A recent New Yorker article caused quite a bit of discussion around risk, bringing wider attention to the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the northwestern coast of North America. The region is at risk of experiencing a M9.0+ earthquake and subsequent tsunami, yet mitigation efforts such as a fundraising proposal to relocate a K-12 school currently in the tsunami-inundation zone to a safer location, have failed to pass. A City Lab article explored reasons why people do not act, even when faced with the knowledge of possible natural disasters.
Could part of solution lie in risk education, better preparing future generations to assess, make decisions, and act when presented with risks that while they are low probability are also catastrophic?
The idea of risk is among the most powerful and influential in history. Risk liberated people from seeing every bad thing that happened as ordained by fate. At the same time risk was not simply random. The idea of risk opened up the concept of the limited company, encouraged the “try once and try again” mentality whether you are an inventor or an artist, and taught us how to manage a safety culture.
But how should we educate future generations to become well-versed in this most powerful and radical idea? Risk education can provide a foundation to enable everyone to function in the modern world. It also creates educational pathways for employment in one of the many activities that have risk at their core—whether drilling for oil, managing a railway, being an actuary, or designing risk software models.
A model for risk education
Risk education should start young, between the ages of 8 and 10 years old. Young children are deeply curious and ready to learn about the difference between a hazard and risk. Why wear a seatbelt? Children also learn about risk through board games, when good and bad outcomes become amplified, but are nonetheless determined by the throw of a die.
Official risk certifications could be incorporated into schooling during the teenage years—such as a GCSE qualification in risk, for example, in the United Kingdom. Currently the topic is scattered across subjects, around injury in physical education, around simple probabilities in mathematics, about natural hazards in geography. However, the 16 year old could be taught how to fit these perspectives together. How to calculate how much the casino expects to win and the punter expects to lose, on average. Imagine learning about the start of the First World War from the different risk perspectives of the belligerents or examining how people who climb Everest view the statistics of past mortality?
At a higher education level, a degree in risk management should cover mathematics and statistics as well as the collection and analysis of data by which to diagnose risk—including modules covering risk in medicine, engineering, finance and insurance, health and safety—in addition to environmental and disaster risk. Such a course could include learning how to develop a risk model, how to set up experiments to measure risk outcomes, how to best display risk information, and how to sample product quality in a production line. Imagine having to explain what makes for resilience or writing a dissertation on the 2007-2008 financial crisis in terms of actions that increased risk.
Why do we need improved risk education?
We need to become more risk literate in society. Not only because there are an increasing numbers of jobs in risk and risk management, for which we need candidates with a broad and scientific perspective, but because so much of the modern world can only be understood from a risk perspective.
Take the famous trial of the seismology experts in L’Aquila, Italy, who were found guilty of manslaughter, for what they said and did not say a few days before the destructive earthquake in their city in 2009. This was, in effect, a judgment on their inability to properly communicate risk.
There had been many minor shocks felt over several days and a committee was convened of scientists and local officials. However, only the local officials spoke at a press conference, saying there was nothing to worry about, and people should go home and open a bottle of wine. And a few days later, following a prominent foreshock, a significant earthquake caused many roofs to collapse and killed more than 300 people.
Had they been more educated in risk, the officials might have instead said, “these earthquakes are worrying; last time there was such a swarm there was a damaging earthquake. We cannot guarantee your safety in the town and you should take suitable precautions or leave.”
Sometimes better risk education can make the difference of life and death.
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Robert Muir-Wood works to enhance approaches to natural catastrophe modeling, identify models for new areas of risk, and explore expanded applications for catastrophe modeling. Robert has more than 25 years of experience developing probabilistic catastrophe models. He was lead author for the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report and 2011 IPCC Special Report on Extremes, and is Chair of the OECD panel on the Financial Consequences of Large Scale Catastrophes.
He is the author of seven books, most recently: ‘The Cure for Catastrophe: How we can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters’. He has also written numerous research papers and articles in scientific and industry publications as well as frequent blogs. He holds a degree in natural sciences and a PhD both from Cambridge University and is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London.