netcurmudgeon (netcurmudgeon) wrote,

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We really are very bad at assessing risks.

Our risk assessment faculty -- evolved and polished while humans were still living in small tribal bands in Africa -- seems easily led by emotion and woefully inept at picking out true risks from perceived risks.

Two examples.

Politicians put a lot of energy into talking about violent crime and, invariably, linking it to restrictive firearms legislation. If you based your risk assessments on what the pols and the news organizations tell you, you would think that the average American runs a staggering risk of being cut down by a hail of gunfire. It simply isn't so. In this roundup of causes of death, homicide (all homicides, mind you, not just gun-related homicides) ranked 14th in the US in 2002. Well behind accident (#5) and suicide (#11). Homicide accounted for 0.7% of deaths, while diseases of the heart (#1) claimed 28.9%. Add in cancer, lung disease, liver disease, diabetes and high blood pressure and you account for over 61% of the dead in 2002. You are 3.8 times as likely to die from the flu as you are to be murdered.

The real risk in this comparison is the junk food you put in your body, not the homicidal maniac splashed all over the news.

Politicians and news reporters also put a lot of energy into scaring the bejesus out of parents over child abduction and molestation by strangers. According to them, and the laws they pass, this is a plague that grips the nation. Contemporary parents are so afraid of stranger child abduction, that they won't let their children walk or bike to school. Many in my town choose to drive their children to school rather then let them walk. This page from the CDC describes the dismal decline of walking and biking to school that has transpired in my lifetime. It also punctures the lie of stranger child abduction hysteria. This page from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (an arm of the U.S. DoJ) chronicles the steady decline in the rate of violent crime against youth. The present rates are roughly half of what they were in 1973, and much less than they were during the peak years of 1991 - 1995. In 1991, of the roughly 150,000 inmates in state prisons who were convicted of a violent crime against a child, only 1,153 were kidnappers. That's 0.15% of the total state prison population in 1991.

Let's compare this to a real risk for children: drowning. In 2004 drowning was the number three accidental killer of children (after choking and car accidents). Over three hundred children under four drown every year in the US. An average of 2200 children under 5 wind up in the Emergency Room every year due to "Pool Submersion Injuries". Read: drowning or near drowning. Over 10% of them die. Most of the deaths (90%) occurred in home pools. More sobering statistics on drowning can be found here.

Think about it. Parents will drive their child to school every day out of fear of a freakishly rare crime, yet they'll install a gigantic water hazard in their back yards.

I rest my case on the falibility (and leadability) of risk assessment in homo sapiens. Now I just need to prepare myself for getting the hairy eyeball from fellow parents when I send our future kids walking off to school.
Tags: lies damn lies and statistics, risks

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