Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘risk’

Possibly highly likely

Apparently I’m not the only one who finds the government’s vocabulary for risk of terror threat confusing. MI5 has estimated the risk of international terrorist attack in the whole UK as “severe”, which sounds pretty threatening, hardly a calming prospect. And yet, according to yesterday’s Times

Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan police commissioner, called for calm in an interview with Sky News on Friday, saying: “I don’t think it’s likely but I think we all know it’s a possibility — the threat level is severe and so therefore that means a terrorist attack is possible.

I’d say that calling the threat level “severe” is not what you do when you want the public to be “calm”. But then, his description corresponds to the official designation “moderate”. Obviously, no one wants to be the one who lowered the threat level right ahead of an attack, whereas leaving the threat level up for a few extra months (or years) has only diffuse and impersonal costs. Except that then you have to go out telling people that they shouldn’t really panic, even though the government says a terrorist attack is highly likely.

On a somewhat related note, the MI5 website ought to win a prize for the least helpful infographic. To illustrate the different threat levels for Great Britain and Northern Ireland they give us this map:

MI5 threat level graphic

For those plotting an attack in Northern Ireland but who can’t remember where it is…

There are just two “regions” whose threat level needs to be communicated. Is it really helpful to paste them onto geographically detailed maps of the United Kingdom? I’m guessing that, while they don’t want to specify any particular regions as potential targets, they don’t specifically want to make the point that Portree is equally at risk to certain southern metropolises with names beginning with L.

Moral panic panic: How much ridicule are the lives of 4500 children a year worth?

As though it need to defend its title as the world’s leading provider of smug, The New Republic has published a piece by NY Times religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer (MO hereafter) about how irrational everyone is. This disturbs him, because when he was growing up, when all was right with the world, “It was taken for granted in my house… that only right-wingers were mad enough to oppose scientifically tested public-health measures.” He describes what he calls “The New Puritanism”, starting from opposition to water fluoridation in Portland (which doesn’t look like an archetypically puritanical cause to the untrained eye), and moving on to Kids Today:

At a birthday party for a three-year-old, I was hit with the realization that most of the parents around me were in the grip of moral panic, the kind of fear of contamination dramatized so well in The Crucible. One mother was trying to keep her daughter from eating a cupcake, because of all the sugar in cupcakes. Another was trying to limit her son to one juice box, because of all the sugar in juice. A father was panicking because there was no place, in this outdoor barn-like space at some nature center or farm or wildlife preserve, where his daughter could wash her hands before eating. And while I did not hear any parent fretting about the organic status of the veggie dip, I became certain there were such whispers all around me.

Now, this could be dismissed as a dreary attempt to channel PJ O’Rourke, or some comparable swaggering humourist, with a cookie-cutter tall tale, but it’s stuffed with all kinds of weird. He hallucinates “whispers all around” about the organic status of the veggie dip, and yet he insists it is the others whose mental stability is in doubt. With that in mind, one might suspect that the father was not “panicking”, but was simply asking where his daughter could wash her hands before eating, which was certainly the custom when I was a child, though perhaps not in Oppenheimer’s antediluvian childhood.

He cites The Crucible, presumably both as a touchstone of left-wing right-thinking and as a marker of his own cultural sophistication, but has clearly never read or seen it. While “witchcraft” are often taken as a metonym for fear of moral contamination, Miller’s play dramatizes political manipulation of mob psychology.

But putting aside MO’s paranoid-pretentious MO, I am fascinated by his comments

When I was a child, birthday parties involved cake, ice cream, and Chuck E. Cheese pizza, or pizza-like substance; and trips to the grandparents’ house involved root-beer floats and late-night viewings of Benny Hill with my grandfather, who liked the T&A humor. I never washed my hands before I ate. And I turned out splendidly.

So, we started with fluoridation of water, which is a “scientifically tested public-health measure” that only a crazy person could oppose, but washing hands before eating — at a “barn-like space” where, presumably, it is not absurd to suppose the children may have been exposed to animal feces — is the kind of over-the-top fear of moral contamination (not just bacterial contamination) that invites mockery.

