It’s a scary place out there – but scarier in more ways than you think

People throughout history have been pretty hopeless at assessing risk.

The blog was in France last year after the terrorist attacks and in the UK after the first London Bridge attack but before the current ones. It was struck by how often people asked whether it was a good idea to go or not. The blog sort of shared the concern as far as the UK was concerned because it was driving a car in Britain for the first time in years, and driving it much more slowly than just about everyone else on the road, but not because of the terrorist risk. In France in crowded markets there were more soldiers and police than one could imagine and at train stations even obviously off duty soldiers (they’re easy to spot if you know how) were showing high degrees of alertness. And in the UK, even though IRA bombings are long in the past, people are still very conscious of left parcels and bags.

The usual suspects in the media go ballistic if anyone mentions that much terrorism is related to the century of destructive Western intervention in the Middle East and are currently busily attacking Jeremy Corbyn for making the obvious point that involvement in the Middle East is a factor. He was similarly attacked for a manifesto advocating re-nationalising the railways, the water industry and Royal Mail – policies that are actually hugely popular as would have been a proposal to imprison the bankers who managed to rip off even more in the Royal Mail privatisation than they did in the Thatcher years’ privatisations.

This relativity of risk was reinforced in the blog’s minds by random statistics which cropped up in its reading in the past few months.

For instance, in the US currently many people die each day from an opioid overdose – largely related to changes in hospital practices promoted by the pharmaceutical industry and criminal chemical innovation to exploit the increasing demand created. In the UK it is estimated there are around 30,000 extra deaths a year due to NHS cutbacks while admissions for malnutrition have trebled in the past decade.

About 25,000 people are murdered in Mexico each year. Now the population of Mexico is less than half that of the US, but the figures for US annual opioid overdose deaths is 33,091; gun deaths 36,132; and, car crashes 35,092. Current death rates for refugees drowning in the Mediterranean and for migrants crossing the desert from Mexico to the US are estimated to be running at about four percent – albeit the latter is declining at about the equivalent percentage rate as the number of Mexicans returning home from the US is increasing.

Turning to Australia where, when we are not frightened of terrorists, we are terrified of sharks. In an article in Griffith Review 56 Sam Carmody reported that in 2015 in NSW there were 14 shark attacks and one fatality while there were 100 drownings in the same time. The next year 96 people drowned and no fatal shark attacks although the NSW Government, reacting to popular and tabloid fears, spent $11 million to reduce drownings and $16 million on shark attack mitigation measures. And meanwhile in Australia – one woman died every week because of domestic violence.

The risk factors involved in all this were best summed up by Bruce Schneier, the US’ foremost IT security expert, who was frequently asked if it was safe to go to Ground Zero in New York and always replied: “if you don’t drive there.”

The problem of risk is also exemplified by Donald Trump. Trump is, for instance, less threatened by potential assassins or impeachment than he is by increasing weight, a junk food diet and lack of exercise – as an example taking a cart in Taormina at the G7 rather than walking as everyone else did.

Statistical analysis also throws lights on policy and political questions. The Economist’s updating (15 April 2017) of research on correlations between voting behaviour and GDP growth suggests that the traditional assumptions on this have broken down since the financial crisis and that now is there is none.

And numbers can also illustrate all sorts of other priorities, like the NSW drowning and shark figures, or which can make powerful points. Private Eye in one of its regular number crunching items compared average UK annual income; average annual incomes of authors; and, the amount David Cameron has spent on a ‘shepherd’s hut’ where he will write his memoirs – the outcome 27,271, 25,767 and 25, 000 pounds respectively.

And One Nation’s Senator Malcolm Roberts could be interested in in another number which came out of an eminent scientist and scholar, James Powell’s, analysis of 54,195 climate change studies published between 1991 and 2015. He found that that the widely quoted figure of a 97% consensus among climate scientists is wrong!!! Well wrong because is underestimates its true level, which he concludes is 99.9%. Quite some conspiracy what?

And, one final number: how many countries have deliberately shut down its car manufacturing industry? Extra points for giving the country’s name, which starts with A, but is not Austria, Angola, Algeria, Aruba, Albania, Argentina or Azerbaijan.