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Thread: Irrational Risk Analysis and the Future of Humanity

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    Irrational Risk Analysis and the Future of Humanity

    The following is my excerpt from an article in today’s Parade magazine by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, in which they highlight some of the points in their forthcoming book Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. I’ve been ranting about my fellow Americans’ irrational approach to risk analysis and management for years. These guys back me up with numbers.
    Quote Originally Posted by Levitt & Dubner
    In the summer of 2001 an 8-year-old was playing in the water on the Gulf Coast of Florida when a shark ripped off his arm. It was promptly dubbed “The Summer of the Shark” by U.S. media and shark attack stories began showing up on the front page constantly.

    Fortunately for the media there are only 91 days in a summer, because in the whole world there were only 68 shark attacks in 2001, and only four fatalities. The annual average for 1995-2005 was 60 attacks and 6 fatalities, with a high of 79 attacks and 11 fatalities, and a low of 46 attacks and three fatalities. The headline should have read, “Shark Attacks About Average This Year,” and the story should have been on page 56.

    Elephants kill at least 200 people every year, why aren’t we scared of elephants? The answer is, most illogically, “because we are not scared of elephants.” We love elephants, so the occasional “unfortunate encounter” between Dumbo and a hapless African farmer is something we accept. But we are petrified of sharks, so every shark attack, no matter how rare, gives us cold chills.

    There are any number of topics about which our fears run far out of proportion to reality. For instance, whom are you more afraid of: strangers or people you know?
    • Three out of four murder victims knew their assailants.
    • Seven out of ten rape victims knew theirs.
    • We are justifiably horrified when a stranger snatches a child off the street, but the data show that such kidnappings are rare and most children are abducted by people they and/or their parents know--often a non-custodial parent.
    • As for the crime of identity theft, most of us fear nameless, faceless perpetrators on the internet, and constantly change (and forget) our passwords to thwart the Russian Mafia or a ring of teenage hackers. But 90% of identity thefts do not occur on the internet, and half of them are perpetrated by people who know their victims.
    Of course I still stand by my own example. In the past eight years approximately 3,000 Americans were killed by terrorists. To reduce this figure, we have spent more than one trillion dollars, overthrown two sovereign governments including the only secular pro-western country in the Middle East, destroyed what little stability the region had, alienated our allies, and given over our freedoms to Homeland Gestapo who tap our phones and turn air travel—never a pleasant experience—into purgatory. Oh and did I mention that all of this effort was in vain and the principal anti-American terrorist organizations are still operating?

    On the other hand, in those same eight years drunk drivers killed about 100,000 Americans. That number could be slashed by about 99% by simply installing a breathalyzer interlock in every new car. It would cost no more than a couple of billion dollars and no one would need to be arrested—or even take their shoes off. But we’re not doing it. Terrorists terrify us--that’s why we call them that. Drunk drivers don’t even get our attention.

    Levitt and Dubner veer off into more controversial territory with their own screed countering the global warming hysteria. I think they fail to recognize the Paradigm Shift in progress, and I think they underestimate the tremendous improvement in our understanding of thermodynamics since 1900. Nonetheless their illustration is amusing and reminds us that we are a species of problem solvers.
    We humans tend to respond to uncertainty with more emotion—fear, blame, paralysis—than advisable. We conjure the very worst possibilities. With global warming these are downright biblical: Hellish temperatures, rising oceans, a planet in chaos.

    But it might help to look at other “unsolvable” problems humanity has had to deal with.

    As urban populations exploded in the 19th century, horses were put to work in countless ways. Our cities became filled with them; in 1900 New York City had one horse for every seventeen people. Those 200,000 horses produced more than two tons of manure every day. It lined the streets like banks of snow and was piled as high as sixty feet in vacant lots. It stank to high heaven and it was a fertile breeding ground for the flies that spread deadly diseases.

    City planners were confounded. No city could survive without horses, but now it seemed that they could not survive with them either.

    Then suddenly the problem simply vanished. The horse was made obsolete, first by the electric streetcar and then by the automobile.

    Virtually every unsolvable problem we’ve faced in the past has turned out to be quite solvable, and the script has nearly always been the same: A band of clever, motivated people, usually scientists, find an answer. Remember polio vaccine?

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    Caught in the machine shichimenshyo's Avatar
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    Wow, talk about putting things into perspective. I like the ignition interlock idea, I would be all for that.

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    I agree with much of the OP, but it needs to be added that our fears are actively stimulated, if not created, in many instances, for specific reasons by people with specific goals.

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    Caught in the machine shichimenshyo's Avatar
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    Stimulated, like the terror threat level color indiactor chart? No, that is just silly. =p

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    I was trying to find a neutral word. 'Weopons of mass destruction' 'They hate our way of life' images in films. Notice how in newspapers today we find more stories about individuals oppressed by the Iran regime. We seem to find such people suddenly interesting when portions of the elite think it might be time to invade a country. If they like the trade relations they have with such a country, they will try to downplay these kinds of stories, even deny them.

