Thursday, July 22, 2004

Perceived Risk

I just saw the news about the car bomb at Opryland Hotel in Nashville...maybe 20 minutes (with traffic) from my parents' house.  I'm not really sure what to say about this itself.

I was trying to explain the ideas of perceived and accepted risk to my dad the other day and I think I did a pretty lousy job.  Perceived risk is, of course, the risk that you recognize around you.  Accepted risks are those risks that you agree to take every day.  Also, because you _accept_ the risks that you face daily (driving the Beltway, for example), you _perceive_ that your risks are quite low.

What most people don't understand is that perceived risk does not always equal the actual probability involved in a risk, and almost more importantly, the risk of _immediate_ and _catastrophic_ failure (those risks leading to an immediate loss of life in a spectacular fashion) is much less acceptable than the risk of losing an equal number of lives, but over the course of many years.

One of my college professors expressed it this way (and I apologize for not having exact numbers on me at the moment):  The coal industry in the US has killed probably hundreds of thousands of people over the years, through mining accidents and illnesses (both from mining coal itself, and from the emmissions caused by coal-burning devices).  The nuclear power industry in the US (Chernobyl is not in the US) has killed a negligible number of people since its inception.  HOWEVER, since the possibility (however remote) remains that nuclear plants could kill hundreds of thousands of people AT ONE TIME, people protest their use.  People even protest the use of nuclear power in spacecraft since there is a very negligible risk that the launch vehicle will explode before the spacecraft reaches orbit and might therefore affect the lives of a few fish in the middle of the Atlantic if like five hundred safety devices all fail at once.

The probability of dying as a result of a coal-mining incident are probably orders of magnitude higher than the probability of dying as a result of a nuclear power plant incident...but who stands outside of mines and protests the loss of life due to coal mining?  (Well, when you're talking about humans....spotted owls are a different matter altogether.)  And the reason is that coal mining losses aren't spectacular losses.  There's no really big explosion or mushroom cloud and it's only a few people dead at once, usually in a hospital many years after retirement, instead of the many who might die in the case of a nuclear power plant meltdown.

The perceived risk with the nuclear power plant is very high, while it is perceived to be very low with the coal mining incident, even though the risks are at least equal (and more likely higher for the coal miners than for the power plant workers).

I guess I'm saying this to say that you _perceive_ yourself to be "safe" in America (and elsewhere) because not often do spectacular things happen.  Hundreds of people die in car accidents a day...but you still feel safer in a car than you do on a plane, even though with planes it's maybe hundreds of people a year.  But _perceived_ risk is not the same as _actual_ risk.

And the bottom line is that "risk" is irrelevant (sorry Clay and other PRA folks).  God holds every life in His hands.  Whether you die in your sleep at an old age or in a bombing in Baghdad, it's due to His timing and is for His purposes.

You're not "safe" anywhere you are.  But if you're trusting in Him and His plan, then it doesn't matter.

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