A degree of risk (part 1)

We seem to believe that degrees of risk are too complicated for the average person to understand. You’ll see this next time there’s a health scare; the TV presenter will ask the expert “is it safe?”, the expert will try to say something like “the risk is very small” and the TV presenter (probably a Humanities graduate) will say “but is it safe?” and so on. The presenter can’t be bothered to understand that there is a continuum between absolutely safe and unacceptably unsafe, and assumes that the viewer cannot do so either. This annoys me for a number of reasons, but mainly because I feel like an oppressed minority. Just because I am numerate I am not part of the target audience. In trying to make the message comprehensible to the dumbest viewer (and Humanities students) the opportunity to convey useful information is lost.

So we get used to this picture of risk being all or nothing, black or white, safe or unsafe. Look at this report celebrating 30 years of the UK’s Health & Safety Executive (HSE):

“HSC’s annual report for 1977/78 states: ‘Our overriding concern is… to stimulate awareness of the risks and encourage the joint participation of workers and management in efforts to eliminate them.’ In 2004, the mission for HSC and HSE is to work with LAs ‘to protect people’s health and safety by ensuring that risks in the changing workplace are properly controlled’. The style may be different and the message broader but the core objective is essentially the same.”

Really? Is eliminating risk really the same as controlling it? I would say absolutely not, and the 2004 mission statement is a huge improvement on the 1977 version. The fact that the HSE’s own self-congratulatory pamphlet fails to point out the difference is an assumption by them that their target audience can’t understand the difference.

So we are led to a situation where an acceptance of risk is regarded as a Bad Thing. Gamblers and traders and other disreputable characters embrace risk. If the man in the street contemplates taking a financial risk, the regulator insists on apocalyptic warnings being read to him. If a popular investment turns out not to have been such a good idea after all, the newspapers blame the financial services industry or the government or the company selling the instrument, never giving the actual small investors credit for knowing what risk they were accepting when they bought it.

I think it’s a damaging mindset and it seems to be rooted in 1970s thinking: that’s when the HSE was invented, that’s when comprehensive schools started eliminating competition from sports periods, that’s when licenses became necessary for bingo and gaming machines. Hopefully that sort of thinking has had its day and we can start taking a more mature attitude to everyday risk and the way we communicate it.

I’m reminded of a scientist I once heard on the radio, who perceptively complained that although arts programmes are allowed to assume some prior knowledge on the part of the viewer or listener, science programmes have to explain everything from scratch every time. In other words, you can talk about Baudrillard as if everybody’s read him but woe betide you if you mention a probability distribution without explaining in laborious detail what it is. Go ahead and quote Descartes on philosophy but don’t dare mention cartesian geometry.

Anyway, I was trying to get to a point where I could start writing about risk management of projects but I seem to have come to a natural break anyway. More later.


3 Responses to “A degree of risk (part 1)”

  1. 1 Idetrorce December 15, 2007 at 17:44

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  1. 1 A degree of risk (part 2) « Dominic Sayers Trackback on October 16, 2007 at 13:34
  2. 2 Accidental Light » It’s A Mad World Trackback on October 15, 2007 at 10:35

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