Risky Business

Last weekend, I did my first extreme sport in many years, gliding.  It felt risky, like a weekend risky business, my tummy turned over as the tow plane let go of the rope and let our flimsy fibreglass aircraft float through the air with no engine, much like a paper plane.

When I was younger I did a little mountaineering where the actual risk in much higher and yet I generally felt very confident.

We seem to become more risk averse as we get older and yet statistically, of course this doesn’t make sense.  In this case, however, I knew that my statistical risk was low and my chances were probably improved by the excellent weather and having a very calm experienced pilot.

Soon, I was relishing the fantastic views over my home town, seeing whole for the first time as much like a soaring bird as I could be.  It is a contrary thing that we must have evolved with an acute assessment of risk/odds or statistics and yet in the modern world we seem to struggle with these.

Skydiving in a lilo

Skydiving in a lilo

Famously, air travel is much safer than driving a car and yet when there is a plane crash most people become nervous flyers and question the concept of flight.  I think this is because as a passenger you perceive that you are helpless, whilst as a car driver with partial control over your risk and you perceive yourself as safer than you actually are.

Conversely, statistics can get a false sense of security.  Recently I read of a woman given a remote risk of carrying a baby with down-syndrome who then tried to sue the hospital when she gave birth to a child with the condition.   Sadly, it seems she did not understand that the statistic was not focussed on her but spread over 5000 people.

Equally, millions of people buy lottery tickets when they will almost certainly be throwing their money away.  Advertising for lotteries revolves around winners from ordinary backgrounds that the viewers can readily identify with making winning seem more plausible.  Many people, however, know the true likelihood of winning but consider themselves especially lucky or find it exciting to risk their money because risk and excitement seem to go together.

I was lucky enough to study statistics briefly at college.   Firstly, in a study you need to check the size of the sample, the smaller the sample the lower the accuracy.  This is often contained in the very small print in adverts of many beauty products boasting of anti-aging properties.  The next thing you look at is whether the average given might be a mean, a mode or a median.  Each is valid in different circumstances but median is very popular (see   If you for example had a mean average in a lottery and the winner won a thousand pounds but 999  people won nothing, the mean would be £1 but this statistic would be meaningless because only one person got the money.   It then gets much more complex as statistics need all sorts of things doing to them to make them accurate.  It is no good giving a car crash figure unless you know how many cars are on the road and how many miles they travel.

Similarly, many statistics are adjusted according to the season, the location etc.  Benjamin Disreali is supposed to have said `there are lies, damned lies and statistics.’  And it is easy to see how the very complexity of the calculations involved can make these vital government tools distorted (sometimes deliberately).  Some things however, are pretty clear and are easy to see in this American chart     Having an accurate assessment of risk can help eliminate all kinds of fears and phobias as well as saving our money.  You also have the tools to decide if your weekend hang-gliding trip is worth it for the thrill, perhaps it is.

Wrapping up this week’s story, here is an English example of people with zero chance of achieving flight in the Worthing Birdman event.