19 Jan 2010

Better safe, than sorry, or are we?

It's an interesting thought I think.
"Better safe, than sorry" - Is it really good advice?
Concluded from some thinking, me personally, I'm not so sure.

Every single day we take risks. From waking up in the morning and commuting to and fro our place of work, to coming home and putting on the stove.

There are certain things which we as humans do and have done for a very long time. We never stop and giv it a thought, but our lives are completely ruled by risk assessment.
Not the stupid type of risk assessment as is conducted in the office by over-zealous, flourescent-jacket & white-hard-hat-wearing, office inspectors, who explode with rage and hysterical fear, while simultaneously breaking down into tears shouting, "The world is going to end!!!", at the mere sight of a trailing wire.

I'm talking about the risk assessment that we subconsciously undertake in our daily monotony.
And that's when risk gets truly risky. It's also, when we humans, are at our most illogical when we need least to be.

Consider this thought for a brief second.

After September 11th, 2001, after the twin towers were attacked, the American people went absolutely ape-shit about boarding a plane anywhere. People were so convinced that the plane they would travel on would be destined for a building somewhere in New York, that they opted for their cars instead.

"Better safe than sorry" is probably something they said once or twice.

We humans are habitual creatures. Because of our habits, we often care not to give risk any real consideration.
Perhaps if we try something new and risky, say, climbing & abseiling, we will then consciously weigh up the possibility of something going awry and resulting in injury or our own death.
But because we are so wound-up in our habits, we forget to perform this risk assessment on menial, frequent, tasks.
When was the last time you considered the real numerical risk involved, in crossing a road? And what about crossing the road without the aid of a pelican, or even more deadly, zebra crossing?
We simply don't ever consider it because we've done it thousands of times and are well accustom to the routine which has become hard-wired in our memories, as being a 'safe' action.

It is for this very reason, that Americans took to their cars in the thought that it was safer than flying. Little did they consider, that the chances of an American crashing their car in 2001 was 1 in 1,000. Versus the chances of death-by-flying at being 1 in 46,000.

Because of what they witnessed on television, and God-forbid, on the very street they live on, their gut instinct suddenly branded flying as being a one-way-ticket to certain death.

Though the real risk was much higher to drive than it was to fly. 46 times higher, in fact.

Due to their "better safe than sorry" attitude, they took the riskier option, and that's why exactly a year after the twin towers, there were an additional 3,500 deaths on the road ontop of their normal road traffic accident expectations from the previous year.

That number meant more people died on the roads in America, as a result of the twin towers being attacked, than there were people actually killed by the twin towers being attacked.

Another example I can think of is the now-outlawed chemical, DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, if your tongue has the two holes in its either side which would enable you to pronounce such a mouthful of a word.

DDT was an absolute wonder when it was first synthesised in 1874. It was soon banned, just short of its 100th birthday, in 1972.

During the second world war, it was noted that DDT was absolutely wonderful at combating malaria and typhus, and also extremely effective at killing the mosquitoes and lice which carried both diseases.
So effective was it, that by the latter half of WW2, it had effectively rid the entire of Europe and America of the deadly malaria and typhus that both infected rampantly and with fatal outcomes in most cases.
Europe, while still battling the Nazis, had won the fight against disease and illness.
To reiterate just how good a chemical and how effective it was at treating malaria, the founder of its ability to kill malaria and typhus, was in 1948, awarded the Nobel peace-prize.
People loved DDT.

It was then discovered to be the most effective pesticide and became the norm, at an at the time unknown risk to birds and the ecosystem in general.

Then along came a woman called Rachel Carson who wrote a book called Silent Spring, which claimed that DDT was a major contributor to destroying the environment and killing wildlife, especially birds, and had DDT banned while effectively getting the ball rolling for the modern day environmentalist movement.

Personally, I think she was probably one of those left-wing, climate-change zealot, vegetarian, lesbian, types. But whatever, her book sold very well, and DDT was soon seen as a potential cancer-causing, bird-killing, chemical of death, despite its accomplishments.

Due to Ms Carson, DDT would eventually become banned under the Stockholm Convention, preventing its use in Africa, a country which could have benefited from some effective malaria treatment.

Now the people who had it banned, knew that it killed birds, that much was true, but what they truly weren't sure about is whether it caused cancer. They found that people with cancer had, what the environmentalists called, 'contamination in the body', from DDT.
What they failed to mention was, that said contamination was unlikely to be the cause of cancer, because it was never found to be any more than 1 part per billion in most people. Some, trillion.
It wasn't likely that DDT was causing cancer, let's put it that way.

Though what the envioronmentalists said to the government, which they could not argue with, was that it "might" cause the cancer, and that it is "better safe, than sorry".

The birds began to flourish again, now that their habitats and food weren't soaked in chemicals.
At a cost to Africa becoming dominated by malaria as its biggest killer, despite the rest of the world being virtually cured of the disease, solely due to DDT.

The environmentalist's "safe than sorry" attitude, would go on to kill millions, if not billions more people, in the years that followed DDT's ban, due to its non-use. A complete opposite result to its desired effect.

So again, is it really better to be safe than sorry? The very attitude killed more people than the twin-towers attacks and has resulted in Africa becoming a malaria cordon-zone

More often than not, there is more risk in not acting than there is in acting the actions we consider to be 'risky'.

If the world had considered the use of DDT as being 'possibly somewhat risky', but decided to keep its use, in light that it may rid the entire plant of malaria, then the chances are, nothing would have changed much today, except a lot of people would be cured from malaria.

Maybe one person in a thousand would have died from DDT. But surely this is better than the millions that are killed each year due to malaria.

I could definitely drag this on even longer, but I think with those examples it should be blazingly obvious that it's not always better to be safe, than it is to be sorry.

So the next time you consider taking the 'safe' route, just ask yourself, what knock-on effects could this safe-route have? And will those knock-on effects be riskier than the initial risky incident that caused you to take the safe route in the first place?

Some food for thought.

No comments: