Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Risk and Human Perception of Risk

I have a good friend who I met once in DC for a baseball game.  We were going to park near my hotel on Capitol Hill, and Metro to RFK where the Nats played back then (the new park opened in 2008).

My proposal was just to leave my bags in his car.  He insisted that I should check my bags at the hotel, because "Capitol Hill is so dangerous!"  Now, this was 2006, long after 9-11; Capitol Hill was NOT dangerous, at all, especially not during the day.

He brushed aside my protests.  "You don't live around here.  I'm always reading about crimes and violence in the paper."  I asked how he could read about NOT crimes and NOT violence in the paper, since those things are never there.  The fact is that the crime rate (robberies, assaults, burglaries, thefts) had fallen dramatically in the area, but that's not "news." (The comparison I was making is 2001 vs. 2006). 

Crimes and violence are news.  But no neighborhood in DC makes the top 25 "most dangerous" list.  Even though it's true "you always read about it."

More recently, I had a conversation with a staff person.  She says she never flies. I was sympathetic:  "Yes, the indignities of TSA and those cattle car planes are pretty bad."  She protested:  "No, that's not it.  I'm afraid of getting killed.  All you ever read about is all those crashes!"  Um....wow.  Yes, I suppose that's all you "read about."  Because "another 30,000 planes land safely" (the actual number of flights in the US each day) is not very newsworthy.  Flying is a ridiculously safe way to travel, compared to driving to work (which this woman does every day).

The fact is that the "epidemic" of school shootings is not an epidemic at all.  They are very infrequent, occur for essentially random causes, and are not even worth considering as a public policy problem.  Violence, deaths, injuries...almost any measure you can think has gotten much better, at the same time that we are obsessed with school shootings.

Would I be upset if my son, or someone I knew, were killed?  Of course.  Do I have the right to divert public policy discussions from real problems, like drunken driving or the insane war on drugs, because of a low-probability random accident less likely than a lightning strike?  Of course not.


4 comments:

ThinkRationally said...

Does Human Perception of Risk Reflect Reality?

While it is true that both events described are high impact, but extremely low probability, I think a further dimensioning of the data may be required to truly understand whether human perception or risk (qualitative) aligns with the statistics (quantitative), and whether public policy is required.

Airplane Industry:
Without actually performing statistical analysis of the data, it appears as if there are an increasing number of accidents over time, which of course makes sense given the increasing maturity of the airplane industry, globalization, etc.

List of Airline Accidents since 1920s:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_accidents_and_incidents_involving_commercial_aircraft

However, if I were to further dimension the data by the number of accidents with 50 or more fatalities, the number over the last 25 years as declined significantly which reflects improving safety standards and an even lower probability of the event occurring today.

List of Accidents w/ at least 50 fatalities:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_aircraft_accidents_and_incidents_resulting_in_at_least_50_fatalities

Conclusion: No additional public policy required

School Shootings:
Alternatively, the data associated with school shootings may tell a different story. Data on school shootings has been collected going back to 1760, which is the first "reported" school shooting. While the frequency of school shootings in the US increases over time similar to the data associated with airplane crashes, the frequency and number of fatalities associated with the school shootings (mass killings) is alarming.

In 1960s University of Texas had a mass shooting, followed by Kent State in 1970; however, since Columbine, the number of mass shootings has increased substantially. Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Santana High School, University of Arizona, Red Lake, Northern Illinois, Huntsville, Oikos University (California),Santa Monica are all within the last 15 years.

Is further public policy required? At this point, further research would need to be conducted to ensure consistency of data collection methods, methodology, etc, but certainly perception of risk may reflect the new reality.

Violent video games, Social Media, News Media Coverage, Anti-Depressants, and Terrorism are all potential variables that should be included in a multi-variable regression analysis. Even if the data was conclusive, what policy would be developed to mitigate the risk? Solving that problem is no simple task.....

List of US School Shootings since 1760, including School “Attacks”:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_school_shootings_in_the_United_States

US Attorney General – Mass Shooting Increase
http://rt.com/usa/holder-mass-shootings-triple-519/

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