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Simply wrong on two fundamental points
on 22 April 2007
I read "Risk" a couple of weeks ago and quickly realised that it had a lot to say about the author's personal battles down the decades with people who disagreed with him. The endless point scoring and flowery language irritated me.
Having said that, he has two interesting points to make that everyone should know about. One is that people respond to perceived risk changes by becoming more or less careful in response. The other is that this can lead to risk compensation, where a reduction in risk leads to more risky behaviour.
Where I think he has gone fundamentally wrong is on two points.
The first is his insistence that risk cannot be measured. Certainly, behaviour changes in response to perceived risk do make measurement in some situations impossible. However, in other situations, such as the behaviour of a roulette wheel, an inanimate object that does not perceive risk, risk can be measured. Adams infers from the practical impossibility of risk measurement in some important situations that all risk measurement is impossible, which is an over-generalisation. (Perhaps he was thinking of attempts to make the public safer, where his general point would be a reasonable one.) It would have been helpful if he outlined where risk measurement was futile and where helpful measurement was possible rather than just writing off much of the risk management activity going on in the world. Better still, how about suggesting a way to measure whatever it is that people respond to?
The second mistake is to conclude from the risk compensation phenomenon that people have a risk thermostat and seek their favourite level of risk. Not necessarily. Adams shows that when drivers were made to wear seat belts they drove faster. This could also be because they revisited the "cost benefit" analysis that led them to the balance they struck between getting to their destination quickly and being safe. Now they have a seat belt to protect them in a crash they feel that a new balance can be struck, driving a little faster. If they were offered a way to get to their destination that was identical to driving in every respect except that it was both faster and safer they would take it. No need to increase their risk in some way to satisfy the risk thermostat and get that buzz of danger. This could happen when someone chooses between two driving routes, one both inherently safer and quicker than the other, such as choosing between the nearly empty by-pass and going through the busy centre of town.
This obvious alternative explanation gets no attention in the book, which I think is a major weakness. In later publications I understand that Adams shifts his stated position, towards the idea of revising the cost benefit balance, but he retains the phrase 'risk thermostat.'
Overall, better to look for a more balanced and less crusading discussion of the difficulties of making the general public safer.