Philosophy

# What Does It Mean To Assess Risk Wrong? Coronadoom Example

There is, as de Finetti said, no such thing as probability. So there is no such thing as risk, either, since risk relies upon probability.

If there is no such thing as risk, which there isn’t, then why does it seem to make sense to say people are mis- or wrongly estimating risk? For the same reason it seems to make sense to say people mis- or wrongly estimate probability.

For instance, I say that the average middle-aged New York City streetwalker (don’t even bother telling me) is far more fearful than she should be about dying, or even unduly suffering, from coronadoom. But this criticism can’t be right if risk does not exist.

Of course, if risk doesn’t exist, then our lady has no reason to think one way or the other about the virus, let alone worry about any other thing that might cause her harm. Yet since worrying about certain dooms, like climbing a mountain without a rope, also makes sense, it seems risk does exist. And if risk exists, so must probability.

The solution to this mini-dilemma for risk is the same as for probability, and that is to recognize that there is no such thing as unconditional probability, thus there is no such thing as unconditional risk. Both risk and probability are epistemic, matters of what you know. They do not directly speak of the way the world is, but in what you know about the world. All probability, and so all risk, is conditional on the evidence assumed.

It’s disagreements about the evidence which prompt questions of probability and risk.

For instance, a gambler at the roulette wheel has seen seven reds in a row and has convinced himself that black is “due”. The probability of black, using the evidence he assumed, is high. Therefore, the risk to him of losing whatever amounts he bets is low.

The operator of the wheel disagrees with the gambler. He reasons that the results of previous spins do not change the causes operating on the ball-wheel combination, and so the probability of black is just under 50% (it’s not 50% because of the green slot or slots). The risk the gambler loses his bet is modest and fixed, to the operator.

Both probabilities and both risks are correct. But most of us would ridicule the gambler, because we recognize the operator has got his facts right, and the gambler doesn’t. The facts or assumptions, the evidence used, all belong to the right hand side of the probability and risk calculation; e.g. Pr(black | assumptions), Risk(bet | assumptions). Once these assumptions are specified, and the proposition to be assessed is agreed upon, the probability and risk both follow deductively.

The facts, or rather assumptions, the gambler uses are just as real to him as the facts used by the operator. But the operator’s match Reality, while the gambler’s do not. The match or mismatch both come in the causes of the wheel’s operation. The operator correctly identified part of the nature of these causes, the gambler has not. The gambler has assumed there exists a mystery cause that somehow restores balance. He “discovered” this cause by perhaps reasoning that he has tracked the wheel a long time and noticed blacks and reds are about equal. Something must be causing this equality!

Something is, but it is not the force he imagines. Imagination can be strong, much stronger than boring demonstrations of fact. The operator can explain, perhaps with the assistance of a mechanic, how the wheel works in nauseating detail, and show the gambler scads of past sequences, but these are just so many words. The gambler believes in his mystery cause, and has seen it operate. He believes. The facts about the wheel are not—they really are not—proof the mystery cause doesn’t exist. The mechanic did not offer proof, and none will ever be forthcoming, for there can be none.

Yet some gamblers learn their error. How? Ideally, they use their mystery-cause model—model is another word for assumptions—and compare it against the mechanical model used by the operator. Gamblers keen to learn see which model does better, they see who really has risked more and less. The repeated sting of losses using the mystery-cause model might be enough to cause him to lose his faith. But only might.

What about coronadoom? Now, I mean, as the virus ebbs. In New York City, the gamblers wear masks. Many more people now wear masks than when the virus was killing people. The fear in the eyes of the masked when they walk by an unmasked person is live and real (I have told you many stories), even when the masked are young and (seemingly) healthy.

We could present the fearful plots showing the attributed deaths have dropped to zero or near zero, and have been at that level for weeks; or we could give them arguments about age and attributed deaths, herd immunity, and the like. But all of this is akin to the roulette operator vainly trying to convince the gambler of his folly.

The fearful believe mysterious forces work against them, forces which they are—barely—holding at bay. The fear itself becomes a mystery force and helps repel the enemy. Just like the gambler, pointing to Reality will not convince the fearful of anything. All we can hope for is that repeated exposure of the fearfuls’ model with Reality will produce enough stings (small as each would be) to make adhering to their model more painful than embracing Reality. Like all things, this will happen gradually, then suddenly.

The lesson is: we are always arguing about causes, and our knowledge of causes. Or, rather, we should be.

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Categories: Philosophy

### 23 replies »

1. Sheri says:

I wasn’t aware Chicken Little did “risk assessment”.

People have to have an IQ higher than my dog and understand math. Those persons comprise less than 5% of the population….worldwide. Non-thinking fear is the way of mankind.

“Ladders are too dangerous” if you’re selling something that requires people fear ladders. Isn’t that how we do risk assessment? The cutest, best advertised face mask is the best protection, especially if it has copper or zinc. What does the copper or zinc do, used externally in a mask? Besides the fool gypsy-wagon cure lovers? Who cares? It MUST be important and risky to go without…..

