Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee

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The world has become a terrifyingly safe place. Clean, healthy, predictable, relatively crime -free, children don't die much,most people live to a ripe old age, journeys are no longer a dangerous adventure,epidemics don't sweep us away - life is dull,dull,dull.We were born and evolved to take risks,feel fear,thrill,terror,burning with adrenaline.

Now that we no longer face real danger,we either invent it (horror movies) or,worse,we pretend it's all around is when it isn't.We have lost the ability to measure real risk.In a brilliant programme about modern attitudes to risk,this weeks Equinox (Monday 12th 9.00pm C4) [Ref. PT4:Analysis1.txt; PT5:Think1.txt;Think2.txt {Risk}; [Science 2]World 9; Video:OB4 Equinox;Reith] says it all - we live safer,but we fear more.

A new scientific discovery has found an enzyme called MAO (mono amine oxidase) that determines how much risk we like to take.Low levels of MAO mean people become high-risk takers.Needless to say,men have the lowest levels of MAO,while women and old people have higher levels. Extremely violent men in hospital for the criminally insane had levels of MAO one-third lower than the average - though it doesn't excuse or explain their behaviour,as others with low MAO may put it to socially useful purposes.

The enzyme doesn't determine your morality,only your appetite for risk.The bravest bull - fighters measured in Spain also had exceptionally low MAO.No doubt the bravery of war heroes,firefighters,trapeze artists, mountaineers,explorers and others generally admired can also be explained by lack of MAO. But the need to experience fear becomes harmful when it distorts reality,making us get our thrills from imagining the world is more dangerous than it is.

Newspapers and news bulletins these days are designed to give people the impression that even as the huddle in their armchairs,they are really up against raw and frightful threats.It makes people lose any sensible yardstick by which to measure relative risk.All this has spilled over into politics.Politicians outbid one another in promising the zero-risk society.

But,as this Equinox programme points out trenchantly,we need risk.The only totally risk - free status is death.To live is to take risks and morbid fear of risk can lead to a kind of living death. Nothing is risk free [Including cell-phones-LB] from the moment we wake up in the morning (sleep,of course,has its hazards,too).Twenty people a year are electrocuted turning off their alarm clocks,20 more die getting out of bed and 20 die putting their socks on.We have a huge scare over BSE when it is only killing the same number of people as alarm clocks.shouldn't we be having an alarm clock scare,too? [That's why figures should be put on incidence-LB]

One death from beef on the bone might be expected every 20 years at the current rate,but 40,000 people will die falling downstairs in that time.Should we make bungalows compulsory? On the serious side,the film shows the danger of phoney risk scares. [Like cell phoneys!? -LB] Recently,there was yet another birth -control pill scare when research showed a slightly increased risk of thrombosis with some brands.The result was,of course,that some women,who hadn't a clue how to assess relative risk,threw their pills away that day and got pregnant.Because pregnancy has a far higher mortality rate than the Pill,some may have died.

Journalists and politicians are often to blame [They are often innumerate.Ref: J.A.Paulos "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper"],hyping up small scares without putting them into context with other equivalent risks.On this occasion,the risk calculation was that one woman in half-a-million would be saved by not taking the Pill,whereas 30 women in half-a-million could be expected to die in pregnancy.

The programme also looks at the scare over Ecstasy tablets following the death of Leah Betts - and here it gets to the heart of our attitudes towards risk.Professor John Henry of St Mary's Hospital in London,the leading expert,finds it impossible to explain the real risks because no one wants to know. He says alcohol kills 100 people a day,Ecstasy kills one a month.So why the terror of a recreational drug that is relatively safe? Because,suggests the programme,we all make elaborate risk-benefit calculations.We like to drink,we are used to drinking,we are use to knowing it can be dangerous,so we dismiss the risks.

On the other hand,Ecstasy is only taken by the young not by policy makers,and to adults who experience none of its upside or benefits,the risk doesn't seem worth it. Everything we do involves risk-benefit estimates,which we may often get wrong. [So there is a "right" way of doing it then?-LB]We know driving kills,yet the car is so convenient we reckon the considerable risks worth while.Many fear flying,yet cars are far more dangerous. [How do we know this other than by statistics? -LB]

Programmes such as Crimewatch,and others yet more lurid,result in us believing murder stalks around every dark corner,trapping people at home through fear - but our streets are very safe. [In other words,what people BELIEVE, and what is TRUE are two different things - LB] We over - protect our children,making wildly wrong risk -benefit assessments on their behalf.It would be worth giving them more freedom for not very much more risk. [How many parents went into overdrive and were overly cautious,after the James Bulger affair? -LB]

Political priorities,our sense of success as a society,our willingness to be brave and have fun are all circumscribed if we make bad risk assessments.It's time risk was taught at school. [Or that mathematics was given greater emphasis for its impact on society,to diminish the "When am I going to use Trigonometry in my life?" attitude -LB] Every new scare in the newspapers should come with a kite-mark risk assessment,ranking it with everyday risks we already understand.So do watch this wise programme and consider the risk of getting risk wrong.

