"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


We live in a probabilistic world, with few certainties, and the process of assessing risk and probability is often perceived as worse than the risk itself. In olden times if I knew that I would die by 40, carted off and eaten, ravaged by pestilence, or slaughtered by marauding armies, or die from a fulminating infection from an innocuous cut on my finger, I would spend very little time thinking about which event would kill me, or what the probabilities of death from a particular event would be. Even if we had the ability to assess risk and determine probability, it wouldn’t have mattered; for if the bear didn’t eat you, the wolf would.  Living in a world of perceived certainty and comforted by the belief that you would certainly have a life after death, hopefully free from the tooth and claw of the one you were leaving, had its advantages after all.

Now, with the belief that we can reduce the risk of dying from certain events, thus reducing our chances of dying, we can easily come to the aberrant conclusion that maybe we can actually cheat death, period.  But this is what makes risk assessment so perilous and so stressful and which actually contributes to personal un-wellbeing.  It is not bad enough that you have cancer; you also have to worry and wonder whether or not it will kill you; whether or not the treatment that reduces mortality generally will do so for you.  You not only have a physiological disease, you now have a psychological one.

What is worse, you have to assess risk with an eye to cost.  Yes, you may be able to reduce your risk of cancer recurrence to 5 percent, but to do so it will cost you the beach house your were planning, or more respectfully, your children’s Harvard education. 

Scientific advances are wonderful – who wants to live a life that is nasty, brutish, and short, what most of us think of as the world of yesteryear with all its beasts and pestilence? But is a world that is filled with probable peril, shadows of likelihood, and paralyzing uncertainty that much better? 

I knew a man who honestly felt that he could live forever by reducing his risk.  He ate no fat, boiled chicken to death, ran in sub-zero cold, got his heart-rate down to an ideal physical ratio (something about respiration rate as a function of time exercising), stoked up on seven different vegetables per day, and frontloaded his diet with barely edible grains that would increase transit time.  All well and good, but the more he read, the more threats to his health he realized.  He had not worried about swimming in the lake that he had visited since he was young until new hyper-sensitive water analyses showed the presence of pathogens.  He read more and more about them, and tried to pin down the actual risk he ran by swimming in the lake.  The risk posed by getting any one of a number of waterborne infections was miniscule, but why take any chance, he reasoned?  Why run any risk if you don’t have to.  The last time I was invited out to the lake, he went swimming in a full wetsuit, goggles, and snorkel to avoid any contact with the water.

I happened once to mention indoor air pollution, a subject that a colleague of mine was working on at the World Bank.  My friend immediately saw ionizing asbestos, smelled noxious gases emitted from decaying plastic, felt assaulted by bacteria from the forced air furnace; and spent hours, days, even months of research on the best way to purify the air.  But no matter how much he tried, the investments could only decrease the probability of airborne problems. He became paranoid, and not only saw the world as an environment of threat, but became paralyzed at his inability to lower the probability to zero.

Another acquaintance became obsessed with reducing the risk of death and injury on the highways.  He consulted reams of statistics on the safest car, the safest highways, the safest tires, the safest time of day to travel.  He studied correlations between food, nutrition, and alertness, hoping to enhance his probabilities of avoiding accidents.  Armed with this information, he travelled long distances only between 2-5am, in a supersized SUV fitted with strobe lights and body armor.  He crashed one day because his behemoth could not agilely avoid the deer that bounded from the brush onto the highway. No studies had rated cars on their ability to avoid accidents.  This was a blow to his psyche – how could unforeseen risks still exist?  No researcher had confirmed what should be a logical assumption – yes, your chances of getting killed in a Smart Car are far greater than in a Cadillac Esplanade; but you are much more likely to get into an accident with the Esplanade, perhaps killing someone else.

Finance is another area that is subject to risk assessment.  In the old days you put your money in a local bank with a reinforced steel vault, took it out when you needed it, spent the modest interest on a new hat, and slept well at night.  Now, deciding where to put your money is devastatingly difficult and fraught with peril and anxiety.  Not only is there a bewildering myriad of choices (coffee futures, rare earths, derivatives, stocks, bonds, treasury bills, Chinese renminbi, or hedge funds), but there is no way to accurately predict their performance, even their relative performance.  Worse yet, even if statistics tell you that the investment is a good one, the books may have been cooked.  The quality of the estimated probability – the risk – might be compromised.  You never know.

There are many factors which complicate personal risk assessment.  Doctors now, fearing lawsuits, will not tell you what they recommend, but will only tell you the probability of success if you opt for Alternative A rather than B.  Financial managers will present you with an array of data, asking you to decide on the level of risk you want.  There are now evaluative tests which help you determine which risk group you are in, so again you rely on results which – of course – give you only a probability that you are in Group D rather than Group E. 

Parents today are obsessed with reducing all risk to their children.  They buy the most potent anti-bacterial agents and scrub surfaces for hours.  The 5 second rule (it’s OK to eat a piece of dropped food if you get it within five seconds) is long gone.  Sani-wipes are in every room of the house.  Playgrounds are now all plastic with gentle inclines.  Jungle-gyms are gone.  See-saws are history.  Teachers are taught how to identify and discipline bullies and eliminating them from the school environment, thus reducing the risk of psychological damage to the weaker students.

What has happened, however, is that by reducing one kind of risk, parents have increased others.  Apparently there is an emerging correlation between spotless kitchens and “bacteria free” homes and asthma and allergies; so exposure to dirt, grime, and more-or-less innocuous bacteria is a good thing, helping to prime the immune system in children. Playing in a risk-free playground environment inhibits normal developmental mechanisms – that is, how to learn to take risks, to be adventurous, bold, and determined.  Bullies are a part of life – they are everywhere and found at all ages.  Deal with them is perhaps a more sane solution to the problem than eliminating them. 

The point is, not only can you not reduce risk to zero; even if you do, the action is likely to raise risk in another, unexpected area.

If this nightmare of individual, personal risk assessment were not enough, we are all faced with important political decisions which involve assessing big risks.  Should I vote yes on the bond issue to build a nuclear plant in Homewood County, thus eliminating the noxious coal plant in the holler, but raising my risk of annihilation (yes, but is it a big risk?)

In my view risk assessment should always be accompanied by pleasure assessment.  There is a value, after all, to ignoring some risks – to swim in paradisiacal tropical waters without thinking of sea snakes or coral stings; to have an affair without obsessing about getting caught; to eat those delicious Angolan giant shrimp without thinking of shigella.  The middle way.  Do not always try to diminish risk, just understand it, and decide if the pleasure and satisfaction you seek is worth it. 

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