Risky Business?

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The horns of a dilemma

Fear and the perception of risk affects the way people vote, the way they act and the way they relate to other people. But are we afraid of the wrong things? And should we really be that scared at all? This piece tries to look at some of the main misconceptions about risk for someone living in the developed world.

We live in an increasingly dangerous world

If you live in a developed country, this is almost certainly not true. Every year life expectancy goes up at a rate that has never been seen before. Never have we been living so long and in such good shape. At an age where their grandparents would be settling down for a short period of tea dances and ill health before shuffling off this mortal coil, the current generation of pensioners are taking foreign holidays, having affairs and surfing the web1! If this is the case, it can only be because less things are killing us off or making us sick, or because we are surviving such events more frequently, and that therefore the world we live in is less dangerous not more.

Further, if you live in the developing world, you need to have a sense of proportion about the risks you run in comparison to the majority of the world's population. In the world this year, 11 million children in developing countries will die before the age of five from an entirely preventable cause2. In Sierra Leone, the life expectancy for a man has gone down to 29 years. 10,000 people a year step on one of the 50 million or more land mines strewn around much of the developing world. You don't have to run any of those risks - be thankful.

If I take no risks, I will live forever

Having said the above, no matter how good modern medicine, health and safety provisions and so on gets, everyone has to die sometime and of something - that's entropy folks. Trying to eliminate all risks will probably lead to you dying in your armchair, surrounded by padded walls and with nothing but the TV for company from some sort of bizarre household accident that only happens to sad people3. Do you really want the inscription on your tombstone to read 'he took no chances'?

If you get on the one plane a year that nose dives in to the Atlantic, are hit by lightning on a golf course or are blown up on a foreign holiday, well that's unlucky. There is probably very little you could have done about it. Every now and again s**t happens, and if you are in the wrong time and the wrong place then it could happen to you. Probably the best, and I realise this is verging on homestead philosophy, is to try to make sure you've lived a little if it does.

Our ancestors were more philosophical about death. They expected to bury one (at least) of their children and death was more present in their lives. Some of them even used memento mori to remind themselves of the inevitability of death. We live in happier and safer times now, but we still cannot avoid aging and death4.

I should always choose to reduce risk

All the time you have to make choices about what actions are the safest and about balancing opportunities and risk. Most of these choices you make subconsciously - wait to cross at the lights or take advantage of a gap between cars? Eat that delicious looking apple straight off the tree? All of them are different. What is certain is that if you are too risk averse, you will miss out on opportunities, just as if you take too many chances, you will probably get your fingers burnt in the longer run.

Some of these choices are difficult because they involve weighing long term issues against short term issues. For example: Obesity amongst children is at a record high. Children being abducted by strangers is, fortunately extremely rare. So which is the greatest risk - that your child will grow incredibly fat and die earlier than they should of heart disease, or that they will be snatched off their bike by a lunatic? We should seek to manage the risks we let our children run against the opportunities we offer them, but we should try to do so rationally.

Obviously, risk is largely cumulative, so even if you smoke a packet of cigarettes a day, it could still be worth cutting down on alcohol and fried breakfast consumption to reduce the risk of heart disease. But you needn't bother throwing out your alumininium pans against a hypothetical risk of Alzheimer's - you won't be living long enough for that to bother you...

The state can eliminate risk at no cost

What is true for you as an individual is even truer at the state level. There is no way to take action at the state level to reduce risk without reducing liberty and opportunity or spending money that could be used elsewhere - a balance must always be struck. Every penny spent on stocking baked beans and NBC kits, or on dinky little leaflets that come through your letter box and give you useless advice is money that could have been spent on a school or hospital. The state should be undertaking solid risk analysis, both to avoid neglecting real risks and throwing money away on idiocies.

Reducing the protection of a defendant at trial may seem cost free to you, up to the point where it is you or someone you know that is falsely accused. As we should have learnt from the Guildford Four and other judicial disasters, the more there is a climate of fear, and the greater the pressure on the police to 'get results', the more these safeguards are necessary. After all, arresting innocent people makes us no safer, right? If filming your trip to Disneyland or listening to heavy metal and wearing black is enough to get you arrested then it seems important that when people get to trial, some minimum standards are observed. But who now is speaking up for the liberties that we have always taken for granted - is it only the much stigmatised human rights lawyers who are interested?

Many of these legislative decisions involve deciding whether we live in a society where people take responsibility for themselves and their own actions and where we trust others to do the same. Can we be trusted to use drugs such as alcohol, nicotine or cannabis, or dangerous objects such as fireworks, guns or cars? Do we live in a society where common courtesy means that basic rules for living collectively do not need to be enforced by laws? Do we want our politicians to treat us as adults or as children? Of course there has to be a balance between individual liberties and collective safety, but some current politicians seem unaware that the figure of justice traditionally carries a scale as well as a sword...

So, if, essentially we are quite safe, and we need to choose which risks are a problem for us, because such action has a cost, how should we be weighing up risks and action to address them?

We should react straight away to risks, with crushing force/an absolute ban

Knee jerk actions are rarely the way forward when faced with complex problems. An excellent case study of this is the Dangerous Dogs act in the UK. When something happens, no matter how bad, as individuals and at the level of the state, we need to be assessing whether what has happened is a real risk for the future and what we should sensibly do about our exposure to it, if anything. If even a small meteor hit a city on this planet, it would undoubtedly cause devastation. But if the risk of a repeat is low, or there is no effective means of prevention, then no matter how many people were killed the appropriate reaction would still be to take no action.

