Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?
United States Security News

Schneier: We Need To Relearn How To Accept Risk 478

An anonymous reader writes "Bruce Schneier has written an article about how our society is becoming increasingly averse to risk as we invent ways to reduce it. 'Risk tolerance is both cultural and dependent on the environment around us. As we have advanced technologically as a society, we have reduced many of the risks that have been with us for millennia. Fatal childhood diseases are things of the past, many adult diseases are curable, accidents are rarer and more survivable, buildings collapse less often, death by violence has declined considerably, and so on. All over the world — among the wealthier of us who live in peaceful Western countries — our lives have become safer.' This has led us to overestimate both the level of risk from unlikely events and also our ability to curtail it. Thus, trillions of dollars are spent and vital liberties are lost in misguided efforts to make us safer. 'We need to relearn how to recognize the trade-offs that come from risk management, especially risk from our fellow human beings. We need to relearn how to accept risk, and even embrace it, as essential to human progress and our free society. The more we expect technology to protect us from people in the same way it protects us from nature, the more we will sacrifice the very values of our society in futile attempts to achieve this security.'"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Schneier: We Need To Relearn How To Accept Risk

Comments Filter:
  • by qbast ( 1265706 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @05:30AM (#44754431)
    Mitigate biggest risk and immediately something else becomes biggest. At some points you have to stop because every next risk is smaller and more has to be sacrificed for smaller piece of safety.
    • by Thanshin ( 1188877 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @05:45AM (#44754479)

      Actually, it's worse than that. In order to eliminate certain risks only really drastic solutions are effective.

      I don't think certain risk elimination costs will become so high we're unwilling to pay. I believe the costs will go higher and we'll keep paying.

      Eventually, people will understand that to avoid risks originating from the poorest countries, the final solution is to just eradicate those countries. After all, we don't want them for their population but for their resources. Instead of killing a few and putting a government that follows our orders, eventually we'll be capable (both technologically and socially) to just exterminate everyone in a country and replace them with resource extraction machines.

      And once that problem is finally over, instead of the richest country vs the poorer one it will be between cities, and then neighborhoods.

      The only thing stopping the richest from protecting themselves by exterminating everyone else is the shitty quality of the robots.

      • Eventually, people will understand that to avoid risks originating from the poorest countries, the final solution is to just eradicate those countries.

        While it may be possible to nuke a country so thoroughly into a lunar landscape analogue that not even cockroaches will remain there will inevitably be domestic terrorists/extremists and they cannot start nuking their own cities. So there really is no end to their justification for an increasingly strict police state where everthing is sacrificed on the grand altar of the God of Safety.

      • Unfortunately this is the pure truth.
      • We *are* eradicating the poorest countries. We're doing so by outsourcing industry to them, preventing them from being poor. A Country with sufficient food and energy is unlikely to attack its customers. So far it has worked in Germany, Japan, and Korea. Progress is being made in China, India, and Brazil. There may always be a few crazy areas like North Korea, but I don't think their primary problem is economics.
        • by stdarg ( 456557 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @08:58AM (#44755383)

          So far it has worked in Germany, Japan,

          Those countries weren't exactly starving in the streets when they tried to take over the world.

          Germany, of course, was one of the most powerful countries in the world before WWI and wanted to use the war to consolidate the continent. That's the actions of a superpower, not a desperate street scrapper.

          Japan before WWII had been building and modernizing for decades. They were an ally in WWI. They had fought some minor wars in the region earlier, defeating Russia for instance. Again, not a country with some existential threat.

          Countries that are powerful can also be dangerous, it's just a matter of attitude. Germany post-WWII has been decidedly anti-war, not due to them having food and energy, but because they were thoroughly humiliated when the world found out about what was going on in concentration camps. I mean really humiliated on every level.

          Progress is being made in China, India, and Brazil.

          So do you think that China is less aggressive militarily today, with their growing wealth and industrialization and national pride, than 20-30 years ago? I mean there's a lot of tension between China and Japan, and in the seas around China in general. You don't perceive that as a growing trend as they get wealthier and more powerful?

