Comparative risks, statistics, and ignorance, damn ignorance

People — Americans in particular — are not good at assessing risks, benefits, and statistics regarding them.

Thousands, perhaps millions of people refused to fly even months after 9/11, despite the fact that even if — God forbid — a jetliner was blown to smithereens every day, people would still be safer in the skies than in their cars.

I respect and sympathize with those who refused and perhaps still refuse to fly due to emotional scars and irrepressible deepset fears of flying, perhaps some of which existed prior to 9/11.

What I can neither understand nor respect, however, is the amazed indignation I received when I opted to get on a plane a few months after 9/11 and admitted that I had no fear whatsoever about flying. “Can you seriously tell me,” a friend incredulously queried, “that you think it’s SAFE to be in a plane right now?” Sigh.

Some might argue that, when given relevant facts and statistics, people act in a more rational manner. However, even when when we ARE given statistics, they’re often horribly skewed and self-serving. Take, for example, an alarming hypothetical note that “Missing child alerts have DOUBLED in our city in the last year!”

Parents reading this might go into a state of panicked alert. What “Don’t Eat Candy from Strangers” video should they buy? Do they need to talk to Little Sally when she’s 2.5 years old or 3? Should they buy new locks for their front door?

They are not as likely to really THINK, however about what the statistics mean.
– Were the missing children abducted, or did they wander off at the local state fair?
– Has the public been more vigilant in reporting missing children? Have the police been keeping better records?
– And perhaps most importantly, what’s the actual SIZE of the increase? If there were 2 ‘missing kid’ reports in 2000 and 4 in 2001, does this change — although significant from a “percentage” perspective — really warrant any concern at all?

Worse yet, sometimes our irrational fears and/or poor grasp of risks leads us to make unfortunate choices, as highlighted by scientist and blogger David Harris:

For example, I have heard some “experts” recommend that people should fill their car fuel tanks at places away from major roads. Doing so may reduce your risk – we don’t really know by how much – but it will almost certainly increase other risks, such as the risk of being killed in a car accident because you spent longer on the road.

Read more of what David has to say on the Sniper and Statistics here.

And in the meantime, pause for a moment or two whenever you’re frightened or concerned by a situation or even statistic, and ask yourself — in the grand scheme of things, what does it really mean?







What do you think?