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Operational Research

Communicating risk and deeper uncertainty – the 2013 Blackett Lecture

Today I attended the OR Society’s annual Blackett Memorial Lecture which was given by Professor David Spiegelhalter.  David works with a small team at Cambridge University and his work focuses on the appropriate use of quantitative methods in dealing with risk and uncertainty in the lives of individuals and society. This falls into the broad category of ‘public understanding of science’.

He fronted Tails you win: the science of chance first shown on BBC4 in 2012. You can see it on YouTube here.

In today’s lecture David talked about how awful much of the press is at communicating data to the public. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail and Guardian featured a few times!  To be fair, he also said the public must bear some responsibility because so many of them have a deep fear of numbers and,  I guess, a large part of that stems from their experience of the education system.

David talked about Acute risks, such as riding a motorbike or going skydiving, which may result in an accident and where a natural unit for comparing such risks is the Micromort, which is a 1-in-a-million chance of sudden death, for some defined activity.  I’m not sure I was too keen on his data given that I had ridden into London and was planning to travel home on my motorbike!

However many risks we take don’t kill you straight away: for example all the lifestyle issues we get warned about, such as smoking, drinking, eating badly, not exercising etc. David introduced the microlife which aims to make all these chronic risks comparable by showing how much life we lose on average when we’re exposed to them. A “microlife” is 30 minutes of your life expectancy. For example, drinking 2 pints of beer would cost a typical 30 year old man 1 microlife; i.e. it reduces his life expectancy by about 30 minutes.

He gave us examples of press headlines which were clearly misleading and he recently complained to the Press Complaints Commission about misleading use of statistics (“13,000 needless deaths”).

Among his summary comments he said that because of the public’s fear of data, or their inability to make sense of data, the majority of communication to the public has virtually no impact on changing their behaviour. He argued that better education is required, but there is still a moral imperative to communicate the data as effectively as possible with the objective of bringing “immunity to misleading anecdotes”. In other words, when people are presented with good information they are less likely to be misled by bad data stories, or anecdotes from scaremongers.

This was a great lecture, with lots of food for thought for those of us who share data in the hope of influencing other people!

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