          • by swb ( 14022 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @10:43AM (#44756385)

            Germany was badly bankrupted by the Allies after WW I and experienced hyperinflation that is pretty much the textbook example of what hyperinflation looks like. It's not hard to find images of people buying bread with wheelbarrows full of currency.

            And then there's the merry-go-round of governments that took place in the 20s into the 1930s that allowed a failed artist from Austria to seize power.

            To describe post-WW I Germany as a "powerful country" is grossly inaccurate.

            Germany has largely been anti-war not because of the holocaust but because of the high price paid in Germany over two wars. The US largely imposed a famine on the German population through 1946-1947 through restrictions on food imports and food aid.

            • by stdarg ( 456557 )

              I said "Germany, of course, was one of the most powerful countries in the world before WWI" not post-WW I.

              Regardless, between the end of WWI and the start of WWII Germany did a lot of rebuilding. They certainly didn't start their next world war when they were at their most desperate, they built up strength.

    • by jiadran ( 1198763 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @06:17AM (#44754589)

      From what I understand, the point is that we are not concentrating on the biggest risks, but on the wrong risks. The measures we have taken to "protect" flights have resulted in more deaths (due to car accidents of people avoiding flying) than the deaths caused by the original incident that triggered the "security" measures.

      All in all, we should not give up our freedoms for security theater that actually increases the overall risk.

      • You operate under the assumption that people who avoid flying would drive instead. What if they just stay at home?
        An increase of road deaths since 2001 but it doesn't look like it.
        According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year> [wikipedia.org] the amount of road deaths in 2010 was the lowest since 1950, so not so sure about that.

      • All in all, we should not give up our freedoms for security theater that actually increases the overall risk.

        BFrank: Duh, noobs.
        BFrank rolls over in his grave.
        BFrank has quit (Quit: grumble... deserve neither... grumble...)

    • by Salgak1 ( 20136 )
      And yet, talk of cost-benefit analysis is strangely absent from anyone discussing a given risk. . .
    • Wrong focus (Score:5, Insightful)

      by captainpanic ( 1173915 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @07:13AM (#44754807)

      But we do not even mitigate the biggest risk first. Arguably the biggest risk right now to us is cancer. However, in the US, the budget for cancer research is a pitiful 5 billion $/yr, which is rather small in comparison to the 79 billion $/yr for military research and testing.

      Sources for budgets:
      http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/NCI/research-funding [cancer.gov]
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_budget_of_the_United_States#By_title [wikipedia.org]

    • by muphin ( 842524 )
      Like sharks falling from the sky?
    • There is an other side. Our tolerance towards failure has became much shorter too.
      When we read articles about a cloud service going down for a few minutes we jump the gun and say "Well it looks like that sysadmin guy got fired for that mistake" or if a bridge fails, or a building collapses, or some rich guy losses money... There is always seems to be an investigation that will find the person who had made that critical mistake and have them fired or jailed.

      We learn by failures, but our system punishes fail

    • by khakipuce ( 625944 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @07:55AM (#44754991) Homepage Journal

      The chances of dying are 100%. We all do it, it is just a case of when and how. As a society we are well into looking for very marginal returns - eat brocolli all your life to put off the chance of getting bowel cancer when you are 87 - and it is impossible to do valid experiments that show if measured take to mitgate one risk cause others.

      I work on a large industrial site and management have voer the last few years been on a major safety push. One result of this is that they have been round and "risk assessed" all the walk ways and put barriers all over the place. The outcome is that walking from the car park to the office is now so convoluted that people just walk down the road ways. There never was any evidence that anyone was acutally injured in the areas where barriers were put up.

    • But we're not even targeting the biggest risk. The USA's biggest spending is military and national security. Yet daily people are dying from treatable diseases, car accidents, and other such preventable causes.

      What we should really focus on is protecting people from lightning strikes and shark attacks. They kill more people than terrorists.

  • Short version (Score:5, Insightful)

    by philip.paradis ( 2580427 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @05:38AM (#44754461)

    Bruce is right. Even if our society managed to put enough measures in place to mitigate all but the risks associated with an asteroid impact, you surely would not want to live in that society, as the term "living" would be a loosely defined term at best. It would be a society essentially devoid of free will.