Has your posting been fact-checked? I only ask because the risk of believing a non-fact-checked post is very, very high according to the fact-checker, unless you self-identify as Democrat, making the risk of believing your very low. They wouldn’t lie, would they?

Explaining to people how risk is calculated is pretty much useless. Again, I don’t think Chicken Little cared about risk assessment.

2. People are not rational. They are emotional. Rational arguments have almost no effect upon public policy.
Propaganda works.

3. Michael Dowd says:

Common sense has escaped. It is hiding someplace.

4. Dennis says:

The blame, as with so much these days, lies with media and politicians, who are doing their best to ramp up the fear and paranoia giving people a completely distorted sense of the real risk. When polls show people assessing their risk of dying from Coronavirus at by factors of 50, that is not just down to most people being fools, but to deliberate distortions in the way the facts are being manipulated and presented to them to serve ulterior social and political ends.

5. Dean Ericson says:

”Common sense has escaped. It is hiding someplace.”

It’s a skittish creature, common sense. When men jump up and down shouting it tends to hide under the couch.

6. The social masquerade of poltroonery.

Masquetroons.

JWM

7. Darth Kludge says:

Interesting. Mathematically, the probability of a spin of the wheel resulting in black or red is ~50% for any given spin. Also, the probability of having 8 spins in a row land on the same color is ~0.5^8 or ~0.39%. So in essence both the gambler and the operator are correct, depending on how you look at the situation. The operator knows that any single spin has ~50% chance of success for the gambler, but the gambler senses that the chances of the 50/50 chance landing the same way 8 times is a row is very low. If you view each spin as a part of a series of events, the gambler is correct. If you view each spin as unrelated to previous events, the operator is correct. If you take into account historical events you get one answer, if you do not take into account historical events you get another answer. Both are correct within their assumed contexts. Isn’t math fun?

8. John Garrett says:

“…The fear in the eyes of the masked when they walk by an unmasked person is live and real…”

It’s almost (but not quite) amusing. When I’m out “masklessly” running or cycling and approach the terrified with no chance of getting anywhere closer than 10 feet, it’s all I can do not to burst out in laughter as they fumble trying to rapidly get a mask in place or dive into the bushes like a cockroach scurrying away when the lights go on.

Occasionally, in spite of my effort to suppress it, I cannot help myself and simply dissolve into laughter.

9. Amateur Brain Surgeon says:

One must also remember that for gamblers it is not only the money won or lost but the “juice’ attendant with the action.

ABS is too lazy to look it up but he remembers the degenerate gambler Phil Ivy (think that is this name) speaking about how intense his feelings were the time the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker picked up a fumble just before half time in a Super Bowl and returned the fumble something like 99 yards for a touchdown costing Ivy a whole bunch of cash.

What was interesting is that what he experienced ( the juice) was far more intense and memorable than the amount of cash he lost.

One can’t discount that idea that for many people alive the idea of facing a putatively deadly disease gives meaning to their otherwise mundane and materialistic lives and so such folks would not be too keen on learning the truth about the disease but, rather, they keep the Faith that what scientists and governments claim are true.

In fact, telling such people the truth would likely make those folks angry

10. Darth Kludge says:

ABS said, “In fact, telling such people the truth would likely make those folks angry.”

When explaining this to my offspring, I likened it to telling someone that Santa Claus isn’t real. They refuse to believe it because they don’t want to believe it – they need to believe it. The neurotics, the psychosomatic ill, and the Munchhausen-by-proxy crowd are enjoying their Christmas festivities and the ‘rona is their Santa.

11. Pk says:

Darth,

In your example, the probability statement is “given the last 8 spins resulted in black, what is the probability that the next spin will be black?” The answer is about 50%.

12. Darth Kludge says:

Pk, that is true. I was trying to point out that the the following probability statement can also be made, “Given the probability of a black result of any spin is 50%, what is the probability of 8 consecutive spins resulting in black?” The answer is 0.39%. Two different interpretations of the same situational information.

13. Fredo says:

It’s simple math how do you move from locking down 8 million serfs in
Wuhan China to locking down 320 million freedom loving Americans?
A little MSM Kabuki theater you don’t need high end statistics for that,
just a little monkey see monkey do psychology, plus a little keep it simple
stupid science and statistics 101.

14. Dennis says:

ABS: “One can’t discount that idea that for many people alive the idea of facing a putatively deadly disease gives meaning to their otherwise mundane and materialistic lives.”

Indeed – not only does it give meaning to boring lives by making them feel they are in the midst of an event of world historical importance (they are, but not for the reason they think!), but they are also made to feel as if they are “heroes” doing their part to “fight” it by wearing masks, etc. It also gives them a nice excuse to get out of anything they don’t want to do, especially work.

