My apologies for the sparse updates lately. I've been remarkably lazy. Today I want to share some thoughts that have been percolating for a while now. It's kind of a technical discussion in that I use big words, but I think anyone can understand the concepts.
The main idea is this: we live in a world that is inherently probabilistic (i.e. many things depend on chance) but we're stuck with minds that work in an inherently deterministic fashion. By deterministic I mean that we think of things as having clear cause and effect relationships. The world doesn't work that way (at least, not from our admittedly limited point of view).
Because of the way our minds work we have a difficult time assessing risks. We easily fall prey to anecdotal evidence, we are misled by historical evidence (in a totally random environment, events in the past do not effect events in the future). We're bombarded with spurious medical evidence about how this-or-that causes a 25% increase in the risk of cancer. This is, by itself, meaningless. A 25% increase relative to what? If the initial rate of cancer was 0.001%, then the "higher" risk is just 0.00125%. For the information to be useful it needs to be placed in context.
For example, yesterday I learned that I have a 0.014% chance of dying this here, according to the government (I'm not going to bother to look up the link, use Google if you're interested). If I were female, however, that chance is only one-third of that (presumably due to the increased risk of violent death and higher auto accident rates). Does that I mean I should be worried that I'm not a woman? I am three times more likely to die after all. Taken by itself it sounds pretty scary.
The way most people cope with risk is to ignore it. Which is perhaps the best possible way. After all, it is impossible for any of us to have a good understanding of the true magnitude of the risks we face, so any worrying at the individual level will be for naught.
On the public policy level the story is different. Risk can be assessed over large groups of people for certain things. And here the tendency towards ignorance is a liability, with the occasional anecdote swaying things in the all-too-often wrong direction.
Hmmm, I was hoping that as I wrote this some sort of point would develop. Oops.