The relativity of risks

Here is a copy of the original English version of my last column in Metro that appeared on September 4, 2007.

This column was inspired by a true story that appeared in the papers a few months ago. It touches on a theme that I have explored in other columns; that is, the relativity of things and the problems we can face when we seek absolute certainty, whether it concerns health, highway overpasses, or attacks from burglars.

The danger is relative

A recent tragic story in the news highlighted the problems we often face when we evaluate dangers and risks in isolation. It involved the heroic actions of a young man who ran into a burning home to rescue his baby cousin. He then went in again to save a second child and perished. They found him holding this child in his arms. The reason they died was due in large part to the fact that the back door had been nailed shut as a way of discouraging burglars.

This story reminds me of other situations where people place themselves in even greater peril in their blind attempts to avoid real or perceived dangers. Take handguns, for example. Some people purchase them as a means of protection, especially against home invaders. Yet the risk of suicide triples in households with guns. Since suicidal thoughts are not uncommon, having easy access to an effective means of killing oneself automatically increases the mortality rate. In addition, that gun is 43 times more likely to kill a family member or an acquaintance, either by accident or in a fit of rage or despair, than to kill a burglar. I, for one, could live with being burglarized. I couldn’t live with having accidentally killed my son.

In the 1970’s the world experienced the first waves of bombs on airliners. In order to avoid those dangers, many North Americans decided to vacation in their country rather than travel abroad and risk being blown up over the ocean. Unfortunately the risk of being killed in a traffic accident on our highways was still far greater than that of dying in a plane crash, even at the height of terrorist activity.

There is still no substitute for education. An awareness of dangers around us will generally keep us safer. However, a little knowledge is still a dangerous thing. In truth, there are very few absolutes in our lives. By being reasonable and informed we can live in a fairly safe and secure world. If we focus too much on one scary aspect of our lives, and lose the broader perspective, we may be trading in a reasonable amount of true security for a huge but useless amount of false security.

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Posted in Anxiety.

Posted on 13 Sep 2007

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