People are really bad at assessing risk

From Statistic of the Year:

It’s disgraceful. We need to do a better job of prioritizing damage reduction. To that end, I’m starting a foundation to lobby for an immediate ban of all toddlers. ALL toddlers, not just the armed ones. You never know when a harmless toddler might pick up a gun and be radicalized.

I might be willing to make an exception for toddlers who are official card-carrying members of the NRA, since you wouldn’t want to penalize the responsible armed toddlers, after all. Send your non-tax-exempt, irresponsible donations to, where I’ll see to it that a certain toddler-to-be gets what’s coming to him.


  1. Ogvorbis wants to know: WTF!?!?!?! says

    My agency, a couple of years ago, had a mandatory course in risk assessment. Not just the chance of something going wrong, but just how bad it could be if something did go wrong. If there’s a good chance of something going wrong, but the worst case scenario isn’t all that bad, you can deal with it. If something is very unlikely, but the outcome is really very bad, find a different way.

    For instance, giving a programme to 4th graders is really not hazardous. Shit does happen but, for the most part, the worst case scenario isn’t really that dangerous. But, some of the individual activities are more dangerous. Such as taking water and micro-organism samples from a river while standing on a 20-foot retaining wall is a situation that, in retrospect, makes accidents likely. Trying to rescue a sieve net from the river after the rope is not tied properly is even more dangerous. Luckily, I was not a worst case scenario — four broken vertebrae, seven non-dislocating fractures in four ribs, two ruptured discs, bruised spleen, kidneys and liver, and mild concussion.

    Basically, my fourth grade programme ranks up there with a right-wing or Islamic terrorist attack — extremely unlikely that something bad will happen but, if it does, it will be bad. So we concentrate billions of dollars on that threat. Meanwhile, getting shot by some asshole with a gun is as likely to happen as causing a car wreck by driving blindfolded, but we are investing billions (from private, non-prophet groups, of course) to ensure that it is even more likely.

    Yeah, PZed, you are right. We are bad at assessing risk.

  2. anxionnat says

    This was interesting to me because I will be having a back surgery procedure on Jan 10. The literature and video my doctor gave me describes the procedure as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Some other web sites do too. But most of the anecdotes I’ve read describe the procedure as either not working, or causing permanent damage (like paralysis or death, which are extremely permanent.) I’ve scoured the web, but have not been able to find *actual research* on the procedure that’s not behind pay walls. So, I’m wary. The sentence that gets through my primitive reptile brain fear is, “Anecdote is not data.” Also, my doc does a couple of these a week, so she knows what she’s doing, which is a comfort. What I really need is the numbers, not more anecdote!. I’ve been trained as an ecologist, and have 40+ years of experience analyzing data. (Ecology is heavily statistical.) But nobody seems prepared to give patients this data. I realize most people don’t have the background, or think as I do. If I didn’t have my background, I think it would be *even more* scary!

  3. says

    Take your turn. After toddlers, we have to wage a War Against Lightning, a War Against Lawnmowers, a War Against Buses, a War Against Beds, and then maybe we’ll be safe enough to start a War Against Republicans. You don’t want to be battling Republicans while beds and lawnmowers are sneaking up behind you, do you?

  4. blf says

    Clearly something should be done about republicansthug toddlers riding lawnmowers on a bed whilst waving guns about in a bus during a thunderstorm !

  5. says

    I wonder how many of those lawnmower deaths are caused by people putting tannerite in them and shooting them. I remember there being at least one report this year of someone being badly hurt by doing so.

  6. blf says

    timgueguen@8, It was in 2016 that an eejit did just that, blowing his own leg off. The reports I’ve skimmed have not mentioned the presence of any other toddlers.

  7. cartomancer says

    If you’re starting a War against Toddlers then could you start with the one in the Oval Office and review once he’s out of the picture?

    Also, most people are actually quite good at assessing Risk. You just go all out for the three territories in Australasia and the five in South America, then wait it out until your forces replenish at a faster rate than those fools going for Asia and Africa…

  8. robro says

    Daniel Kahneman recounts studies that show even statisticians are bad at assessing risk, at least on the fly. They make the same sorts of judgements errors that we all do.

    Personally, I’m going for a drive and feeling perfectly safe about it because it doesn’t even show up on that table so it must be safe.

  9. whheydt says

    I notice the list doesn’t even get down to things like cars hitting pedestrians, fixed objects or other cars.

