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January 21, 2012 / compassioninpolitics

More Research Options for the Black Swan, Worst Case Scenario, and Risk Assessment Critique

One interesting argument which has arisen in debate recently is the “Black Swan” argument. Here are a couple insights

Not sure if this has been used on the circuit, but just ran across this article from June 2011:

Its by David Ropeik who has written two books on the nature of risk in society (the later one seems more related the theory of the K), he writes about risk for Psychology Today and the Huffington Post, and introduces himself as the following:

Hi. I am an Instructor at Harvard University and a consultant, teacher, and speaker on risk perception, risk communication, and risk management. I was Instructor of risk communication at the Harvard School of Public Health, and was co-director of the school’s professional education course ‘The Risk Communication Challenge’.

So watching this foodborne E coli outbreak unfold has been instructive. Why, if the actual risk for any given person is so low, does it feel so scary to so many? The study of risk perception has found that uncertainty raises fear. We are uncertain about this risk for two reasons. First, science doesn’t have all the answers, about which foods are risky, where they came from and so on. Second, any invisible/odourless/tasteless risk like this that we can’t detect with our own senses is scary because we don’t know all we need to know to protect ourselves. And in this case there is great uncertainty because of the unknown nature of the organism, and the difficulty in tracking down where it originated. That’s a lot of unknowns, which make the risk scarier.

If you think a risk can happen to you, it doesn’t matter what the numbers say. Many risk communication experts work hard to find clearer ways to help people understand risk numbers, as though that will make us think about those numbers more rationally, but if a risk is only, say, one in a million, but you think you could be the one, you are likely to worry at least a little, because your job is to keep yourself alive, not the other 999,999.

High awareness also increases fear. Subconsciously, the danger-detection systems in the brain give extra weight to information that’s coming in all the time, or that can be readily recalled. This “availability heuristic” then feeds on itself in a positive feedback loop. We pay more attention to information that could mean we are at risk, and the media, in fierce competition with each other to bring us the information we want, feed this appetite, and feed our fears.

These are just three among many specific components of our instinctive risk perception system that can lead to the “perception gap”: the gap between our fears and the facts. This gap presents its own, very real risks. In this case there are a lot of people who aren’t eating vegetables – any vegetables. That’s not good for their health. Hundreds of thousands of people are more worried than necessary, and more worried than normal, and chronic worry produces the myriad damaging health effects of stress (including a weakened immune system, which makes us more vulnerable to the very bacterial infections about which people are worried in the first place).

In addition, this outbreak will cost a huge amount of money, and damage the livelihoods and lives of thousands of people engaged in the produce and food industries across Europe.

I am not criticising people for being irrational about risk. Science has taught us just how inescapably instinctive and emotional the system is. But it is valuable to observe that the way we perceive and respond to risk can itself put us at risk. Understanding that, and understanding the specific elements that make a given risk more or less frightening than the facts alone suggest, is the first step toward avoiding the dangers of the “perception gap”, and making healthier choices for ourselves and for society.


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