Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[culture] Risk and probability: the school bus problem

Lots of great stuff in comments on the risk post from this weekened. kadath identified the issue of risk transfer as the free rider problem. I'm not sure I agree with her, or if it is the free rider problem, it's a special case of it. Nonetheless, that link is a fascinating read.

There's a problem related to risk transfer which lies in how we conduct risk assessment. Untrained humans are notoriously bad at inuiting the probability of events. If we had a decent grasp of probability, Las Vegas would be a grubby mining town in the middle of the desert. (This, incidentally, is another argument against Intelligent Design/Creationism, if there were any point in arguing logically with those viewpoints -- like the knee, the spine and the reproductive system, our wired-in grasp of mathematics and probablity leaves a lot to be desired.)

I had a friend years ago in Texas who at the time was the father of two grade-school aged kids. G insisted on driving his kids to school every day, because as he said to me, "Do you have any idea what kind of people drive school busses?" He was convinced his children were far safer in his Toyota than in a school bus. This despite the fact that school busses have an incredibly low death rate per passenger mile. Insofar as I can tell, most school bus deaths happen when the bus falls off of or into something (a bridge, a quarry, a lake).

(School bus design is also a fantastic example of the risk transfer discussed in the earlier post. In the case of school busses, the risk transfer is highly deliberate as the result of a social decision making process that values protection of the children on board more highly than the protection of any third party involved in a school bus accident.)

I tried to point out to him that a random vehicle running a stoplight had a far better chance of injuring or killing his kids than pretty much anything that could happen to a school bus in Austin traffic, regardless of how incompetent the driver. G said, "Yes, but I'd be able to avoid the accident."

People evaluate risk in terms of their perceived ability to control the situation. G's fears for his kids when his hands weren't on the steering wheel trumped any logic or statistics. This is also why so many people are afraid of flying. Airplanes are far safer than automobiles, but as a passenger, we're utterly passive. We can't even back seat drive an airliner.

Again, I find the school bus problem, and risk/probability assessment in general, fascinating for its own sake, but this kind of thinking also bears on everything from gun control to healthcare spending to tax policy. It's profoundly illogical and profoundly human to think this way -- we all do it. The fact that statistics are so malleable and so poorly understood by the vast majority of people only reinforces the tendency, because we can cherrypick data to suit our prejudices, whatever they may be.

So what would a society be like where everyone had a firm grasp of risk and probability? Should the mathematics and sociology of the school bus problem be taught early and often in the schools? I dunno, but there's plenty of food for thought here.
Tags: culture, guns, personal, politics

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