Fri, 21 Nov 2003

Risk Overflow

Steven den Beste makes reference to the Precautionary Principle that some people espouse. These people prefer coal mining to nuclear power, by inference anyway since they're against nuclear power, and we're currently generating electricity by burning coal.

Note: these numbers are created from whole cloth to make a point. These numbers are not real. Every year there's a 5% chance of a coal mine accident killing twenty people. Annualized, that's a 100% chance of one person dying every year. Every year there's a .000000001% chance of a nuclear accident killing 100,000 people. Annualized, that's a .0001% chance of killing one person every years.

The Precautionary People think that nuclear power is riskier than coal mining. Why? Because they don't trust the size of the numbers. Yes, when you multiply a very small number times a very large number, you get a risk for nuclear power which is much less than that of coal. Add or subtract a zero or two, though, and suddenly the risk is much larger. The problem that I see is that most humans are not well equipped to evaluate very small risks of very bad consequences. People prefer known risks of tolerable consequence. Or, to put it another way, people buy insurance.

I would also add that the relatives of the Precautionary People don't mine coal, so the risks don't affect them, but that would be petty, so I won't.

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