    • Re:Short version (Score:5, Insightful)

      by 0111 1110 ( 518466 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @05:49AM (#44754493)

      While you and I may not want to live in such a society there are those who would like nothing better. Many of them fancy themselves as the enforcers in such a regime, a chance to be a master instead of one of the many slaves. For people who live to control others every unjust law that makes life unbearable for the rest is yet another opportunity for them to exert their authority and feel that blissful, euphoric sense of power that is for them the ultimate drug.

    • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

      buildings collapse less often

      Is that each?

      From the sample I know of, buildings collapse either 0 or 1 times.

      So what does less often mean?

    • by invid ( 163714 )
      All hail the Hindmost! [wikipedia.org] I personally couldn't imagine having to wear a helmet every time I rode a bike as a kid. As more and more safety measures get put into place over time, the tiniest threat will loom large due to graphic anecdotal evidence. Eventually we'll become Peirson's Puppeteers.
  • by cyber-vandal ( 148830 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @05:42AM (#44754471) Homepage

    It's an aversion to being sued for not sufficiently managing that risk which leads to massive overreactions on the part of authorities and businesses.

    • by Trepidity ( 597 )

      That isn't the reason for things like national-security policy; you cannot sue the federal government for its security policies (due to sovereign immunity). However you can vote politicians out of office, or vote them into office if they grandstand in a way you like, which is what they're worried about.

    • Bingo!

      Try buying a gas can to fill your mower. The new, low-risk, inflexible, spouts have multiple interlocks and extend, maybe 3" from the can. Pouring often results in gasoline spilling on the device you are filling - which may be hot from use. And while some risk is mitigated by keeping kids from accidentally pouring the gasoline, the greater risk of fire is only mitigated by large warning messages imprinted in the plastic. The prior technology was effective, with low risk to the consumer. The so
  • by aaaaaaargh! ( 1150173 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @05:54AM (#44754519)

    As someone who is familiar with a lot of theoretical work on decision making and the work of Tversky and Kahneman, but not with current empirical research, I am wondering where he gets his data from. By looking at a few examples you cannot establish general claims about how risk prone or averse we have become. Likewise, how does he know that risk aversity depends on the culture? Perhaps it does, but I want to see the study. And yes, there are plenty of studies in this field, it just seems that Schneier doesn't read them, or otherwise he should mention them.

    So how about some empirical evidence?

    • by philip.paradis ( 2580427 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @06:13AM (#44754577)

      It appears you've been asleep for the last ten years, and possibly the twenty years preceding it that laid the foundation for the severe civil liberties issues we're facing now. Your UID indicates you should be old enough to understand this, unless you've led a rather sheltered life.

    • by Impy the Impiuos Imp ( 442658 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @06:21AM (#44754613) Journal

      3,000 lost lives have caused us to spend trillions on wars. A fraction of that invested in additional medical research would have saved far more.

      A death in front of the cameras is worse more than a million deaths on a hospital bed...to a politician.

    • Also, two can play at this game. Please cite your claimed sources, since you've made the bold statement of being so intimately familiar with the subject matter, and have noted that there are "plenty of studies in this field" that you must have sitting on your desk for rapid reference. Provide a BTC address and I'll be delighted to cover the costs of you shipping me a hardcopy. I'll be glad to review your studies and provide an analysis at length within fourteen days.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Well, I've mentioned Tversky and Kahneman, and as it happens on my desk are currently (right now and very literally):

        Bouyssou / Dubois / Prade / Pirlot (eds.): Decision Making process. Wiley 2006.

        Gärdenfors /Sahlin (eds.): Decision, probability, and utility.Cambridge UP 1988.

        as well as (not directly related) Amartya Sen's "Rationality and Freedom".

