Math Risked and Failed

Back to week in. The weather beavers foretell a day of liquid precipitation. The educationalists were few but exceptionally strident this morning, all seemingly also weight bouncers so the gym was cacophonous. The podcast this morning was an episode of the CBC’s “Best of Ideas” on Risk. [Link] Since I used to do risk assessment on occasion for the Yankee army this podcast had my attention span from the get-go.

Risk is rather poorly defined as any event that will cause something detrimental. That’s horribly subjective so folks try to pretty it up by assigning probabilities that the event will occur, usually as a sample probability over a time period, such as a year. The problem is that the probability is often subjective as well. If one is fortunate there is some history and one can approximate the probability by analogy.

I did not do my risk thing very often. In fact, the only time I got asked t do my thing was when the system being assessed was so different that the textbook risks used by the risk clerks didn’t make sense. So I got called in to learn about the system and estimate the risk events that could befall it. For example, when the YA first started using tethered surveillance balloons I got asked what the risks were. Lots of folks thought that poking holes in the balloon were a big risk. They weren’t but cutting the string was.

This is a lot different from the podcast since it assumed what the risk events were and concentrated on two factors: probability of occurrence of event; and the psychological views of risk. I though the latter was done pretty well since it basically could be summed up in ‘people ignore any risk that hasn’t just occurred, and then they are psychotic about it.’ But I am not a psychologist and haven’t had a chance to talk to psychologist colleagues about this.

The probability part was largely botched. The only accurate part I got out of it was that most people don’t understand probability. That fits with my own experiences. Sturgeon’s rule seems to apply, in this case: 0.9 of humanity can’t do maths very well. This got demonstrated by almost all of the examples given on the podcast, which were mathematically whacked and inaccurate to the point of horror.

I have evolved an hypothesis that so many people, especially bogs and extroverts, are so bad at maths that when anyone speaks confidently about maths, however WRONG they may be, the insecurity takes over and everyone nods and plays rat following the piper. That seemed to be demonstrated repeatedly on this podcast.

This is not unentertaining, mind you. But the entertainment is somewhere between macabre and pathetic. And it is not encouraging. Not that the program was supposed to be encouraging. It was clearly one of those social-engineering-by-shame things. The shame in this instance however, at least for the calculate (maths literate), was for the folks who produced the podcast with such poor maths. They did take great care to project confidence, which was where the humor came in but the bogs and extroverts won’t perceive that, so the social engineering goal may actually work for the Sturgeon fraction of humans.


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