In addition, we should not let our fear hijack us into taking the wrong decisions. Terrorism, war and conflict is not new. It has accompanied mankind since even before we learnt how to throw a rock. We are an agressive species, undoubtedly one of the factors of our success on this planet, so why can't we factor it in amongst the other risks that are a normal part of our world? We should put the risk of terrorism in its rightful place and dedicate an amount of resources to combating it in proportion to the real damage it causes. Richard Rahn5 made a similar point in the Washington Times a couple of months after 9/11, and his argumentation remains valid.

This Michael Moore quote sums things up more pithily:

(In 2001) there were 20 times more deaths (in the US) due to influenza than to terror. Had the US spent even 1% of the money allocated to the 'War on Terror' to providing free 'flu vaccinations, they would have saved about 90% of those people, or 18 times as many people have been killed by terrorists. In addition, they would have prevented many people getting ill and saved millions of dollars in economic damage from people taking time off work.

This means that combating your fear is also about combating atavistic responses. Rolling the rock over the door of the cave or heading out with a sharpened stick to try and kill as many of the neighbouring tribe as possible may have worked back when, but is unlikely to durably reduce risk these days.

The tragedies that happen to those that are victims of predators or terrorists are terrible for them and for their families, and we should feel for them, within reason6, and allow them to express their anger. But we should not allow them to dictate our foreign policies or criminal laws. Every year a number of people die from falling coconuts or being kicked by a donkey7, but we do not allow their relatives to criminalise donkeys or coconuts, because we know that that decision, made in sorrow, would not be right for the collectivity.

I saw it on the news, so it must be dangerous

Just because something is on the television, it doesn't make it more important. Every time there is an train crash or a plane goes down it makes the news. A car crash, however, only makes the local news at best, and then only if a child is involved or it is unusually spectacular. On this site one US writer makes the following assessment:

There is little doubt that the media place proportionately-more emphasis on air disasters than on other sources of mortality risk. This author estimated in 1990 that, in terms of page-one stories per thousand US deaths, The New York Times accorded jet crashes 60 times as much attention as AIDS, 1500 times as much attention as auto accidents, and 8000 times as much attention as cancer. And the Times is perhaps the least sensationalistic of American newspapers.

Most television, and some newspapers and other media do not mix well with reality. Television and newspapers are interested in deaths and injuries that:

  1. can be attributed to the latest scare story (terrorists, dangerous dogs, paedophiles or whatever)
  2. happen to a lot of people at the same time (5 people killed in a coach crash = news, 5 people killed in separate car crashes = not news
  3. are in some way unusual or surprising (man bites dog)
  4. happen to people who are famous

However, most people die, are injured or become sick in a way that is routine, not to say banal and happens to them on their own. This means that if you follow the media method of risk management, you are loading the dice against yourself from the very start.

One way to improve your chances is to diversify where you get your information from. Give the Daily Mail and Fox News a miss - they are designed for people who want to be scared, because it fits with their world view...

Risks to my life mainly come from strangers and foreigners

If I vote for a far right party who will be nasty to foreigners, then will we be safe? No. Your local brand of right wing extremists will not make you safer. You now live in a globalised world, where air travel is cheap and ubiquitous and it is no longer possible to draw up the drawbridge. If we pretend to shut our eyes to the misery currently occupying large chunks of the world, then that misery will come to us in one shape or another. Not only that, once you've voted these people in, they don't like to let go of power. And as they derive their power from fear, once they've got rid of one scapegoat, they need to move on to another and then another, and one of these days, suddenly you wake up to find that you are the next scapegoat...

On a more basic level, there is little point in shutting yourself up away from strangers, given that so many people are hurt in their own home. Take a moment to look around you - all those familiar domestic objects could be more dangerous to you than any fanatical terrorist. In the UK in 2002, it is estimated that 42,000 people had an accident with a sofa that necessitated accident and emergency treatment8. 670 people tripped over a door stop, and 533 had an accident involving false teeth. It's enough to make you want a nice cup of tea, except that around 718 people had an accident with a cup of tea or a teapot...

Finally, lets not forget that if we going to meet a sticky end at the hands of someone else, it is much more likely to be a member of our own dear sweet family than a swivel eyed psychopath appearing at the end of your bed with a bloodied axe at 3AM. Worth analysing.

A risk that I can 'control' is less worrying than a risk I can't affect

In an aeroplane or train a professional takes control of the means of locomotion. He or she will have undergone training, and will be regularly checked. When you get behind the wheel of your car, on the other hand, you may or may not be a safe driver, but what about all the other people on the road? Driving now appears to be a right rather than a privilege - think of all the idiots you've met in your life - most of them drive a car, no? You have the illusion of control, which gives you a feeling of safety. In fact there are very few things in the average westerner's life that are more dangerous than driving a car. But that doesn't mean you should stop driving - because it is still, on the whole, a reasonably safe activity.9

In other words

I'm not trying to say that we should stop trying to reduce significant risks nor to reassure people over their fears. More that we should try to target the real risks and keep a sense of proportion. At the individual level, it's essentially down to personal choice: if you're willing to take the time to cut your chocolate bar into thin slices just in case there might be a rodent in it, well fine. But at the state level, politicians should not be pandering to our delusions and prejudices. They should have the guts to address the real problems, even where it is unpopular.


20.01.05 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1Subject to their economic health, of course.2Malaria, diarrhoea, malnutrition, pneumonia and measles.3Like choking on a pretzel, for example...4Thankfully. Imagine a world filled with people like your aging relatives. Logan's Run, anyone?5Possibly the only time in history that he has been right about anything...6In other words, no more nationwide snivelling over Lady Di or similar please. I'm with Boris on this one.7These are the traditional Internet comparisons - actually, it's not entirely clear how many people are killed by these two sources, but for excellent discussions of how these references came to become standards see the links.8And that is excluding sofa beds.9For a plane versus car analysis of the stats, you could read this article.

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