Living with Risk

One of the most messed-up things in modern American culture is that we don’t cope well with risk — or at least the knowledge of risk.
The risk of terrorism, police violence, crime, car accidents, and falling into a pit with an animal that can kill you (the most recent shocking terror as I write this, apparently). These are all real things that CAN happen to you or your kids. And you can’t do anything that will eliminate that risk entirely.
In a country of over 300,000,000 people, there are going to be very weird accidents and crimes in the news. And that’s scary, because you feel like it’s more real when you can see it happening. But it was always a real risk. And it is still a very small risk.
You have to learn to accept that risk is just part of life. We’re all going to die sooner or later. And some of us are going to die sooner. What’s more, we really can’t predict it.
It’s one thing to take rational precautions to reduce risk. It’s quite another to fall into a neurotic heap because you can’t cope with the knowledge of all the million-to-one risks that, while so rare you might as well ignore them, are nevertheless real. And it’s more bizarre still to self-righteously blame the people who had the misfortune to have their number come up in the Really Bad Things lottery.
People have these weird ideas that society is more dangerous today than it was in the past. Statistics, though, tell a completely different story. Crime and violent crime rates are lower than they have been since we started recording the statistics. The world is full of carefully-engineered safety devices, and car accidents kill a smaller fraction of the people involved in them, because cars have gotten safer (because engineers have put a lot of hard work into making them safer).
You are safer today leaving your front door unlocked than you would have been 60 years ago when a lot of people felt safe to do so. But the thing is, they felt safe because they lived in a tiny little world, with only the most abstract knowledge of faraway places. So in their little world, there weren’t a lot of reports of crime. Even in the 1970s, when I grew up, the news rarely reported any crime outside of my city. It was pretty rare to hear about crimes in other states, let alone other countries. So my information world had a MUCH smaller population. Now I get information from perhaps 100X as many people, and so naturally, I hear about 100X less-likely things happening.
It’s not the world going to hell in a handbasket. It’s just math.

Urban caver standing in storm tunnel junction.

Living with Risk: An urban caver, exploring a section of underground storm tunnel. (CC By 3 / DarkDay@Flickr).


About Terry Hancock

Terry Hancock is the producer and director of "Lunatics" ( ). He is also a regular columnist for Free Software Magazine ( ), and a lifelong advocate for space, science, and technology. More at
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