The authors examine risk both mathematically and emotionally, with sympathy for a public confounded by probability and rarely logical in judging odds.
Blastland (co-author: The Tiger that Isn't: Seeing Through a World of Numbers, 2007) and Spiegelhalter (Mathematical Sciences/Univ. of Cambridge) emphasize that the notion of risk focuses thinking on a dreaded event at the expense of all the nonevents that happen, and this framing can induce fear, helplessness and recklessness. By way of illustration, they create three prototypes—the risk-averse Prudence, your average, reasonable guy Norm, and the daredevil brothers Kelvin, Kevlin and Kieren—starting chapters with scenarios on how the characters behave in fraught situations. With broad British humor and slang, the authors cover risks from childbirth, violence, accidents, sex, drugs, transportation, crime, surgery and more, including excellent chapters on cancer screenings and how to read unemployment figures. To make the data user friendly, the authors introduce microunits. A “MicroMort” (MM) is the one-in-a-million risk of dying on a single day of a specific cause. In the case of accidents or acts of violence, for example, the daily risk in the U.K. is 1 MM, while in the U.S., it is 1.6 MM. Another unit, a “MicroLife,” looks at chronic risk factors by dividing a lifetime into 1 million equal parts. The authors also spend some time on the history of risk analyses, on the notion of chance and on the inadequacy on information: In the end, no matter what probabilities can be derived from population data, no one can predict what will happen to you as an individual.
Commendable for its wide compilation of facts and figures—but perhaps even more so for the authors’ “deep sense of uncertainties around data, statistics, and evidence.”