March 19th, 2014 - Torgo χ

2014-03-19 (Wednesday)

Dear Log,

In a book about the international banking collapse of 2007, there's a section about how quantifying risk is a fool's errand.

And in that section, there's this:

«I’m willing to make a bet. This is it: that somewhere near you, wherever and whoever you are, there is a killer. A killer you’ve never noticed as a killer; a killer you’ve never thought about as a real danger to you. I’m not talking about an invisible killer, like a virus or bacteria; I’m not talking about an obvious killer, like the idiot in the 4×4 roaring down the road outside or the mugger lurking by the broken streetlight, I’m talking about a killer who is plainly visible, whom you see every day, whom you’ve known your whole life, and to whom you never give a second’s thought. This killer kills more than a thousand men and women in the United Kingdom every year, year in and year out, yet you’ve never heard a word about the dangers it represents. Bear in mind that cars and road accidents—that’s drivers, passengers, pedestrians, cyclists, everybody—come to a total of less than 3,000 deaths a year. This killer is between a third and a half as dangerous as all the road traffic in the United Kingdom.

Give up? I’m talking about stairs. That’s right, humanity’s friend the humble stair. If stairs were invented today and a full analysis of their dangers were made, along with the gory statistics—the literally gory statistics—there would be an impassioned, sustained, and I’m pretty sure eventually successful campaign to have them banned on health and safety grounds. It’s happened to much safer things than stairs. Stairs are absolutely lethal. I even myself know someone killed by his own stairs, one of the 1,000-plus deaths in a typical year. Yet we don’t perceive stairs as being risky. They’re filed away in the part of our consciousness where daily objects live, not in the part which attends to dangers and threats and risks to life. We don’t see these things entirely rationally, and familiarity breeds not contempt but a lack of attention. Why? We don’t really know. Our intuitive understanding of risks and of numbers is limited. The explanations usually reached for are of the currently fashionable cod-evolutionary-psychology sort which reaches back to ancestral humanity on the African savanna. We are bad with risk because our hunter-gatherer ancestors blah blah blah. The long and the short of it is that we aren’t all that good with risk.»

I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, John Lanchester, 2009


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