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Threshold of worry

January 7, |

So what do we worry about?  Over at the Becker-Posner blog, Richard Posner writes about :

The Indian Ocean tsunami illustrates a type of disaster to which policymakers pay too little attention—a disaster that has a very low or unknown probability of occurring, but that if it does occur creates enormous losses.  Great as the death toll, physical and emotional suffering of survivors, and property damage caused by the recent tsunami are, even greater losses could be inflicted by other disasters of low (but not negligible) or unknown probability....The fact that a disaster of a particular type has not occurred recently or even within human memory (or even ever) is a bad reason to ignore it. The risk may be slight, but if the consequences should it materialize are great enough, the expected cost of disaster may be sufficient to warrant defensive measures.

This is certainly true, but expecting politicians -- many of whom regard the demographic collapse of Social Security, which is extremely likely, as not worth addressing -- to take low-probability risks into account is probably expecting too much.  Oh, the richer the society, the more of these things it can afford to address, but I suspect that Posner is right, and that risks that seem unlikely will be ignored unless there is a shock to the system, as the 9/11 attacks led us to take terrorism more seriously.

Posner's approach, based on cost-benefit analysis, is highly rational.  But as observes, people often aren't rational about risk, leading us to overprotect against some risks while taking too few precautions against others:

Psychological research shows a statement made one way can be reassuring, but frightening if made in a different, yet mathematically equivalent, way.  People react more to 1-in-100 risk than to a 1% risk, though the two are identical.  "If I say, '1 in 100,' people imagine the numerator.  Who is the one?  There's more of a feeling of reality,"says psychologist Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research, a Eugene, Ore., risk-research outfit....The human mind assesses risk in two very different ways, it turns out.One is analytical, which is susceptible to science, probability tables and the like.  But the other is what Dr. Slovic calls "the gut feelings and instinctual reactions that reside within us, a carry-over from our long evolutionary development from the time when we didn't have scientific rational analysis and had to use our instincts."  The latter is very powerful, but too often ignored in well-intentioned efforts to get people to comprehend small risks and act accordingly, both as individual consumers and as citizens.

That's true -- though as the lottery example illustrates, whole industries are organized around exploiting those differences.  And it's not just lotteries:  News media tend to exaggerate some risks (like having your child abducted by a stranger) because they know that scaring people gets attention, and hence ratings.  That introduces a systematic bias in the way society perceives and responds to risks, often with bad results.  I strongly suspect, for example, that the panic over child-abduction in the 1980s cost many more lives than it saved, as kids were kept indoors and became less physically active, leading to obesity and other health problems.  Some industries, like the pharmaceutical industry, are held accountable when they market a defective product and do harm thereby.  Thanks to the First Amendment, the news media are not.

As a big First Amendment booster, that's okay with me, I guess, though I'm certainly not above noting the hypocrisy involved.  But I wish that people would work harder to correct erroneous, and often self-interested, assessments of risk.  And hysterical media coverage is probably a good place to start.  In the meantime, one of the best ways for a society to prepare itself against unknown but significant threats is to get richer so that it has more resources to spare for preparation and recovery.  Unfortunately, irrationality about risk gets in the way of that sometimes, too.

January 3, |

More black marks for the United Nations

Kofi Annan is still in trouble, and so is the U.N.  Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that U.N. supporters staged an of sorts:

The meeting of veteran foreign policy experts in a Manhattan apartment one recent Sunday was held in strict secrecy.  The guest of honor arrived without his usual retinue of aides.The mission, in the words of one participant, was clear: "to save Kofi and rescue the U.N."At the gathering, Secretary General Kofi Annan listened quietly to three and a half hours of bluntly worded counsel from a group united in its personal regard for him and support for the United Nations. The group's concern was that lapses in his leadership during the past two years had eclipsed the accomplishments of his first four-year term in office and were threatening to undermine the two years remaining in his final term.

