Security

Peter Cochrane's Blog: What are the risks?

People are getting worse and worse at making decisions

Written at Copenhagen Airport after an easy check-in and relaxed period in the airport lounge. Completed a couple of weeks later at Paradise Bay, Mamaris, Turkey and despatched to silicon.com from a free wi-fi site in Bozburun.

Everywhere I go people and organisations seem obsessed with risk-analysis and assessment. They seem to dedicate huge resources trying to anticipate what might go wrong and the follow-on consequences.

Often it appears, on the face of it anyway, that the analysis process has an overall cost that rivals the subject matter and all associated risk potential. Worst of all, the potential risks identified - no matter how small and unlikely - may be used as an excuse for inaction and/or indecision. To my mind it just doesn't seem to be right in a world so rich in opportunity!

So my question is: where are all the people doing the opportunity analysis? And where are those concerned with the opportunity/risk ratio?

We hear a lot about the supposed risks from mobile phones but nothing about the benefits. Similarly for GM crops, centralised power generation, nuclear instrumentation and numerous medications and medical treatments. All the emphasis seems to be placed on the side of insignificant risks to the detriment of huge gains that are subsequently lost.

What has gone wrong? Is it the media's love of the pessimistic disaster scenario and the 'you're all going to die' message? Or is it the risk of litigation? The influence of politics? Or has society become so simple-minded that it is no longer able to balance risk and opportunity, cost and benefit? Perhaps it is a combination of all of these and every detrimental aspect of modern education!

You would think that with the advance of IT and networks that we would have become collectively smarter across the board but in some areas it seems not to be the case. Among the decision makers, smartness seems to be increasingly selective and limited. Whilst the professions and individual groups have benefited enormously from the 'e-revolution', society as a whole may indeed have become relatively dumber compared to the overall uplift engendered.

Searching the web I have found plenty of sites relating risk - or opportunity - with cost and benefit but nothing that gives a comprehensive compendium of common cases with figures couched in a way that is easy to digest and understand. In fact, there seems to be many more sites devoted to bemoaning the fact that society has a very poor understanding of risk than those trying to address or fix the problem.

It is difficult to comprehend the decisions of parents who put their children at great risk on the basis of a scare story in the press such as the MMR vaccine, which was based upon pretty shaky evidence, and more especially when the downside risk is so great. On a statistical basis there is little doubt that their decisions will see some serious casualties and a lot of heartache. This type of situation is also reflected in government and industry where overreaction to the insignificant seems to have become the dominant mode.

Perhaps then there is an opportunity here for a website or general tool-set that points out the most commonly reported and feared risks, relative to, say, crossing the road. And then goes on to assess risk in a way and language we can all understand and enjoy.

A scare story that says the risk of thrombosis increases three-fold with the contraceptive pill does a great disservice to everyone by not explaining that a risk increase from (approximately) one in 50,000 to three in 50,000 really is a 'zip risk change' and presents no extra risk at all compared to pregnancy and child birth!

In our schools the significant skill-building classes on woodwork, metalwork, technology and science where students would learn to safely use a forge, pillar drill, lathe, milling machine, welding torch, soldering iron and many more 'lethal instruments' have been replaced by 'Mickey Mouse' classes that only involve things that are safe.

An unintended consequence is that our (now) ignorant 18-year-old students go to the tool store and buy everything they wish. Shortly afterwards they finish up in the local hospital casualty unit with cuts, burns and worse that could have been avoided if only they had been educated in the use of tools and safe working practices.

The tragedy is we are creating one generation after another which are more and more disconnected from real risks. It has simply been removed from their lives by over-protective institutions throughout their formative years and beyond.

What was an everyday experience for my generation has now become an adventure. People drive cars, cross the road, engage in sporting activities every day and they generally assess the risks correctly on the fly. If only we could get them to do it sensibly and responsibly in other aspects of their home and working lives, both on and off the screen.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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