Faversham Stoa 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!


Risk cartoon

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

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