        The older Gärdenfors volume has plenty of references to empirical research on risk taking in the contributions of Part IV ("Unrealiable psobabilities")

  • A good start (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Vinegar Joe ( 998110 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @05:58AM (#44754531)

    Would be exterminating the lawyers.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Here's an engineer who realized at an early age that discovery comes with some risk,
    http://www.bentleypublishers.com/milliken [bentleypublishers.com] [bentleypublishers.com]

    He died last year at 101, http://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/2012/08/27/william-f-milliken-1911-2012/ [hemmings.com] [hemmings.com]

    In "Equations of Motion: Adventure, Risk and Innovation", Milliken vividly recounts his experiences pushing airplanes and race cars beyond their limits. His exciting life provides singular, real-world insight into the

  • by gnasher719 ( 869701 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @06:28AM (#44754631)
    Assume you spend x million tax dollars. Doesn't matter on what. People had to work to make that money. When people work, accidents happen and people day. Someone good at statistics will probably be able to figure out X in the statement "when X million tax dollars are spent, on average one person will die in the effort of making that money". I don't think the number is very large.

    But that means spending X million dollars to save one life is pointless because you will kill - in a completely unpredictable way - one life to get the money!
    • Someone good at statistics will probably be able to figure out X in the statement "when X million tax dollars are spent, on average one person will die in the effort of making that money".

      In the US, the median income is $40k. $1M tax requires an 'extra' 25 jobs beyond what people would take to feed and clothe themselves. The workplace fatality rate is 3.5 per 100,000 ( source [aflcio.org]), or 1 per 28,600. This means you get $1.1B of revenue per fatality. US personal tax receipts are almost $2T, so you could argue that the federal government kills almost 1800 people per year through the tax burden.

      This income include social security and medicare, and I'm quite certain that spending on those two progr

    • Why can't the next x million fix that problem? With enough mallets, winning at wack-a-mole is trivial.
  • by FunPika ( 1551249 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @06:35AM (#44754649) Journal
    Business/governments are afraid of public backlash for NOT going to extreme lengths. As an example, if Obama today announced he was going to work towards repealing the PATRIOT Act and whatever silly laws have lead to excessive sums of money being spent on reducing the the already slim chance of dying in a terrorist attack, Republicans would go crazy claiming that the Democrats don't give a care if you and your family die. If schools right now weren't spending who-knows how much money on installing security cameras, hiring armed guards, etc. in response to Sandy Hook, there would be articles everywhere right around now claiming how the public school system is being irresponsible with the safety of children. Hell, I recently remember that there were actually people seriously considering shunning Starbucks because they won't become a gun-free zone where relevant laws don't require it.
    • by Daetrin ( 576516 )
      The NSA says they need to spy on us to protect us. The worst terrorist attack on Americans was of course 9/11, which killed about 3000 people. Let's suppose that the NSA is 100% right, and if they stop spying on us that another 9/11 will happen. Every single year. 3000 more people dead per year from terrorism every year.

      3000 people out of approximately 300,000,000 million people is a 0.001% chance that i will die in any given attack. At one attack per year i can expect that by the time i would be 100, the
  • by hyades1 ( 1149581 ) <hyades1@hotmail.com> on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @06:42AM (#44754681)

    Big business is risk-averse. And in America today, big business runs everything.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @06:51AM (#44754715)

    Though increasingly I start getting the impression that he's firing about a couple of "duh. You don't say..." statements. Or is it just 'cause I'm in the sec biz that it seems "duh" to me?

    Why does anyone think security is in any way different from any other business? In EVERY business, every project, every goal you have, everything you do, the first 90% take 10% of the work, while the last 10% gobble up 90%. Be it 80/20 or 70/30 in yours, I won't split hairs, but that's how it is: A huge part of the project or goal is trivially implemented while a minimal part takes up the lion's share. I'd even go so far to say that in security, the ratio is 99-1.

    The GOOD thing about security is that you can actually just do the first 99% and accept the risk for the rest, and get away with an incredible cost/benefit ratio. And you'll find that most companies actually use that strategy in their risk management and reach a security level of 95+ percent. Actually, the joke here is that most companies are, at least in my and I'd say "our" (yours too, I'd guess) definition of security standards, under-secured because of their IT-Governance and that "95% is good enough 'til everything is at 95%" rules. That's why trivial security mechanisms aren't implemented. We're already at 95 with sec. No need to throw money that way (and, believe it or not, most companies reach their "recommended" IT-Sec level easily. Simply because those 95% are SO dirt cheap, easy and painless to implement that they almost certainly ARE already in place, and if not a few pennies will do. You'll find the IT-Sec requirements usually in the "quick wins" quarter of the chart).

