Cheap Seats 2019
Risk Assessment, Part 1 - 05/01
By Rich Trzupek
We do many things astonishingly well as a modern society. Our communications technology rivals anything Gene Roddenberry contemplated when he dreamed up the Star Trek universe. Advances in medicine have rendered scores of heretofore deadly diseases and conditions impotent, so long as the prospective victim has access to the best that modern diagnostic technology and the pharmacopeia can provide. It’s an incredible time to be alive. Yet, for all the joys and wonders inherent to living in a technologically advanced nation in the 21st century there is at least one aspect of that incredible inheritance that threatens to destroy all the hard work of previous generations: The modern-day misapprehension, mis-representation and near-criminal sensationalism of the broad, overly-encompassing concept we describe as “risk.”
It is an odd, but undeniable, truism that the greater the level of security, the greater the degree of paranoia. In general, an emperor living in a fortress/palace surrounded by armed body-guards is going to be far more worried about threats like poisoning, murderous assaults and other forms of attack than the ordinary, run-of-the-mill subject. The safer one actually is, the more minute the threats one feels obliged to fret over. A peasant camping in the woods in ancient times, for example, would spend far more time and energy worrying about and protecting himself from the very real and very deadly possibility of wild-animal attack than the relatively-remote threat of inadvertently consuming foodstuff that may increase his cholesterol.
Today we worry about which previous generations wouldn’t have cared a whit. Many of us obsess over the slightest of threats. Our collective ability to soberly assess risk is deteriorating at an ever-increasing pace. There are a lot reasons why this is so: Technological advances make for an increasing complex world that is difficult for many to understand, there is money to be made convincing people that they are at risk – both by businesses selling products that are designed to mitigate the risk and organizations whose fund-raising is largely dependent on convincing donors that the risk is so dire that disaster is just around the corner.
The complex issue that we commonly describe as climate change presents an obvious example, of the phenomenon but hardly the only one. Risk avoidance, risk mitigation and risk research are all big businesses. These concepts sell newspapers and get politicians elected. Many of the vastly inflated risks involve chemistry or the environment or both. Being an expert in both subject areas, both by education and by over 30 years’ worth of real-world experience, I find the trend to exaggerate these classes of risks especially vexing. Nor does our obsession with risk do our society much credit.
There is more than a little vanity in a nation where people feel the need to buy water filtration products when they have access to some of the cleanest tap water in the free world. It was not so long ago that Americans were rightly concerned about the spread of sometimes fatal diseases like cholera and dysentery associated with drinking biologically contaminated water. Today we imagine ourselves in danger if a part per billion of lead somehow makes its way into water and decide we are much safer if that concentration is lowered to a part per trillion instead. Meanwhile much of the Third World drinks water that regularly brings disease and death.
Risk is rarely rationally understood by non-technical people and even then the technically trained can easily be deceived when straying too far away from their field(s) of expertise. It never ceases to amaze me how many seemingly intelligent people subscribe to the thoroughly discredited theory that vaccines cause autism, for example.
In this multi-part series I will provide you with my perspective on risk management, risk communication and risk perception in America. It’s an interesting, multi-faceted story involving the decline – or least overt-politization – of legacy journalism, politics, advertising, higher-education and, of course, the pursuit of profit. It’s also an important story, affecting your life and income in more ways than most realize. I hope to convince you dear reader, or rather hope you will be open to being convinced, that despite the narratives and tales so popular today the greatest risks that the average American faces on a day-to-day basis are what they have always been: natural, not man-made.