If Everything Is Unsafe, What's the Use?
The word "safe" is an abused, mismanaged piece of the language. It's nearly impossible to avoid as a tool of fear:
- How Safe is Your Financial Information? - MSN Money
- How Safe Is Your Pension? - Fox News
- Is Your Used Crib Safe? - Consumer Product Safety Commission
- Is Your Meat Safe? - PBS Frontline
- Is Your Child Safe? - Health Canada
- Is Your Identity Safe? - ABC News
- Is Your Microwave Safe? - Prevention.com
- Is Your Job Safe? - Newsmax.com
The abuse of the word "safe" comes from at least two causes:
- In an increasingly crowded media marketplace, those who are not creative or compelling in their own right have the incentive to overstate everything. Christopher Hitchens is bracing enough on his own that he doesn't need to overstate his case; television newsmagazine producers, on the other hand, lack the same finesse.
- As our awareness of global circumstances has increased, so has the sheer volume of material ripe for the picking under the news media's mantra, "If it bleeds, it leads."
A Substitute for the Word "Safe"
It's probably a pipe dream, but in ideal world, the word "safe" would be ejected from virtually all of the public discourse. Nothing is purely "safe," nor are many things that actually are "safe" worth having. Inmates in jail have a very safe expectation of receiving three meals a day.
Instead of dreaming for ourselves some magical cocoon of safety, it would probably be worthwhile to re-define "safe" as "how risky". Risk gets a bad name, but as anyone who has studied the relationship between risk and reward has learned, something must be ventured to risk before anything can be gained.
There are those who would say that the public can't handle the nuances of understanding risk, but they must have a low opinion of their fellow humans. In free societies, we willingly and knowingly embrace risk all the time. Americans put millions of dollars a week into the Powerball lotteries, watch the World Series of Poker, and base their plans on weather forecasts, all of which are explicit in their dependence on the laws of probability.
Knowing that the people are quite capable of seeing risk as a continuum rather than a binary "safe/unsafe" proposition, the world would be much better served by addressing all matters of risk as a simple function:
Likelihood of risk * Magnitude of harm
Re-Applying the Concept of Relative Risk Instead of Calling Anything "Safe"
Consider some instances in which a slightly more nuanced understanding of risk would be of enormous benefit. In each case, we could simply assign a score (1-100) to each of the probability of an event taking place, and a similar score to the consequences (from little or no harm to complete devastation):
|Magnitude of Harm
|Weighted Risk Score
|News accounts of Hurricane Dennis are filled with people asking "Why us again?" after the same location was in the direct path of Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis in two consecutive years
|In the short run, the probability of any individual coastal location being in the path of a given hurricane is quite low, but in the long run, virtually every place on the Gulf Coast will be the site of a hurricane landfall. Thus, the long-run probability of an event is very high -- approaching 100%.
|Damage where a significant hurricane makes landfall is usually very severe, so it should receive a high score
|The "relative risk" from a hurricane, then, for any location on the US Gulf Coast would be 100 * 85 = 8500.
|London Underground bombing of 7/7/2005
|Any terrorist event is designed, by definition, to create fear in the target population, and invariably the event is used to rush new legislation into place to "protect" the public from risk (the USA PATRIOT Act was introduced after 9/11/2001, and the UK is rushing to install the power of emergency arrest
|It's virtually inevitable that terrorism will continue to be used as a weapon for the indefinite future, so the risk that some terrorism will occur somewhere is in fact almost 100%. But terrorism is almost always a very specific act in a very specific place -- so the risk to a place like London is very different from the risk to a small village in Wales.
|25 (any major city)
|While every life is valuable, and every loss of an individual life is tragic, the actual harm done in even a well-coordinated attack on London's transit system still pales by comparison with, for instance, the thousands of deaths caused by a single event of killer fog in the same city in 1952. The Underground attack briefly disrupted London's normal operations; it did not level the city.
|For a major city (like London, New York, or Washington), 25 * 25 = 625
|But the individual risk to any person is extremely low -- even if they commuted on the Underground on the very day of the attacks
|1 (any individual in their entire lifetime, certainly vastly over-estimated)
|The worst-case scenario is death, which to the individual is certainly the worst of all outcomes
|For any individual, the real relative risk from terrorism is probably only 1 * 100 = 100
Seeing matters of risk in more sophisticated terms than simply "safe" and "unsafe" changes the story entirely. While we don't have to ignore everything that has a low score from the risk function, it's probably sensible to pay greater attention to those things with higher scores. Thus, residents of Florida and the Gulf Coast, even if they live in Miami, should probably be more concerned about hurricane preparedness than about their individual risk from terrorism.
Applying the Knowledge of Weighted Risk
Using weighted risk functions to help define what we should really be worried about versus what we shouldn't is one matter -- but using weighted risk as a planning tool is a different and slightly more sophisticated question. But not by much.
Living in a world of limited resources, we simply cannot afford to do "everything possible" to avoid future risk, despite what a Prime Minister, Secretary of Homeland Security, or a university president may say. "Everything possible" to prevent harm from a chemical attack (or just a spill) would include distributing full-body chemical suits and portable water purification units to every man, woman, and child. "Everything possible" is not the same as "everything reasonable."
What's reasonable? Probably a simple measure would be, once again, a score (1-100) of the effectiveness per dollar of the preventive act. Seat belts are an inexpensive and highly effective lifesaving tool in automobiles -- probably worth an 80 to 90 on such a scale. Gas masks for every student in a schoolhouse in rural Tennessee would be reasonably effective against a chemical threat, but a pretty large expense, worth a score of perhaps 20.
In deciding where to invest our resources against risk, we should probably extend the risk function to include the relative effectiveness of our response:
Likelihood of risk * Magnitude of harm * Effectiveness of response
|Likelihood of risk
|Magnitude of harm
|Effectiveness of response
|Chemical attacks by terrorists
|Gas masks for everyone in the country
|Chemical attacks by terrorists
|Gas masks for everyone in major cities
|Chemical attacks by terrorists
|Remote sensing systems tied to predictive computer modeling
|Hurricane damage in coastal areas
|Dirty bomb attacks in major cities
|Containment and destruction of weapons-grade material
Naturally, these questions (and scores) are up for debate -- and that's precisely the point. The public debate over relative safety is ruined when the question is "Are you safe?" instead of "What's the best investment to reduce our risk?" The waste is not inconsiderable, either -- millions of people worldwide die of preventable causes like mosquito-borne malaria that could be solved at very little expense with existing chemicals. But instead of making those investments, we divert funds into enforcing questionable laws on library use.
What the formula also doesn't answer is who should pay. Hurricane evacuation routes may be a very good investment, but should the bill be footed by anyone who doesn't live, work, or vacation there? Should rural residents have to subsidize anti-terrorism protections for people living in urban centers? Again, these are questions that should be debated, not simply swept under the rug because of an "either/or" mentality promoted by the use of the word "safe."
When we think we have all of the answers, and when we think that we can do anything without regard to the costs of our actions, then we are no wiser than Soviet-style central planners. Governments are not omnipotent, and resources are not limitless. A wise first step toward acting on that understanding would be stopping the abuse of the word "safe."