. At least people would get a sense that there are terrorism threats, and then there are terrorism threats.

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