Irrational Risk Analysis and the Future of Humanity

Discussion in 'Science & Society' started by Fraggle Rocker, Oct 19, 2009.

  1. Fraggle Rocker Moderator

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    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.
    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.
     
  2. shichimenshyo Caught in the machine Registered Senior Member

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    Wow, talk about putting things into perspective. I like the ignition interlock idea, I would be all for that.
     
  3. Doreen Valued Senior Member

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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.
     
  4. shichimenshyo Caught in the machine Registered Senior Member

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    Stimulated, like the terror threat level color indiactor chart? No, that is just silly. =p
     
  5. Doreen Valued Senior Member

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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.
     
  6. Pandaemoni Valued Senior Member

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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."
     
  7. madanthonywayne Mourning in America Moderator

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    LOL. Hilarious.
     
  8. Nasor Valued Senior Member

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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:
    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: Oct 19, 2009
  9. Fraggle Rocker Moderator

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    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.
    And the USA remains the only country on earth that actually deployed nuclear weapons--against civilian targets, at that.
    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.
    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.
    This is why we ignore China's support of despotic regimes in Africa. We don't want to piss off WalMart.
    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.
    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.
     
  10. brokenpower Registered Senior Member

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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.
     
  11. Fraggle Rocker Moderator

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    Frightened people consume more news.
     
  12. Doreen Valued Senior Member

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    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]
     
  13. Doreen Valued Senior Member

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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.
     
  14. Nasor Valued Senior Member

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    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. Doreen Valued Senior Member

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    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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