Professor David Spiegelhalter at the RIA

Friday 7 November saw Professor David Spiegelhalter talking about risk at the Royal Irish Academy. If you’re not familiar with him, his site is here, he occasionally pops up on BBC Radio 4’s More or Less and other interesting places.

Risk is an interesting thing because humans are appallingly bad at assessing it. Ultimately, the core of Professor Spiegelhalter’s talk focused on calculating risk (yes, there is a micromort unit of measurement) and more specifically, communicating it in human friendly terms. This is not to suggest statisticians are not human; only that they have a language (we have a language) that isn’t always at one with general understanding.

This isn’t the only problem either – humans appear to be very good at not worrying about non-immediate risks as well. So this presents a number of challenges in terms of decision making behaviour on the part of people.

Talks like this can be massively entertaining if done well; less so if badly done. In one respect, one of the overwhelming contrasts of the evening was the absolute contrast between Professor Spiegelhalter’s talk and Patrick Honohan’s response which focused on difficulties in risk assessment in the financial sector. I took a slightly dim view of the response on the basis that every single banking ad makes it clear that the value of your home (or assets ) can go down as well as up and did so for most of the 2000s in this country, and therefore it isn’t so much a question as we didn’t understand the risk – many people just did not want to accept it. In certain respects, it has a lot in common with people who find it hard to live healthily now to for benefits sixty years down the line. If I had to choose who got their message across more effectively, by some distance it was Professor Spiegelhalter.

Talks of this nature interest me; particularly as they relate to numbers and numeracy, and in this case, on risk. People are never particularly good on probability and chance despite all that Monopoly board training each Christmas. Ultimately, the impression I got from the talk is that the debate has moved on somewhat from “what is the risk of [X bad or good thing] happening” to “how do we effectively communicate this risk”. It’s interesting – in a tangential way – that we are swimming in methods of communicating things these days between online streaming, social media feeds, many online publishing platforms and still, with science and numbers, we are only finding the corrective narrative for engagement in a hit or miss manner. Professor Spiegelhalter delivers his talk in an excellent manner. It is a pity that more people will not get to hear it.

on a related note, if you’re interested in talks of a science and mathsy flavour, the RIA and the Meteorological Society are prone to organise such things on the odd occasion. Check their websites for further information. 

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