Crime blunder doesn't add up

Home Office admits figures were wrong

by Gillian Longstaff

RED-FACED Home Office officials have been forced to apologise for making Tameside look more like 'Shameside'.
Blundering government officials this week admitted a mix-up in their recently released nationwide crime league, which left Tameside with one of the worst crime records in the North West.
Home Secretary Jack Straw [-for brains.Don't forget this is the government which said we needed to emphasise numeracy skills -LB]'s name and shame league - issued and published in The Advertiser two weeks ago - placed the borough at the top of the grot spots for violence, robbery and car theft.
But the true picture, revealed Tameside Council's head of community safety, John Johnson, who spotted the error, shows the borough has one of the lowest crime rates in Greater Manchester, contrary to the lawless picture the incorrect figures painted.
Some crime rates were actually double the real figures, he said. In offering their sincerest apologies for the bungle - and laying the blame on a 'computer error' - a Home Office spokeswoman said: "Errors in some of the crime and disorder reduction partnerships has been brought to our attention, "The errors are being corrected and we apologise for any inconvenience caused."
Mr Johnson says the botch is a major setback for members of their crime fighting partnership, which includes police, Victim Support, the fire service, Racial Equality Council and New Charter Housing.
"It's a real concern when everyone has put a lot of hard work into this partnership to actually reduce crime," said Mr Johnson.
"We have worked very well together, as is borne out by the actual figures. It's unfortunate this has gone national and I've suggested to the Home Office that in future they check with local partnerships before going public. They have a responsibility.
"The positive message is Tameside is one of the safest areas to live in Greater Manchester. We've got one of the lowest burglary rates in Greater Manchester, the second lowest in terms of theft from vehicles and in terms of sexual offences only Wigan are lower."
The borough's actual crime statistics, recorded between April 1999 and March 2000, are:

  • Violence against the person - 3,024.
  • Sexual offences - 147.
  • Robbery - 441.
  • House burglary - 2,869.
  • Car theft - 3,338.
  • Theft from vehicles - 2,883.

Although Tameside was placed alongside the likes of Salford, Blackburn and Sunderland, they were only compared demographically and not criminally explained Mr Johnson.
[Once again innumerate public officials screw up and make lame excuses.Computers don't make errors,people make errors. GIGO - Garbage in - Garbage out -LB]

Blitz on burglars

THIS week the borough's crime fighting supremos announced measures to kick the crooks where it hurts.
A host of schemes to crack down on criminal activity throughout the borough were issued by the Tameside Crime and Disorder Partnership.
The multi-agency team, including Tameside Council, police, the Probation Service, Victim Support and Youth Service, has secured government cash to ease the burden on residents, retailers and shoppers.
A massive £77,000 scheme is currently underway to install gates on alleyways in Ashton's West End, Waterloo and Hurst areas.
The council's head of community safety, John Johnson, explained: "We know the majority of burglaries are committed by going in through the back of properties and this has proved to be a strong deterrent. All the residents are very enthusiastic and they're all given keys for their own access."
The partnership will also be targeting those who've been repeatedly victimised by burglars with a number of crime prevention measures in areas such as Ridgehill. Copley and Brushes estates in Stalybridge, Haughton Green, Dukinfield and Hyde.
"We're looking at installing things like door chains, window locks and environmental measures to prevent the more vulnerable become victims again," added Mr Johnson.
They're also looking at introducing their successful Safe Child Scheme - where shops sporting the SCS logo are trained to reunite lost kids and parents - in towns across the borough.
And the highly effective radio link-up to detect shoplifters is also being considered in Denton and Stalybridge. There are also plans to bring closed circuit TV to Denton and Droylsden.
Answering critics of the CCTV system which say it's not manned enough and cameras aren't focused on crime hots spots, Mr Johnson said: "CCTV has proved to be very effective. Since it's been introduced in Ashton crime has reduced by 40-50 percent. There's no doubt it is a deterrent." [Ref: Counterblast{Privacy}]
The Advertiser August 3 2000

Risk and Bayesian Statistics

Dear Prof, Sorry to bother you twice close together (but things come in threes if Ch4's maths on buses is to be accepted,so I'm the expected clumping factor!),and I hope you've eaten the right meal for breakfast , but New Scientist reports this week on the low risk of Killer Strangelets eating up the planet. My concern is not the physics of the anti matter,but the assessment of risk. I have many pages covering this online,because as Sue Blackmore points out,it is the inability to assess it properly that leads to belief in pseudo sciences and/or knee-jerk reactions to news reports. The upshot is this: Adrian Kent argues that because of the possible incurred deaths,the risk upper limit should be set higher compared to another event,ie the possible outcome is being taken into consideration. In my own pages,I think Lois Wolpert is quoted as saying that holes in the road are far more dangerous for cyclists as they are a greater risk than a nuclear accident. This may mathematically be the case,but pot holes are unlikely to wipe out large numbers of people in one catastrophic event. The director of BNFL also once said that a nuclear breakdown was likely to happen once in a million years.This may indeed be true,but we have suffered many events in recent history.The risk does not mean that events can't clump together as far as I understand it.Ie something can happen more than once in any given set of million times. What bothers me is the notion of Bayesian Analysis,where I think an extra term is added on for the possible outcome in calculating probability (I've seen Fisher Dilke talk on this but I might be a bit shy of quite wholly understanding it). It seems to me that Adrian Kent is making use of this type of argument and Lois Wolpert is not,is there any right answer here,or is it dependent on one's view? I only ask as according to one publication,you are the "most famous mathematician in the world" and I have to explain these things to those that have a tendency to the pseudo sciences and fail to understand risk,and if fame is an indication of authority,I'd like to get the info from the horses mouth,as it were.

I wrote a piece on risk for New Scientist,ages back, that made several points very similar to yours. In particular standard risk analysis assumes that what matters is the AVERAGE. That is, a one in ten chance of killing ten people is the same as a one in a million chance of killing a million people.

To my mind, this is nuts--- and it leads to idiotic comparisons between holes in the road and nuclear accidents.

For each individual, it may be the case that the risk is the same, assuming all that matters to them is their own life. But a nuclear disaster would reduce social structure to ruins (look at the effect of a puny fuel protest) whereas a million cyclists killing themselves in holes (over a period of, say,a century) would hardly be noticed.

The rest of science is going nonlinear, and I think it's high time risk analysis did the same.

Ian Stewart





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