Sat, 26 Nov 2005

Expert Analysis of Risk

You see this all the time. An expert stands up and says "Through my expertise, I see a problem that nobody else sees." If you listen a little more closely, you find out that the reason the expert concludes that nobody else sees the problem is that they're not paying him money to solve it. That may seem excessively cynical. I don't think so. Being experts, they overestimate the importance of their field of study (no blame: this is the human condition).

The general public lives in a sea of risk. You know what they say: "Life is short and then you die." For some people life is shorter than others, if only because humans are fragile. People perceive some risks irrationally, particularly when you get into very small risks of very bad things. I think that that is simply because people cannot make the proper mental trade-off. Which risk is worse: the risk of dying in a coal-related accident or the risk of dying in a nuclear accident? Mathematically, coal is a bigger killer, and yet people are opposed to replacing coal with nuclear power.

Nonetheless, people who mis-estimate risks under their control are likelier to die. In this way do trees serve to eliminate the imprudent from the pool of automobile drivers. It's reasonable to assume that people are correctly evaluating the risks in their life. So when an expert says "I know better than you", they're technically correct in their field of expertise, but their recommendations do not automatically make for good policy.

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