Admitting that you have a problem is the first step toward recovery, but the U.N.'s real problem isn't so much Kofi Annan -- who's no prize, but who is really more of a symptom -- as it is a culture of irresponsibility.  For example, one blogger working on Tsunami-recovery efforts :

In this part of the tsunami-wrecked Far Abroad, the UN is still nowhere to be seen where it counts, i.e., feeding and helping victims.The relief effort continues to be a US-Australia effort, with Singapore now in and coordinating closely with the US and Australia.Other countries are also signing up to be part of the US-Australia effort. Nobody wants to be "coordinated" by the UN.

Then there's the ongoing problem with sex scandals -- rape scandals, really -- involving .

Once again, as a crisis strikes, the U.N. isn't playing much of a part in solving it.  I guess we should just be grateful that, this time, the U.N. didn't play a part in causing the problem, either.

I've mentioned here repeatedly that I think that photo- and video-blogging are waves of the future, and have even suggested that it might be a good idea to pack such gear in a disaster-preparedness kit.  Now the Wall Street Journal has noticed the of amateur video from the tsunami zone, circulated largely via blogs:

When twenty-one-year-old Jordan Golson launched his Web diary, or blog, in early December, his conservative views on news and politics weren't exactly in demand, attracting about 10 surfers a day.  But by last Thursday, he was struggling to keep his site named "Cheese and Crackers" up and running as it racked up 640,000 hits.  The difference: tsunami videos.Mr. Golson's site -- at -- is just one of dozens of locations on the Internet hosting amateur videos of the Indian Ocean disaster.  Many have been deluged with visitors eager to see more of the gripping footage than TV offers, or to watch videos over and over again on their own time.  Some of these "video blogs," like Mr. Golson's, are pre-existing text blogs, which typically include commentary and views on current events.

Distributed journalism, and distributed responses to disaster.  I think we'll see more of both in the future.

January 2, |

More on the tsunami

I've before that blogs are playing a major role in reporting on the tsunami and its aftermath.  As the German magazine notes: 

Blogs are at the forefront of the tsunami recovery effort.  While traditional media drags awaiting publication, and government hotlines jam or go unanswered, bloggers have hopped into the fray, providing needed information to relatives desperate to find loved ones and those hoping to join the rescue efforts.

They're right, and one of the most interesting sources of reporting comes from Indian blogger , who has been travelling through Tamil Nadu and blogging about what he encounters.  Here's an :

The tsunami is long over, but disease is taking a heavy toll. Every day hundreds of people die in in the hospitals and relief camps of Tamil Nadu. The most common medical problems among survivors, according to doctors we spoke to, are:1. Injuries suffered while running away from the waves in panic, bumping into debris, getting caught up in fishing nets and trees, and being swept by the waves into hard objects.2. Cholera3. Swallowing sea water4. Lack of proper hygeine5. Babies without their mothers, who are not given adequate nutrition.Groups from all over the country have come here to help counter this, but according to Madhu Kumar, there is one basic service that they are not providing: counselling."More than 50% of recovery depends on counselling," he tells us."These people are psychologically shattered. More than just their belongings, they have lost their livelihood."We run into Kumar in Pandalasalia, in the district of Nagore, where he is leading a relief team from the Neyveli Lignite Corporation. "These people have no place to stay," he tells us, "and they are in such trauma at the event that they just want to leave, to go far away from the sea. Not just their bodies but also their mind has been affected."

Just visit Varma's blog and keep scrolling -- it's very affecting stuff, well-written and with a sharp eye for telling details.

If you'd like to help, there are several places you can go.  The has been set up by bloggers from the region, and has countless links to charities that are accepting donations.  , an excellent group newsblog, also has extensive "how to help" links. is and has raised nearly $11 million already.  And you can read about some charities that are flying relief supplies in with help from FedEx, which is donating a plane.  Travel-blogger Gary Leff explains how to to the relief effort.  And, finally, Australian blogger , and American blogger are adding up the donations, both private and governmental, which look decidedly non-stingy.  (And here's an from the Boston Herald on the Internet's role in providing disaster relief.) 

Finally, if all this talk of devastation and disaster has gotten you down, you might want to check out Radley Balko's column on .  There was more of it than you might think, and this is a good time to remember that.