    You see, companies already heed that advice. Mostly because they don't give a shit about customers complaining about shoddy security because, well, they'll still buy 'cause we're SO cheap. And yes, they do.

    It's different with governments that won't just get a quick outcry when a security blooper happens (like a corporations would if they, say, lose every CC number of your customers). If a plane crashed anywhere into a building again, the press would have a field day. HOW could this happen? Didn't our law makers learn anything from 9/11? Did they simple ignore it and go on with their life? What do we have those useless twits for if they do not do ANYTHING? You may fill up here with statements of your choice, but one thing is certain: This administration is finished. Done. Nobody will give them credit for anything anymore. And you better forget about winning the next elections for at least half a decade. People tend to remember those things (and the other party will spend a lot of time and money reminding them of it).

    So we need 100% security. Not because we really want it or need it. Not because the scenario is so dangerous to us, the people.

    It's dangerous to them, and their place at the feeding trough.

    • Bingo! Although avoiding physical risk is the most visible way in which our lives have become warped, the dangers of pursuing the asymptote are not limited to just that one area.

      We've also spent the last half-century or so pursuing efficiency. The projected end to that path is seen as a case where everything is cheap, but no one has a job to be able to afford to buy it.

    • by arth1 ( 260657 )

      In EVERY business, every project, every goal you have, everything you do, the first 90% take 10% of the work, while the last 10% gobble up 90%.

      You must not have worked in the software industry.
      The first 90% of a project takes 90% of the time. The last 10% of a project takes the other 90% of the time.

  • I think there should be free lawn darts [wikipedia.org] for everyone.

  • by allcoolnameswheretak ( 1102727 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @06:56AM (#44754745)

    I agree with the article. Increasingly people relinquish life experiences, if not life itself, out of fear and an unwillingness to take any risks. People who avoid trips to far away countries because of fear of a plane crash are a common occurrence. Yet I also know people who avoid excursions on weekends because they are afraid of being involved in a traffic accident. People who are afraid to visit concerts out of fear of crowds or stampedes, people who love oriental style and culture yet would never visit a country such as Morocco out of fear of kidnap or a terrorist attack.

    I have to admit, I also experience this fuzzy fear of doing something new, moving out of my comfort zone, leaving the safe haven of my apartment, my town, my daily routine, every time I leave to do something out of the ordinary. I blame the worldwide media and my addiction to news. It seems like bad things happen all the time, everywhere. But it's important to put things into perspective. The world is a very big place, and 99.998% of the time people are safe and nothing happens. Of course, on those very rare occasions where something unfortunate does happen, it makes news and penetrates into our awareness, tickling our fears.

    Of course, just as important as putting things into perspective, is not to be stupid and take unnecessary risks. You want to experience oriental culture? By all means, visit Morocco: Casablanca, Marrakesh, Fes. The people are very friendly and there are beautiful things to see there. But please, stay out of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq... accepting risk does not have to encompass being reckless.

    Looking back, I don't regret a single time I kicked myself in the butt, stepped out of my comfort zone, and experienced new things. Yes, I was anxious on numerous occasions, mostly at airports, nervous and afraid. It doesn't matter. In the end, it was all worth it.

  • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @07:09AM (#44754791) Journal

    ...but failure is unacceptable.

    Standard operating procedure in nearly all industries today.

  • by mdsolar ( 1045926 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @07:14AM (#44754811) Homepage Journal
    A risk category that is growing is the tremendously large screw ups. In the past, we just did not have the capacity to snuff out so many lives at once by mistake. The sinking of the Titanic, the crash of a modern passenger jet, the largely failed evacuation of the twin towers, the highway pileup or the toxic gassing of a whole town from a chemical accident were simply not possible in the past.

