Ask people why the enter the lottery and they will usually tell you that “you’ve got to be in it to win it”. As far as it goes that’s true, but it still doesn’t get around the odds of you picking the right numbers being vanishingly (although not quite homeopathically) small at 14 million to 1 against for 6 numbers from a 1-49 selection.
Compare their feelings about their chances of winning the lottery to succumbing to the toxic effects of their favourite tipple or a disease triggered by dietary whim and they may well respond, that such problems are more likely to happen to “other people”.
It’s part of the human condition we perceive the positives chances as being much more likely to happen to us than the negatives, despite the fact that the odds are usually stacked against us.
The issue of probability and its kissing cousin risk assessment is not one to be taken lightly when we are talking about the effects of pollution, genetically modified crops, the incidence of disease, nanotechnology, the impact of vaccines, and the safety of everything from vehicles to chewable children’s toys. Indeed, there are advocates for taking the precautionary principle for each and every one of these issues and many others. They feel that no matter how long the odds, avoidance, abstinence and absolute bans are the only way forward until “science” can give us a yes or no answer regarding safety in all its manifestations.
So, we hear that nanotechnology should be banned until it has been proven to be safe, or that we should avoid vaccinating our children because there is a risk of some obscure connection between a suspected contaminant or additive and an illness that may or may not happen. This is always irrespective of the risks associated with not moving forward with advances such as nanotechnology and the commonly lethal effects of the disease against which one would hope to vaccinate.
Trouble is, in the Popperian philosophy of science, this most human endeavour cannot provide a yes or a no answer to any question involving experimental data. It can only ever offer long or short odds. Unfortunately, most people outside science, and quite a few of them within, are not keen on establishing public policy, health and safety rules, and other agendas on such a basis. This has led to politicians overriding the strong advice of their retained experts in a wide range of fields in recent years and the lambasting of those experts when the rare problem does arrive.
Terje Aven of the University of Stavanger in Norway, a Professor of Risk Analysis and Risk Management, is developing a new approach to quantitative risk assessment that would be applicable to a wide range of industries and circumstances and is based on a new scientific framework. The framework is underpinned by knowledge and probabilities based on hard data, expert judgments and modeling. An important feature of the framework is identification and descriptions of uncertainties that extend beyond the probability numbers.
Fundamentally, the framework will never provide the definitive, yes-no answers that some people crave when discussing risk. However, it does offer a foundation for sensible dialogue that could help society balance the risk-benefit equation for a whole range of issues.
Terje Aven (2009). A new scientific framework for quantitative risk assessments Int. J. Business Continuity and Risk Management, 1 (1), 67-77