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    Valued Senior Member Pandaemoni's Avatar
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    It is well known that people are notoriously bad at intuitively calculating low probability events, Sometimes we overestimate the likelihood of a bad outcome. Often we underestimate it. I *know* that I am far more likely to die in a slip and fall in the bath room or to be killed by lightning strike, than I am by a terrorist, yet we collectively spend a lot more money and expend a lot more angst worrying about that terrorist.

    The man who sold me the cheeseburger I had for lunch is more dangerous to me personally, than Osama bin Laden.

    I once heard the story of a professor of mathematics in Moscow during WWII who refused to take cover during Nazi shelling. Every day, however a colleague and neighbor of his would try to persuade him to go to the shelters just in case. No, no, the professor replied, because he had calculated the odds of being killed in a strike and they were minuscule. One night the neighbor was surprised to find the mathematician in the shelter with him, and asked him what changed his mind. "Well," the mathematician said, "there is only one elephant in the whole of this city, and that odds of an explosion occurring close enough to kill that one relatively small creature in a city this size are tiny. Last night, the Nazis killed the zoo's elephant."

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    Mourning in America madanthonywayne's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pandaemoni View Post
    I once heard the story of a professor of mathematics in Moscow during WWII who refused to take cover during Nazi shelling. Every day, however a colleague and neighbor of his would try to persuade him to go to the shelters just in case. No, no, the professor replied, because he had calculated the odds of being killed in a strike and they were minuscule. One night the neighbor was surprised to find the mathematician in the shelter with him, and asked him what changed his mind. "Well," the mathematician said, "there is only one elephant in the whole of this city, and that odds of an explosion occurring close enough to kill that one relatively small creature in a city this size are tiny. Last night, the Nazis killed the zoo's elephant."
    LOL. Hilarious.

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    Lightening is my favorite example of this. The amount of time and effort spent on "lightening safety" education and lightening safety-related news stories etc. is mind-boggling when one considers that on average lightening kills something like 50 people/year - fewer than virtually any other random cause of sudden death one might think of.

    That being said, this part is pretty stupid:
    Elephants kill at least 200 people every year, why aren’t we scared of elephants? The answer is, most illogically, “because we are not scared of elephants.”
    I'm guessing that on the whole people spend a lot more time around elephants than sharks (what with humans and elephants both living on land and all...), which is probably why more people are killed by elephants. The relevant statistic here would be "odds of death per minute in close proximity" or some such, which isn't given. I'm guessing that if given the choice, the authors would rather spend five minutes hanging around in a pen with an elephant than five minutes swimming in a pool with a shark.

    Also, when you talk about someone being "scared" of something it's important to specify exactly what you mean. Virtually everyone who isn't currently in the water has exactly zero concern about being eaten by a shark. When people say they are "afraid of sharks," what they mean is that they feel a shark would be dangerous to encounter, not that they think the odds of encountering one are particularly high. Much like when people say they think vampires are scary - it's not a statement about how likely they are to be harmed by one (since most people would agree that the odds of encountering a vampire are zero), it's a statement about how dangerous a vampire would be if one were encountered.
    Last edited by Nasor; 10-19-09 at 11:09 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by shichimenshyo View Post
    Wow, talk about putting things into perspective. I like the ignition interlock idea, I would be all for that.
    Write to your Congressman. I have had no luck getting any support for this idea. Trying to solve drunk driving by any means except spending more tax money on more cops and clogging the highways with more sobriety checkpoints (whose location every drunk knows) is as unpopular as trying to solve traffic congestion by any means except spending more tax money to build more freeways and subways. Nobody wants to talk about telecommuting as an alternative to "going to work" and nobody wants to talk about putting a breathalyzer in every car so that in ten years they'll all have them.

    The reason of course is that cops, district attorneys, judges, state legislators, Senators and Congressmen want to preserve their right to drive drunk.
    Quote Originally Posted by Doreen View Post
    I was trying to find a neutral word. 'Weapons of mass destruction'
    And the USA remains the only country on earth that actually deployed nuclear weapons--against civilian targets, at that.
    'They hate our way of life' images in films.
    I recently read a very cogent op-ed in which the writer persuasively made the point that Islamic terrorists do not hate America for our freedoms. They hate us because we prop up repressive regimes in Muslim countries, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
    Notice how in newspapers today we find more stories about individuals oppressed by the Iran regime. We seem to find such people suddenly interesting when portions of the elite think it might be time to invade a country.
    Indeed. Consider: The vast majority of the funding for the world's anti-American terrorist groups comes from Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden is a member by marriage of the House of Saud. Saudis provided all of the financing, all of the planning, and the majority of the hijackers for 9/11. I don't think anyone on earth--friend or foe--would have regarded America as the pariah state it became if our response to 9/11 had been to bomb Riyadh, hang Prince Abdullah, overthrow the Saudi government, fill the country with American troops, and hold the rest of the House of Saud hostage in Guantánamo until they delivered Osama's head (who believes that they really don't know where he is?) to the White House in a FedEx truck. But no, our President was the Clown Prince of the energy industry, so instead we saw photos of him dancing through the flowers while holding hands with Abdullah (May They Both Rot In Hell) while we went about destroying Afghanistan, whose only crime was that Osama decided to hide out there, and Iraq, which was the only secular pro-Western country in the entire region.
    If they like the trade relations they have with such a country, they will try to downplay these kinds of stories, even deny them.
    This is why we ignore China's support of despotic regimes in Africa. We don't want to piss off WalMart.
    Quote Originally Posted by Nasor View Post
    Lightening is my favorite example of this. The amount of time and effort spent on "lightening safety" education and lightening safety-related news stories etc. is mind-boggling when one considers that on average lightening kills something like 50 people/year - fewer than virtually any other random cause of sudden death one might think of.
    Actually lightning is a major cause of death in Africa. The rate is something like 30 deaths per million people per year. No one has been able to figure out why over here, it's in the same category as bee stings.

    If you're looking for other "random causes of sudden death" with similar statistics, try serial killers. Even crashes of scheduled commercial airline flights have an average annual death toll that is very nearly that low.

    Another of my pet peeves about Americans and their irrational risk management: They're afraid to board that plane, but they're 100 times more likely to die while driving to the airport, even if it's a short drive.

    When the Beltway Snipers were terrorizing D.C., northern Virginia and suburban Maryland in 2002, I saw my neighbors loading their kids into one of those old top-heavy wobbly SUVs. I asked where they were going, and they said they were driving to Baltimore (35 miles away) to go grocery shopping, because they were afraid to park outside a market near home. (One of the victims was shot in a supermarket parking lot.) I did some quick arithmetic and assured them that their children would be in more danger in that truck during a 90-minute round trip on the highway than they would be in the Giant Foods parking lot.
    I'm guessing that if given the choice, the authors would rather spend five minutes hanging around in a pen with an elephant than five minutes swimming in a pool with a shark.
    To be fair, wild elephants are far more dangerous than the ones in the zoo. People still hunt elephants in Africa and the elephants are smart enough to figure that out.

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    Registered Senior Member brokenpower's Avatar
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    FraggleRocker, i enjoyed your OP... possibly one of the most mind sparking posts i have seen here in a long time.

    I think the majority of the problem lies with the media pounding this shit into our head whenever it happens.

    Take the "balloon boy" incident recently.... you would think they have many other more important things to report on... but they consistently harp on things that give them ratings, regardless of how ridiculous it is.

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    Quote Originally Posted by brokenpower View Post
    Take the "balloon boy" incident recently.... you would think they have many other more important things to report on... but they consistently harp on things that give them ratings, regardless of how ridiculous it is.
    Frightened people consume more news.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nasor View Post
    Lightening is my favorite example of this. The amount of time and effort spent on "lightening safety" education and lightening safety-related news stories etc. is mind-boggling when one considers that on average lightening kills something like 50 people/year - fewer than virtually any other random cause of sudden death one might think of.
    I feel both snottily delighted and repulsed by what I am about to say....

    Perhaps there are so few deaths because of the education.


    [running away, running away]

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    We should be afraid of driving and being passengers in cars, regularly eating shitty food, smoking, living near certain factories, carcinogen exposure in general, getting body lotion or oil on the floor of our showers and not stepping carefully, and wising off to people likely to have guns.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Doreen View Post
    We should be afraid of driving and being passengers in cars, regularly eating shitty food, smoking, living near certain factories, carcinogen exposure in general, getting body lotion or oil on the floor of our showers and not stepping carefully, and wising off to people likely to have guns.
    There are only about 14,000 non-suicide gun deaths per year in the US. Of those, about half are criminals who are killed by other criminals (the specifics on what percentage of murder victims are themselves criminals varies greatly from place to place - in some big cities it's as high as 80-90%). So if you don't shoot yourself and take a few simple precautions like not being a drug dealer or gang member, your odds of being killed by a gun are actually quite low...

  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nasor View Post
    There are only about 14,000 non-suicide gun deaths per year in the US. Of those, about half are criminals who are killed by other criminals (the specifics on what percentage of murder victims are themselves criminals varies greatly from place to place - in some big cities it's as high as 80-90%). So if you don't shoot yourself and take a few simple precautions like not being a drug dealer or gang member, your odds of being killed by a gun are actually quite low...
    So you took that post as 100% serious?

    But then, seriously, I am not going to go wising off to people with guns, including the police.

    But you do whatever you wanna do.

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