    All of these have active accident prevention efforts in place when they occur. It is not that risk is not being addressed, it is that the high consequences of a mishap ultimately make blame in adequate proportion impossible. And so the system continues to set up for systematic failure. Airline safety is a pretty good example of how a systematic learning process can help to address this, but consequences still continue to grow. And, as risks get to be global, like nuclear winter, ocean acidification or global warming, the chance to learn from mistakes diminishes because there is no next time in which to be more careful.
  • by davidbrit2 ( 775091 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @07:19AM (#44754839) Homepage
    ...But somehow I don't have a problem with less-frequent building collapses.
  • The flip side of obsessive blame avoidance is the drive to find someone and hold them responsible/make them pay.

    The attitude is "if I can fault someone else then I'm completely off the hook" along with "I can take out my anger on whoever did this to me and it will be OK".

    And before the self righteous conservatives start whining about welfare, I would like to point out that both conservatives and Christians are some of the worst offenders. Just think about every time some self absorbed pulpit pounding assh

  • by jonwil ( 467024 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @07:26AM (#44754865)

    When I was a kid, I used take my pocket money every Saturday morning, tear out of the house at who knows what speed, down the street, through the car park of the recreation center, across the sports oval and through to the corner store (all the while shouting who knows what at the top of my lungs). Then I would go and spend my pocket money on all kinds of lollies (most of which would probably be eaten by the time I got home).
    All of this was done with no parental supervision whatsoever.

    These days if that happened, the parents would be yelled at for allowing their kid to go out unsupervised, yelled at for allowing their kid to run so fast though car parks and sports ovals and things with such a high risk of being hurt in the process and quite possibly yelled at for allowing their kids to spend their money with no controls on what they are buying.

    Note that I also did other "dangerous" things like walking/riding my bike to school, playing on playground equipment and accessing the Internet without a parent looking over my shoulder at all times.

    • by Maximum Prophet ( 716608 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @08:09AM (#44755067)


      These days if that happened, the parents would be yelled at for allowing their kid to go out unsupervised, yelled at for allowing their kid to run so fast though car parks and sports ovals and things with such a high risk of being hurt in the process and quite possibly yelled at for allowing their kids to spend their money with no controls on what they are buying.


      Or perhaps parents today just perceive they would be yelled at for allowing this because they read that some parents in New Jersey was once talked to by CPS years ago. The "Nanny-State" is more of a chilling effect than a real phenomenon. Better communication means that even if an activity has only a .0001% chance of causing injury, we've heard of a child that was injured by it.

      There's a family in our neighborhood that practices that kind of "Free Range" childcare, AFAIK no-one has actually yelled at them, and their children haven't had any more injuries than any others.

    • by Trillian_1138 ( 221423 ) <slashdot&fridaythang,com> on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @09:53AM (#44755871)

      I'm not sure how that's the fault of a "nanny state government" rather than overprotective parents. Mind you, I agree that - on the whole - kids today are overly sheltered. (Ugh, as someone not even 30 it pains me to write 'kids today.') But as someone who works with middle and high school students, I also don't think the problem is as bad as it is made out to be. It's usually one parent out of ten or twenty who are truly the obnoxious ones. They're just loud enough, and insistent enough, to paint ALL parents as whiney and over-protective, and thus all youth as sheltered.

      But there are still kids running through parks and cities, spending money on candy, and going to play at the skate park. You may just not be hanging out with them.

      PS - I'm from a major city in the US, which shapes my view. It sounds like, from some of your language, that you're not from the US. I'd be curious how/if things differ elsewhere, but can only speak from my experience.

  • Well, we're still underestimating the level of risk related to peak oil and global warming.
    Those are bigger problems than buildings collapse.

  • Vaccines (Score:5, Informative)

    by Jason Levine ( 196982 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @09:15AM (#44755535) Homepage

    People have responded to this with statements about terrorism/security and such, but the first thing I thought of was vaccines. The anti-vaccination folks constantly declare vaccines to be a bigger health risk than the disease they protect against. Part of the problem is that vaccines are so successful that most folks today don't remember a time when polio, measles, whooping cough, etc ravaged the world. They don't remember people dying or being permanently maimed by these diseases. (This includes me, by the way.)

