Wednesday, 28 October 2015

rutherfords and risk-assessments

Immediately for me invoking recollections of that endless film franchise Final Destination, wherein some hapless teenagers have premonitions of freak accidents that are perpetuated by some Rube Goldberg chain of events and shoddy craftsmanship, the notion of the micromort, conceived by ethicist and information-scientist Ronald Howard of Stanford University, modestly and eloquently has further reaching meaning in terms of public literacy in probability and statistics, risky undertakings, and deflecting media bias.

As a unit or scale, the micromort roughly measures a one-in-a-million chance of dismem- berment or death from exposure to various activities—both bidden and unsolicited, like base-jumping, shark-attacks, skiing, drug use, quick-sand, terrorism, diet—allowing one to weigh the peril though in the end the odds seem to say on our side. I don’t think that this a model that insurance companies use, per se. Facts and figures can be easily turned into anecdotal evidence in support of any argument or newly-fashioned threat. Not to disparage the better intentions of keeping healthy, wealthy and wise, but the burden bore by saying that sitting is deadly and is ratcheting up one’s individual risk by—say a fifth, does not factor in prevalence and can be misrepresented as something huge and something that we’re morally obligated to counter. History is punctuated by moral panics and distortion, but even more so now, as we’re already couched in safety and leisure, and the idea of security and hygiene has supplanted superstition. Like the dread millisievert, the rutherford is also a doseage of radiation exposure and can also be easily taken out of context. What do you think? Does being informed carry with it a healthy degree of skepticism?