is a philosophy discussion group meeting on the 3rd Tuesday of every month
from 7.30 to 9.30pm
in the The Bull
in Tanners Street. We cover a large range of topics
. If you have an idea for a topic that you would like us to cover why not drop us a line
? There's no charge for membership and everyone is welcome to drop in. Just bring your brain and some beer money!
If you don't read or listen to anything else, take a look at Bruce Schneier's short video on The Security Mirage. He argues that humans are very bad at estimating risk frequently responding to the subjective feeling of risk rather than the reality. A large number of biases seem to built into our thinking about risk.
- We tend to exaggerate spectacular and rare risk while downplaying common risk (eg, aircraft crashes as opposed to road accidents).
- The unknown is perceived to be riskier than the familiar: people fear kidnapping by strangers while in fact most kidnappings are by relatives.
- Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks so Bin Laden was feared more because he had a name.
- People underestimate risks in situations they do control and underestimate risks in situations they don't control. So, for instance, the risks of sky diving or simply driving a car are seen as less critical than the risk of living next door to a nuclear power plant.
- We often estimate risk on the basis of how easy it is to bring instances to mind. This is known as the 'availability phenomenon'. Newspapers repeat rare risks so often it is easy to recall lots of examples of terrible things happening which we end up judging these events as being high risk.
- We humans tend to like stories and anecdotes more than raw data. They have more emotional impact. Consequently the urban myth is a more attractive source of cautionary tale.
- Finally, most of us suffer from innumeracy. We are fine with small numbers but when it comes to big numbers, like a probability of one in a billion, it is hard to get our head round it and so make an accurate judgement.
A very interesting and rather scary point is made by David Ropeik in the video How risky is it really?. Research appears to show that most people judge the risk of, say, climate change through the spectacles of their political ideology. So when a right-wing libertarian is confronted with the claims of climate change they perceive that if true it will involve state control of individuals and private companies so they downplay the risk. On the other hand, because the response to climate requires collective action, this confirms the left-wing, commutarian's world-view so he is happy to accept it.
If you thought humans were rational animals. Think again. Our response to risk seems to be habitually irrational!
Some background articles and videos on risk
- The security mirage (21 min video)
- The feeling of security and the reality of security don't always match, says computer-security expert Bruce Schneier. In this lecture he explains why we spend billions addressing news story risks, like the 'security theatre' now playing at your local airport, while neglecting more probable risks.
- How risky is it really? How humans are wired to misperceive risk (7:30 min video)
- Humans habitually misperceive risks for a variety of psychological reasons, according to David Ropeik, but perhaps the even greater danger is that we often forget to account for the risk of getting risk wrong. Ropeik points out that world view can significantly alter risk perception and offers ways to subvert your subconscious and reduce your vulnerability to the risk perception gap.
- Risk (Wikipedia article)
- Risk is the potential that a chosen action or activity (including the choice of inaction) will lead to a loss (an undesirable outcome). Potential losses themselves may also be called "risks". Almost any human endeavor carries some risk, but some are much more risky than others.
- Risk (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- In non-technical contexts, the word “risk” refers, often rather vaguely, to situations in which it is possible but not certain that some undesirable event will occur. In technical contexts, the word has five specific meanings: (1) An unwanted event which may or may not occur;(2) The cause of an unwanted event which may or may not occur; (3) The probability of an unwanted event which may or may not occur; (4) The statistical expectation value of an unwanted event which may or may not occur; (5) The fact that a decision is made under conditions of known probabilities.
- Risk perception (Wikipedia article)
- Risk perception is the subjective judgment that people make about the characteristics and severity of a risk. The phrase is most commonly used in reference to natural hazards and threats to the environment or health, such as nuclear power. Several theories have been proposed to explain why different people make different estimates of the dangerousness of risks. Three major families of theory have been developed: psychology approaches, anthropology/sociology approaches and interdisciplinary approaches.
- Martin Rees has placed a bet on a biological catastrophe by 2020 (4 min video)
- Cosmologist Martin Rees interviewed about his 2002 prediction that "by 2020 a biological catastrophe (either bioterror or bioerror) will lead to one million casualties in a single event. " "Obviously, I desperately hope that I'm wrong," says Rees. "But biotechnology is developing very fast, and there are greater risks of error."
- Food risk perception (3:30 min video)
- Why do people act differently to how they know they should? Prof Patrick Wall explores people's perception of risk and explains how his research team at the UCD Institute of Food and Health is addressing the attitude attention gap and how the information it is gathering will be of benefit to scientists, policy makers and the food industry.
- Flying -- The classic case of risk perception (1:30 min video)
- Flying provides a classic case of risk perception and how quantitative risk analysis (QRA) is not relevant in some cases.
- Science literacy, numeracy and climate change risk perceptions (12:30 min video)
- Dan Kahan of Yale University suggests that evidence from a large survey of US adults shows that people tend to judge the risk of climate change dependng in their social and political ideology.
- The precautionary principle (Wikipedia)
- If an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.
The ethics of risk (PDF)
- The main concern for regulatory bodies is to determine what risks are acceptable, both ethically and politically. While a certain amount of paternalism seems unavoidable, lack of trust is a critical factor underlying controversy over technological hazards. Even being honest is more difficult than it appears, and scientists and policy makers who point out the gamble often taken in assessing risk are frequently resented for the anxiety their frankness provokes.