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Taking a Risk

June 11, 2020

People don’t understand risk, at least some people don’t.  Some people buy lottery tickets, after all.  They wouldn’t buy them if they understood risk, if they understood that their chance of winning was extremely small.

Now that COVID-19 has lept into the public consciousness, understanding risk has become very important.  There is no treatment for the disease, and no preventative.  Even the effects are unclear.  It’s had a great deal of publicity.  All in all, COVID-19 is very scary.  Some people are terrified of it.

Stay home, they keep telling us.  Some people attempt to reduce the risk to zero by staying home.  It can’t be done.  There’s always a risk.  Your house could burn down with you in it, staying home.

Each risk can be expressed as a probability.  Some people don’t understand decimal points.  Maybe that’s entirely the problem.  In that case, express them as percentages.  0.01 becomes 1%.  All risks involves some unknown factors.  Will you be affected, or will somebody else, for example.  Probabilities are the only way to consider risks.  As probabilities, you can compare risks or ignore tiny risks.  One scientific study declared that there was no safe level for drinking alcohol.  A critic pointed out that there was no safe level for eating chocolate cake, either.  You can’t consider risks in isolation: you have to compare them.  After all, people do drink alcohol.  People do eat chocolate cake.  Life is a series of risks.  All you can do is take reasonable precautions.

You could die from fire, from disease, or just from crossing the street.  There’s also smoking, drinking, or just eating.  Risks are everywhere.  We can’t avoid them.

Of course, there are situations where our mind intensifies the apparent risk.  It might happen to somebody that you know.  It might be an over-dramatized story in the media.  It might receive a great deal of publicity.  The only way to be realistic about this sort of risk is to put it in context.


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