Playing dice with risk – by Fabio Turone

«Chi non risica non rosica» goes an old Italian say: who doesn’t risk doesn’t get food to put teeth on. Plain, simple common sense that was forged by the risks (and rewards) tipically faced in ancient times.

Today new risks appear continuously, and science journalists are more and more often asked to decide whether to sound an alarm or downplay the fears raised by others.

risk (n.)

1660s, risque, from Fr. risque, from It. risco, riscio (modern rischio), from riscare “run into danger,” of uncertain origin. The Anglicized spelling first recorded 1728. Sp. riesgo and Ger. Risiko are Italian loan-words. Risk aversion is recorded from 1964; risk factor from 1971; risk management from 1963; risk taker from 1944.

Tipically, they (we) sound the alarm first, knowing that alarms grab the attention of readers. Sometimes the risk is just hypothetical, and the precautionary principle is called for. Other times the only certain thing is uncertainty, which is fearful in itself.

Apparently, the 24/7 cycle applied to science news is making things worse and worse.

A very interesting – although inevitably superficial – analysis conducted by David McCandless on a decade of science news published online in English provided an image that summarises the enormous gap between the intensity of coverage and the real danger of several recent “global media scares”:

 

Finding the right balance is often hard.

Statistics certainly helps frame the risk related to an act (or to inaction in a specific context), but any numerical representation of risk is incomplete for at least two reasons.

On the one side because science provides figures and estimates that are usually hard to grasp for the average citizen.

On the other side because uncertainty usually plays a big role: scientists socratically “know what they don’t know”, and reflect on what is left to be measured according to the tools of their discipline, but sometimes don’t realize that scientific conclusions based on what can be scientifically measured leave a lot of details out of the picture.

After teaching “Public Understanding of Risk” for a while, Cambridge’s «Professor Risk» David Spiegelhalter – who used to be a biostatistician – is now convinced that he should be “professor of risk encouragement”, because we must all learn that when we run to escape a danger we shoudn’t ignore the dangers we will find ahead of us, so we should better choose the risks we accept to live with instead of believing we can escape all risks.

Life is a risky business, and tipically those who say they have a safe recipe to protect us from danger at no cost are either very ingenuous or very interested in selling something.

 

About Fabio Turone

Fabio Turone directs the Agency Zoe of scientific and medical information. He is President of Science Writers in Italy, Course Director of the International School of Science Journalism based in Erice, Sicily, and works with UNESCO at the Balkan School of Science Journalism. He runs for Vice-President of EUSJA at the 2014 elections