Now, MO’s aforementioned paranoid delusions may cause one to question his splendid self-appraisal, but he is certainly not alone in trumpeting the formulation “When I was a child we all did X, and we all turned out alright,” where X is some dangerous or unedifying activity that educated middle-class parents today try to limit or eliminate. An extreme version is this text that got forwarded to me a few years back:

To Those of Us Born 1930 – 1979

First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they were pregnant. They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can and didn’t get tested for diabetes. Then after that trauma, we were put to sleep on our tummies in baby cribs covered with bright colored lead-base paints. We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, locks on doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had baseball caps not helmets on our heads. As infants & children, we would ride in cars with no car seats, no booster seats, no seat belts, no air bags, bald tires and sometimes no brakes. Riding in the back of a pick- up truck on a warm day was always a special treat. We drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle. We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and no one actually died from this. We ate cupcakes made with Lard, white bread, real butter and bacon. We drank FLAV-OR- AID made with real white sugar…. We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents. We would get spankings with wooden spoons, switches, ping pong paddles, or just a bare hand and no one would call child services to report abuse…

You might want to share this with others who have had the luck to grow up as kids, before the lawyers and the government regulated so much of our lives for our own good. While you are at it, forward it to your kids so they will know how brave and lucky their parents were. Kind of makes you want to run through the house with scissors, doesn’t it?

The implication is that the kids are all softies and the parents are anxious killjoys. I heard a stand-up comedian a few years back complaining about bicycle helmets: “When I was a kid we all fell off our bikes. We didn’t fall on our heads. If we did, no one died. Have kids’ heads gotten softer?”

Except, of course, that it’s not true that no one died. This is a good example of how people deal with small risks: Some are treated as zero, others are exaggerated. And part of the phenomenon (though I’ve never seen anyone analyse this process in detail) is that people fixate on whatever the current largest risks are, and often succeed in pushing them down. At that point, a new danger pops up that was always there, but masked by a larger risk, and so psychologically zeroed out. Thus, when I was growing up, in the 1970s, public health officials weren’t very concerned with children’s head injuries from bicycle accidents because there were far more of them from automobile accidents in the absence of seat belts, not to mention all the poisonings from medications without child-resistant packaging. If the risk of dying

To put some numbers on it: In the US, in 1998, about 6500 children under the age of 15 died in accidents. In 1981 (the earliest year whose statistics I have easily available at the moment) the number was 9000. In that time, the population under 15 increased from 49 to 60 million. In other words, if the society had held onto its habits of eschewing bicycle helmets, leaving the medications out, riding in the back of a pickup truck and all the rest, we’d have more than 4500 extra dead children a year. How awesome would that be?

That’s not to say that all concerns about health and nutrition and environment are reasonable — or that, even if they are reasonable, that the actions one would take to prevent or mitigate harm would not impose considerable costs, even such that they might be judged to outweigh the benefits. But instead of mockery and “I turned out alright” populism, we need to be clear on what the benefits are: 4500 fewer children being buried every year. And that’s ignoring the costs of nonlethal sickness and injury, the extra miscarriages and stillbirths, and the long-term damage to lungs and other organs that we now know were caused by all those smoking and drinking parents.

Update: The comedian I was thinking of was a woman, but here’s another comedian making fun of bicycle helmets for emasculating our children; in this version, he’s not asking why heads got softer, but why the pavement is harder. Same joke.

The risk of terrorism

As an example of the irrational — or, at least, inconsistent — way our minds process risks with small likelihood, Andrew Sullivan has collected a few comments from around the web on the risk of being killed in a terror attack. When I am worrying about the risk of a bomb on a flight that I’m going on, I sometimes consider the following: There hasn’t been a bomb in a plane for a while. Suppose I knew that today someone had planted a bomb on a US commercial flight. Well, then I’d be thankful that I had been warned, and I’d have to be CRAZY to get on a plane that day.

But here’s the thing: there are nearly 30,000 commercial flights every day, so if I did take the flight, it would increase my risk of dying (assuming all onboard would be killed by the bomb, and ignoring other air-travel-associated risks, as well as the fact that being on the plane will protect me from other risks; I definitely won’t be hit by a bus while I’m flying) by about 0.0033%. Now, in a typical year a typical American has about a .039% chance of dying in an accident (ignoring other causes of death). So that insane decision to fly when you know there is a bomb on a plane somewhere in the US exposes you to about the same risk of dying a horrible sudden death as about a month of ordinary life. And if you knew only that there were a bomb on a flight somewhere in the world, the risk to you would be about the same as about 10 days of ordinary life.

Does this change the way we feel about the risk? Should it? It sort of works for me, but then, my fear was never very great, and my faith in numbers is exceptionally high…

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