by Mike Weaver
February 11, 2015
Safety is something that weighs on the minds of most folk, I think it's safe to say. We worry about many perceived risks and dangers of the world around us. Parents worry about keeping their children safe, people worry about their own safety, pet owners about their beloved animal's safety, and so forth. Safety is a major component of advertising, Internet campaigns, political agendas, and lifestyle choices.
Safety is a major driver in decisions many of us make day to day: how we drive, whether or not to vaccinate, what to eat, how to exercise, medications to take, who to vote for, etc. Another way to put it, we obsess about risk. This is quite understandable, after all. The world is a risky place. Bad things happen to both good people and bad people and we would like to avoid being one of those to whom bad things happen. How do we do that? By making safer choices, of course.
The linchpin concept for making safer choices is the idea of risk. Risk encompasses the likelihood of an undesirable event happening and the magnitude of harm should that event occur. We make our choices based upon our perception of the risk. There's a relationship between the likelihood of the event and the harm of the event that combine to form our perceived risk. A highly likely event, such as a splinter in the finger when doing wood working, is balanced, or should be, by the harm of the event, generally minimal. Conversely, a highly unlikely event, such as cancer, is modified by its great potential harm, sometimes death.
The challenge we run into with safety is that, generally speaking, humans are terrible at assessing the kinds of risk that modern society brings. A 2007 article in Psychology Today does a good job of laying out some of the areas where our risk assessments go wrong. The author, Maia Szalavitz, says:
The human brain is exquisitely adapted to respond to risk—uncertainty about the outcome of actions. Faced with a precipice or a predator, the brain is biased to make certain decisions. Our biases reflect the choices that kept our ancestors alive. But we have yet to evolve similarly effective responses to statistics, media coverage, and fear-mongering politicians. For most of human existence, 24-hour news channels didn't exist, so we don't have cognitive shortcuts to deal with novel uncertainties.This core problem of assessment is not helped by reporting and Internet posting that conflate and confuse the concepts of absolute and relative risk. You've likely seen reports of studies which show the X increases the risk of Y by Z percent. Is that absolute risk, that is, the actual odds of someone having Y? Is it, instead, a change in relative risk, where the base risk of B is increased by Z percent? What's the difference?
Understanding absolute and relative risk is one of the keys to extracting useful information from medical studies and other science or statistics relating to risk. In an article published in the science blog of the Cancer Research UK organization, Sarah Williams presents a good discussion of absolute and relative risk and how we should consider them in the context of risks to our health. It's well worth a read.
My personal concern with our fascination with safety and risk is that we have a tendency to make perfect the enemy of good. That is, if something is not perfectly safe, it is therefore dangerous and to be avoided. A good example of this is the anti-vaccine movement. Opponents to vaccines will often cite cases of harm done by vaccines, vaccine injuries, as evidence of why vaccines should not be used or mandated. There is a focus on the risk of a vaccine injury without good comparison to the risk of the disease the vaccine is given to prevent. Also missing frequently from the debate are considerations of the risks to others from the disease, not just the person being vaccinated.
There is no perfectly safe and risk-free way to live your life, in my opinion. We choose the risks we take and the ones we don't. It's worthwhile to understand risks better, to use knowledge and reasoning to fully assess risk, to make the choices based upon real probabilities and not upon emotional cues.
by Mike Weaver
@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit