Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Perceived/Actual risk

Yesterday there was a big blackout in southern Florida. Two consequences of which were:
  1. A nuclear power plant was forced to shut down for safety reasons, and

  2. Hundreds of traffic lights in Miami went dark.
Which of these was more dangerous? News headlines and reports generally seemed more concerned with the former, but the latter caused more actual damage by precipitating dozens of traffic accidents. The nuclear plant's shutdown harmed no one; in fact, it demonstrated that the plant's safety measures and backup precautions were all working as they should be.

And no, the terrorists were not involved, even though the New York Times asserts that "such fears were prevalent."

The blackout provides a nice example of how people worry too much about things that are actually pretty unlikely to harm them and not enough about the things that actually kill dozens of people every day. The graphic above, by artist Susanna Hertrich, is a lovely illustration of how the things we worry about are wrong. I'm not sure where her data is from, but this article cites astronomy research that pegs the odds of getting killed by an asteroid (along with a few million fellow humans) as roughly equal to dying in a plane crash, and both ends are several times more likely to happen than dying in a terrorist attack. In other words, the war-on-terror hawks are about as wacky as the people who wear tinfoil hats to protect themselves against "electrosmog."

Note how the closest we come to matching perceived risk with actual risk is in the "environmental pollution" category - but even there, we're too distracted by Osama bin Laden to pay as much attention to the problem as we should. And while we hyperventilate about imaginary terrorists, we're incredibly blasé about the daily slaughter on our streets.

1 comment:

widge said...

The image really pretty much sums this up. More on irrational fears of non-toxic materials here.