Columnists

Make decisions based on risk assessment

decision

The world has lost its capacity to assess risk, and that’s a fact. FILE PHOTO | NMG

jenny

Summary

  • The world has lost its capacity to assess risk, and that’s a fact.
  • The media is to blame, and the results look set to be cataclysmic.

The world has lost its capacity to assess risk, and that’s a fact. The media is to blame, and the results look set to be cataclysmic. For which reasons, it’s time to start thinking for ourselves and getting real about choices with consequences.

The starting point for the global disaster we are now hurtling into is information. I teach journalists and we always start by looking at what makes people reach for information. That’s why I know that you, currently, are reading more news than you were. Because humans look for more information, the more danger they think they are in.

Now, as it happens, the media hasn’t been super-profitable for the last 20 years or so. The reason, mostly, is Google – but that’s a story for another day. However, declining revenues has seen media products chase readers by becoming sensationalist. Danger lures readers, so ramp up danger. But that has consequences.

My stock example is the UK’s leading emotional hook, the safety of children. Stories of horror afflicted on children will make any parent go cold and move to protect their own children more. Thus, as UK tabloids chased extra sales, top stories became a single child kidnapped after school. It would grip the nation. In fact, the chance of the atrocity was one in 55 million, but it changed most parents’ behaviour.

This created a generation of children so cosseted, that in the last few years, scientists discovered that many had reached 18 and never been alone, thus stunting normal steps towards independence.

The result, as a full half of these kids went off to university unchaperoned is that they binge drink and take excessive risks.

Yet even ‘dying children’ has waned as an audience magnet, and thus, with older populations, suffering obesity, the media has moved to health. We never used to have stories of how sugar gave us cancer. It’s good we do, because no one wants to get cancer or diabetes from sugar. But where the media, and I mean globally, has shamed us all, is that good stories don’t assess risk, they just clamour danger.

And now that very progression has got us to coronavirus and pending global destruction. When I read that some super rich are heading into bunkers believing it won’t be safe as mobs strike on economic collapse, it’s a huge red flag. Where are we going now with this economic meltdown?

There are demos in the US, and riots in Paris (again). But these are only early stirrings. European nations are coming under pressure after a month to six weeks of lockdown to ease restrictions. And they actually must. Because somehow we simply lost the ability to count.

In the UK, coronavirus has caused 16,500 deaths. In 2018, the UK had 616,000 deaths, so this virus has cause 2.6 percent of its annual deaths so far.

The vast majority of these deaths were of people who were approaching death, sad to say. In Italy, 87 percent of those who have died from Coronavirus were over 70, in the UK, 80 percent were, and they have tended to be those with other conditions, such as cancer.

None of these are reasons not to do everything possible to save and extend these lives. But with 3,300 deaths of people under 70 at what economists are now saying will be a 35 percent contraction in GDP in the second quarter, we really have to sort out our costs and benefits. No death is good. Not a single brain tumour, not a single stroke. They are all awful.

But where the UK is going to close down one third of its economy that feeds one third of its 60 million people driven by a scourge accounting for just 3,300 under-70-year-old deaths, or 0.5 percent of its annual total, then someone has lost the ability to assess relative risk and make wise decisions.

For if mobs do follow, and down that path they will, the cost from starvation, violence, and all the rest will be way, way higher than a few thousand to a flu+. Is short, risk assessment was always how humanity thrived, and we need it.