  10. whheydt says

    Re; anxionnat @ #3….
    I hear you. I was warned before having cardiac bypass surgery that was a chance of waking up dead or brain damaged. I found that the death part wasn’t scary, but the brain damage was. The alternative–according to the cardiologist–was dropping dead within 6 months.

    My wife recently (just over a week ago) had surgery to implant a pacemaker. It’s like pulling teeth to try to get basic information like battery capacity, processor model, and just what the power levels and distances are from a portable induction cooker (the minimalist literature that comes with the data collecting base station is next to useless and seems to assume a full stove-grade unit). I will give the manufacturer a few points by having a link to a web site where they say that the open source parts of the software can be found and that they’ll provide the source code for a “minimal copying fee”. Something I will explore further fairly soon.

  11. monad says

    I have heard that most terrorists, bus drivers, and armed Americans start out as toddlers anyway, so it seems most efficient to start with them.

  12. Ed Seedhouse says

    Perhaps the best way to prevent toddlers is early abortions so the mother doesn’t have to undergo the risk of giving birth. Two birds with one stone and all that…

    Or we could just eliminate all the men .. three birds?

  13. cormacolinde says

    My wife thinks what we the US clearly needs is a wall to protect from the toddlers. Doesn’t need to be very high, even. Like a bulletproof playpen.

  14. robro says

    cormacolinde @ #19

    You can’t keep toddlers in playpens. They climb out. They might even escape unusually high playpens. They’re amazing. About the best you can do is hog tie them, but even then they can squirm free.

  15. Holms says

    Who will join me in my War On Lightning? My campaign promises conductive clothing with a slim and discreet shoulder mounted lightning rod for the average citizen, or a full suit of maile for the more discerning premium citizen. Donate now!

    The problem with looking for anecdotes on medical procedures is that most people aren’t going to go out of their way to make their experience known unless it was a disastrous one. The people that had no issue will generally resume their life without making blog posts, forum comments and the like about it.

  16. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    I’ve never heard of anyone self-reporting self-selection bias. Thus you’re probably wrong.

  17. magistramarla says

    I’ve had two back surgeries in the past two years. The first doctor swore that the surgery would solve my leg pain and spasms. Instead, my vertebrae failed to fuse and I was in some very horrific pain. I had to travel to another city to find an expert to repair the damage. The second surgeon had to go through both the back and the front, so I now have an ugly scar through my belly button. It turned out that the first surgeon put in the wrong sized hardware.
    I did a lot of researching while recovering, and found that, contrary to what that first surgeon had said, I could well have been a candidate for minimally invasive surgery, which my husband had (quite successfully) nearly twenty years ago. I now wish that I had sought several more opinions before that first surgery.
    I’m still in pain. I still have numb toes, spasms and balance problems. Now I can add in a constantly painful lower back.
    Emotionally, I don’t think that I will ever fully recover from what I have gone through.
    Please, please, get a second, third or even fourth opinion before you commit to changing your life forever!

  18. chigau (違う) says

    magistramarla #23
    Have totally non-contact hug.
    I remember you telling us about this, I do not remember the extent of the horror.

  19. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I agree with the sentiments, but I find it problematic to exclude Sept 11 from the data. It’s an outlier, but IMHO unclear whether to include it or to exclude it, and I know from talking to many right-leaning people that they will (reasonably) say “dishonest statistics” if one arbitrarily excludes Sept 11 from such analysis.

    I believe that the conclusions will still stand, even if one includes the Sept 11 data. IMHO, it’s the option with integrity and honesty, and it forestalls any reasonable-ish objections.

  20. Chuck Stanley says

    Yes they are really bad at it:

    Being shot by another American – 11,737
    Suicide – 42,777
    Kidney Disease – 48,146
    Flu – 55,227
    Diabetes – 76,488
    Stroke – 103,033
    Accidents -136,053
    Respiratory Disease – 147,101
    Cancer – 591,669
    Heart Disease – 614,348

  21. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    It’s a 10-year average, EL.

    Choosing the areas to span, temporal and spatial, can be a form of cherrypicking.

  22. jrkrideau says

    @ 28 timgueguen
    I have no idea of the layout of the Tennessee State Legislature building but this may help.

    Or possibly one could switch to helium ballons? This sign on a stick thing is so passé anyway.

    Does this mean that one must take the wrappings of the popsicle before entering?