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Don't Panic: Learn How to Read Risk Data First
If somebody tells you the risk of something is "1 in a million" or "1 in ten thousand" or even "1 in ten", you still don't know nearly enough to gauge how big or small that risk actually is. Get more information before you decide how worried to be.
A report from The Institute for Economics and Peace offers some sobering news about the global rise of terrorist deaths. They’re up 61% from last year. Pretty scary. But the report, and the news coverage it has received, also teaches some important lessons about risk generally, and risk numbers, and how without a little careful reflection we can jump to scarier conclusions than the numbers warrant.
The New York Times headline, “Deaths Linked to Terrorism Are Up 60 Percent, Study Finds” is accurate. But rarely does one single number tell the whole story for any risk. 61% increase is the relative risk, the new numbers compared to the old ones. That’s one way to look at the risk. But to put the risk in perspective you also have to know the absolute risk…the actual number of victims. The total number of terrorism victims in 2013 was 17,958. And then to put that in perspective you have to compare the number of actual victims to the total number of possible victims to get the risk rate, another important statistic. Here’s what those three calculations would look like for these new findings.
Relative risk of terrorism death globally, 2013 - 61% increase from 2012
Absolute risk of terrorism deaths globally, 2014 – 17,958
Risk rate for terrorism deaths globally, 2014 – 0.000003 percent (17,958 victims divided into the total number of possible victims in a global rate, 7 billion people.)
All three numbers matter. All help put the risk in perspective.
But you also have to know the size of the pool of actual potential victims? Not just all possible victims, which is essentially everybody, but the people who because of circumstance are actually in harm’s way. There is no such thing as the average risk for the average person. Prostate cancer only kills men. Plane crashes don’t kill people who don’t fly. Some low-dose environmental risks that might harm the developing fetus or infants, like mercury in seafood, are not a risk to adults. Every risk has specific at-risk populations. A single risk number like One in a Million is almost meaningless.
For example, this report found that 80% all the terrorism deaths were in 5 countries; Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Nigeria. So the risk in those countries is higher than it is elsewhere. The overall average global risk rate doesn’t tell an accurate story for people in Canada or Brazil or New Zealand. And it doesn’t reflect the true risk of terrorism death in those five countries either. Risks are higher for some people and lower for others.
Okay, the math part is over. But the warning here isn’t just about getting risk numbers right. It’s about how readily we can assess risk wrong. Our brains are lazy. It takes calories to think, and since our cognitive skills evolved back when we weren’t sure when (or whether) the next meal would show up, we have developed all kinds of mental shortcuts to save calories by avoiding thinking any harder than the situation requires. That means we jump to conclusions about lots of things, including jumping to conclusions when we hear just one risk statistic. A single risk number like One in a Million prompts an instinctive response, even though it rarely tells us all we need to know. This new report is an example.
“60% increase” sounds pretty big…pretty dramatic. Anyone reading that headline might take away the impression that the global risk of terrorism is rising dramatically. Well, it is…regionally. But not for most NY Times readers. The story does state that, but not until several paragraphs in. You have to dig into the story to discover that critical caveat, and you have to think a little more carefully about risk numbers, and most of us don’t.
So here’s the warning. No, it’s not about how you and I need remedial math. It is about the danger of jumping to conclusions about risk with partial information, whether that information is numeric or any other kind. I don’t know the actual number, but the risk that we will make up our minds about risk without learning a little more and thinking things through, is really high. And that raises the probability that our fears won’t match the facts, leading to potentially dangerous mistakes, whether we’re more afraid than the evidence warrants or not as afraid as the evidence warns.
So here’s a statistical prediction. The chances that you’ll make healthier choices about risk if you don’t just go with your first gut reaction but also stop and think and get a little more information, are pretty close to 100%.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.