Wretched Risk Assessment Skills

WC has had occasion before to comment on Americans’ poor risk assessment abilities. Americans still have wretched risk assessment skills. A very nifty chart by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser not only demonstrates American poor risk assessment abilities; it also suggests at least part of the cause.

Causes of Death in the U.S. (2016 data). From Richie and Roser, Creative Commons license

Causes of Death in the U.S. (2016 data). From Richie and Roser, Creative Commons license

Click here for a larger image. The first column is true causes of death in America, as of 2016.1 Note heart disease kills 30.2% of us; by comparison, terrorism kills less than one-one hundredth of one percent (0.01%). Homicide kills 0.9 percent, an outrageously high number for a supposedly sane society, but still inconsequential in comparison to the Big Three.

The second column is Google searches performed by Americans averaged over 2004-2016. The researchers use this as the benchmark for perceived risk. It’s not a completely accurate benchmark; there is a fascination with horror that likely distorts the Google searches we perform. Cancer has that fascination. Still, it’s not hopelessly inappropriate to the real risk, with the exception of grossly underestimating the important of heart disease and grossly overestimating the relative unimportance of terrorism.

Te third column is New York Times reporting on causes of death, averaged 1999-2016. The risk of death from terrorism, homicide and suicide are all greatly over-represented. Cancer and heart disease are under-reported. The Guardian, a newspaper with its roots in England, shows a strikingly similar distorted reporting profile.

To some extent, WC supposes that public assessment and evaluation of risk and death reflects what they read in the papers and see in the news, assuming that the reporting on CNN and Fox isn’t that different in this regard. Terrorism and homicide sell newspaper and advertising; apparently heart disease, not so much. But the effect is to make Americans very bad at assessing risk. Death by accident – too insignificant to make the chart, WC supposes – isn’t a bad risk, but you can be certain every plane crash will make the front page. The more passengers, the bigger the headline. Yet measured by deaths per mile traveled, driving your car to the airport is far more dangerous than flying once you get there.[^2]

WC doesn’t have a solution. The problem isn’t new (a bad pun for decades now) and it’s unlikely social media is going to change it. But the misperception and mis-reporting adds another element of stress and misunderstanding to our already stressful lives. And it allows criminals like Donald Trump to scare people into voting for them. Which is reason enough to search for a solution.


[^2] In 2005, for example, there were 1.13 deaths per 100 million miles traveled by auto; there were 0.0035 deaths per 100 million miles traveled by air. Put another way, getting to the airport was about 322 times as dangerous as flying from the airport.

  1. The data shown are for the relative importance of the ten leading causes of death. Altogether, the chart shows about 88% of total deaths.