John Garrett: “When I’m out “masklessly” running or cycling and approach the terrified with no chance of getting anywhere closer than 10 feet, it’s all I can do not to burst out in laughter as they fumble trying to rapidly get a mask in place or dive into the bushes like a cockroach scurrying away when the lights go on.”

It would be interesting to do a comparative study of such neurotic behavior based on geographic location. I get the sense that it is worse in what are typically considered “liberal” or “blue” states – Northeast and Pacific Northwest especially. As I said above, I’ve not encountered this level of nuttiness out and about myself when encountering others walking in the park or neighborhood (I’m in Kentucky), or even meeting clients (and even in stores before the mandates when many were already voluntarily muzzling – I’ve stopped bothering even trying to go anywhere since the governor issued his tyrannical “mandate,” so I can’t say what would happen in stores if I did at this point. I just can’t be bothered to put myself in a position where I know I might have to go off on someone harassing me for acting sane).

15. Rudolph Harrier says:

The CDC has changed testing guidelines to remove asymptomatic individuals. While the news agencies are saying this will doom us now, I predict that when new case numbers go down (as they must in the wake of less testing) they will attribute it to the success of mandatory mask ordinances and other restrictions.

This allows them to then ramp the cases back up by increasing testing in the future. Most likely this will be done either a few weeks before the election, to try to sink President Trump, or just before they are ready to deploy their vaccine.

16. Dennis says:

Addendum to above: My sense is that most people around here are getting fed-up and know it’s BS and basically all political at this point, but are resigned to keeping their heads down at work, stores, etc., just putting on their masks and going through the motions, since they feel they have no recourse. I understand that, but it also just helps perpetuate the insanity and keeps people in an abject, submissive position. Never mind the economic impact of all this (which the Left always spins as caring more about money and business than lives), just the impact on the mental and physical health of people that lockdowns and mask decrees have already had, and will continue to have, will far outweigh the impact of the virus in itself – greater suicides, deaths from illnesses that went undetected or were diagnosed late while hospitals and doctors offices were closed and focused exclusively on one virus, treatments and procedures delayed or cancelled, greater anxiety, anger, depression, etc. [I’m convinced the BLM/Antifa stuff, riots, etc., would not have taken the destructive form it has, or at least on such a large scale, if not for the pre-condition of the social and economic situation caused by the Covid lockdowns and related responses]

17. Dennis says:

Rudolph: So does that mean they are recommending asymptomatic people not be tested at all (for example, as my mom was forced to do in June when she had a minor medical procedure scheduled, despite having no symptoms of anything), or that they are just removing asymptomatic people from what they are considering “cases” (which is what they should have done all along, especially given the massive reliability problems with PCR tests in the first place. A friend with family in Italy – a doctor too – told me nearly two months ago that in Italy they had already stopped testing people if they showed no symptoms of anything). In any case, good news – the obsession with mass testing of mostly asymptomatic people was always going to lead to inflated results used to push the narrative of a virus out of control that was just ravaging the populace.

But you’re right about they way it will be spun by media and politicians as well – they will make claim masks and anti-social distancing were the reason for the drop in cases, then they will blame Trump for not having issued some national muzzle mandate as Biden wants (legal and Constitutional authority to do so be damned!), etc., back in February or March. Plenty of evidence showing that places that didn’t adopt strict lockdowns, mask mandates, etc. have been no worse off, and that the virus seems to follow a similar pattern whatever the response, but that won’t matter. The Narrative is decided.

18. GamecockJerry says:

“One can’t discount that idea that for many people alive the idea of facing a putatively deadly disease gives meaning to their otherwise mundane and materialistic lives.”

This is very similar to those who are going to save the planet from global warming by driving a Prius (where does the electricity come from) and recycling (use more energy than regular garbage).

It won’t be a bunch of little stings that wakes these people up. It will be the huge crash we will experience when this house of cards comes tumbling down.

19. Dean Ericson says:

“…The fear in the eyes of the masked when they walk by an unmasked person is live and real…”

Nothing to do with mask, Briggs.

You’re an oversized white guy with an intimidating presence.

They are rightly afraid.

20. Dean Ericson says:

”Mathematically, the probability of a spin of the wheel resulting in black or red is ~50% for any given spin. Also, the probability of having 8 spins in a row land on the same color is ~0.5^8 or ~0.39%. So in essence both the gambler and the operator are correct, depending on how you look at the situation.”

If the world is purely materialist billiard balls banging about then the probability is 50/50. But since the world is, rather, spiritual, it’s important to account for the animosity the black numbers have for the red, and vice versa. When the tricky reds put one over on the stupid blacks they don’t take it lying down. On the next spin they put the kabosh on the red bastards. Round about, the reds rally and screw the blacks. And so it goes, dittos for the even/odds and all the other hateful numbers. Often times one side has a good run, but their success breeds Hubris, which begets Nemesis, which produces Busted, so the players should know the Devil’s in the house.

21. Peter says:

50/50 is conditional, based on your belief the wheel is fair. Essentially, probabilitues are mere beliefs, not reality.