Will-o-the-risk

I’ve been reading, thinking, and talking a lot about risk lately. So now I thought I’d write about it.

Understanding risk and using that understanding to rationally make choices and act accordingly is a challenging and tiring business. As Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel prize in economics explains in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (which I highly recommend – an excellent read), understanding probability and risk is neither easy nor intuitive. Humans naturally find these concepts hard to grasp. Even experts in statistics have to put in a good deal of mental effort to follow the advice of an impersonal algorithm that evaluates risk more accurately than their human instincts are willing to believe.

I’m not saying I’m an expert in statistics, but I have spent many of my working hours over the past four years learning how to calculate probabilities and apply quantitative methods. I also spent most of that time as part of a centre for doctoral training that had the word ‘Risk’ in its title. So I should have a head start on the topic.

Yet I didn’t start talking about risk that much until the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of humanity has been asked to change how they live their daily lives in order to reduce the risk of transmission and exponential infection, the risk of healthcare systems being overwhelmed and of excess mortality.

With the restrictions on everyday activity have come a torrent of data and statistics to help people understand why it is their civic duty to limit their mobility and interactions so severely. Yet as I said, it is not in our nature to understand this information easily. And as more data is gathered and modelled and blanket restrictions are replaced by nuanced recommendations, the messages about risk become much more complex.

So I read and think and then talk it through to try to capture the will-o-the-wisp that is comprehension of risk. I tell other mothers that the reason some children have been allowed back in school even whilst they are not allowed to stay over with vulnerable grandparents is because of the difference in the level of risk. I tell my mother that it is riskier to visit her favourite shop that has re-opened than to go for a walk with a friend even if they drift closer together than the recommended ‘social distance’. I try to balance the emotions of paranoia and complacency that I hear, see, and read about every day.

And yet, all these risks relate only to one potential cause of death. Other risks to human life are absent from the equation, something of which I was reminded in the starkest terms this past weekend when, on our first time on a motorway in three months, we passed a road traffic incident involving three cars and being attended by seven emergency service vehicles.

Thus, when politicians tell people the risks are low enough to encourage more travel for both work and leisure, but that the risks are higher on public transport than by car, they are reporting rather incomplete information. As traffic increases, so does the risk of dangerous driving and all its normal consequences. It may be that the risk of dangerous driving is actually greater than before lockdown as many people take to the roads for the first time in months and may be rather out of practice.

Understanding this and deciding how these risks should influence your behaviour isn’t easy, nor can I offer an easy solution. But neither should the conflicting risks be ignored – even if it does feel like trying to catch a will-o-the-risk.