Thinking About Risk
It's a wonder we survive
It's said that nothing is certain except death and taxes.
Risky situations are ones where the outcome is uncertain but that we want to proceed anyway - we try to predict the likelihood of various outcomes and act accordingly. Hypothetically we judge those likelihoods, and balance the likelihood of a good outcome against the costs of a bad outcome. So we buy lottery tickets that we have almost no chance of winning because the cost is low and the potential benefit is high. The cost/benefit ratio is so skewed that we don't even think of gambling as taking a risk. So not everytime we take a chance are we taking a risk.
Several times I found myself trapped in very dangerous situations where unless I did everything just right and unless everything worked out I'd be dead. At times like that I've done things I wouldn't dream of doing normally - but do we really think of doing what we have to do as taking a risk?
How does the implied calculation of risk work? Let's try to be concrete about it - say I'm on a flat roof with a building next door with a flat roof that I want to get onto. I have two options. Go down the ground and out of the building I'm in and into the other one and climb up to the roof. Or jump across the gap. If the gap is small enough there is no risk at all. But if the gap is big enough fall through then there is always a risk in crossing it. But there is a cost involved in taking the risk free course - the time and effort to go to the ground and back up.
How much of a risk are we prepared to take for the benefit of getting across?
Me? These days I'd use the stairs.
But in my youth I'd jump gaps like that for fun.
And if I was fleeing a fire I'd make the attempt even now and even if I didn't think I had much chance.
Seems fairly simple - except it's almost certainly wrong - our very cognitive processes are so biased that it is almost impossible to make accurate assessments of risk either on a personal or social level. For instance, we have an optimism bias that has been well studied by psychologists that causes us to consistently overestimate benefits and underestimate dangers.
This relates to the planning fallacy idea developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979 where people consistently underestimate the time to complete projects even when they have direct experience with underestimating in the past. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimism_biasThose of us who have had to to do much estimating for small consulting projects know how to overcome the planning fallacy. Calculate as carefully as you can and then double the estimate :-)
But that doesn't really work when you're thinking about risk.
For instance in my neighborhood there are a lot of gangsters who ride little bikes fast on sidewalks swarming with people weaving through the crowd. How would you quantify how risky that is? I mean - it looks really risky to me right on the face of it. I just wouldn't do it. But never in many years have I seen anything worse than close calls.
So what's going on here?
By trying to find a way to measure and quantify risk we are trying to make it objective - once you know the objective risk then that more or less determines what you should do. This is similar in a way to the way people strove for so long to find an objective morality that would tell us what to do in a situation - just do the moral calculus and then there's no question about what to do.
And that approach just never worked very well - it produces rigid moral systems that are inhumane
One of the threads in contemporary philosophy that I find very interesting is the one that is deeply informed by the idea of narrative - a story that gives a situation meaning. Narratives are the outputs of interpreters and the natural model is how our brains interpret language. But recent thinkers have been thinking about how the same physical structures that enable language interpretation also enable all sorts of interpreters. Like moral interpreters, and maybe risk interpreters.
Are we doomed if we can't accurately evaluate risk?
Perhaps we can learn something about this from the swarm of thugs on tiny bikes. They aren't calculating risks. They have confidence in their moment to moment ability to not collide with anyone. And in fact everyone else is trying not to collide with them too.
Once I was at the top of a pass in the Rockies (a few times actually) and rolled my bike down 15 mile long hills with a beautiful winding road through fabulous scenery. I didn't sit there calculating any risks. I knew I could handle whatever came up and as I whipped along at 45 mph my heart was full of joy.
But the risk was huge - a tiny rock could have wiped me out. Of course risk assessment is a very important social issue. We build these huge earthchanging systems that are known to be very dangerous. So dangerous that they are going to have problems - we're not looking at managing risk here.
And maybe talking about it in terms of risk is a subtle propaganda move on the part of industry - people that you need to take risks to win when you gamble So they can be persuaded that they can take a chance and accept the risk of an environmental disaster in return for jobs. That's exactly how the debate is being framed right now.
And the opponents of that development tend to take the line that any risk is too much. But maybe we could find a way where a society could handle dangerous situations the same way we do - by knowing the dangers but acting from moment to moment to avoid them.
What do you think?