    To some people, this lack of personal experience makes them imagine the diseases as if they were a "bad cold." Then, they hear about the "toxins" in vaccines and the bad risk assessment kicks in. They figure that the high danger (as perceived by them) of vaccines outweighs the low chance of getting the disease and the low severity (again as seen by them) of the disease. So they skip the vaccinations - and then herd immunity breaks down, people get sick, and die.

    Though I wouldn't trade being safe from these diseases, this state of safety has altered the ability of some people to make good risk assessments.

    • How about the vaccines for the diseases that ore just a "bad cold". Rotavirus is just as bad a getting the flu. Or Hep B, a sexually transmitted disease that they vaccinate for a birth. I certainly hope your 3 month old isn't sexually active already. Anything in excess becomes dangerous, even water can kill from water intoxication. But the vaccine proponents and sellers keep adding more of them to the schedule without concern for the safety or effectiveness. You do know that the same number of people get th
  • The Empathy Problem (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Millennium ( 2451 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @09:37AM (#44755699)

    Two problems, actually. One is that we are dealing, not with a fear of risk, but a phobia towards it: the terms are related, to be sure, but the latter is taken to an irrational degree. If we don't want to spend our lives in padded rooms, then we must be willing to forego the mantra of "Never Again."

    But the other problem comes in when the current political fashion of empathy-based arguments comes into play. We are asked to empathize with people who have been traumatized, in the moment of their trauma. Anyone would say "Never Again" in those circumstances: that's a large part of what it means to suffer trauma, and the very definition of empathy demands it from those practicing it. But the recently-traumatized are not known for their rational decision-making abilities. There's a reason we tell people to wait a year, or even longer, before making big decisions. There's a reason we devote whole branches of psychology to studying the effects of trauma. PTSD is no longer one monolithic thing, but a whole spectrum of defined conditions.

    This, I think, is where the current phobias come from: a well-meaning but sorely misguided attempt to make decisions by empathizing with people who are in no condition to make those decisions. Pathos has its limits, and we have arrived at the current state by ignoring those limits. Certainly empathy has its place when it comes to the healing process, but when the time comes to make big decisions, we need to step back and look at things more rationally, even when rational thought means accepting the status quo.

  • risk takers (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mdsolar ( 1045926 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @10:09AM (#44756039) Homepage Journal
    I think the article gets one important point rather wrong. Those who take risks tend to be those coming out of the most secure backgrounds. This is pretty much the core observation leading to Plato's Republic. If you grow up at risk, you are less likely to chose risk than if you grow up secure. Now, our response to 9-11 might be too large, but it is not owing to being risk adverse. It is more a function of having a privileged and sheltered decider ready to risk a lot, even our civil liberties, to carry out a family vendetta.

    Douglas Adams got it much closer. It was being sheltered and safe that led to the krikkit wars.
  • by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @10:57AM (#44756543) Journal

    The fact is, for the western world, risk is largely eliminated. Plague, famine, pestilence, and war - all are pretty nonexistent in the civilized world.

    We evolved to deal with immediate, natural risk.

    I'd suspect that the human brain is rather good at this in the aggregate - witness, for example, the breadth of 'home remedies' or natural herbs etc that have been determined to actually have some sort of core chemical that (surprising to scientists) actually DOES have a beneficial effect.

    So now we're reduced to worry, more than risk-management.
    Rather than facing starvation, we worry that we're eating too much.
    Rather than facing working day and night to barely survive, we worry that we're too sedentary.
    Rather than face the constant risk of agonizing death from the billions of germs trying to kill us like Typhus and Diptheria, we worry that there *might* be a vanishingly small cumulative risk of cancer from the additives that make our food safe from spoilage, mold, etc.
    Rather than facing the imminent pillage, rape, or murder by a neighbor village that's decided we have something they want, we worry that there might be some crazy zealot somewhere who might harbor some resentment vaguely against our society.

    Seriously, I suspect that worry is endemic to the human creature. If we don't have actual things to be concerned about, we invent / inflate them to fill that psychological space.

    Oh, and Cracked has a wonderful article on this: http://www.cracked.com/blog/7-reasons-news-looks-worse-than-it-really-is/ [cracked.com]

I've never been canoeing before, but I imagine there must be just a few simple heuristics you have to remember... Yes, don't fall out, and don't hit rocks.