The Quandary of Risk Aversion
By Dr Rob Long from www.humandymensions,com
In the mindset of no harm and zero harm one becomes fixed on the minute of harm. If only the world was that simple. The recent work of Nicholas Taleb quickly knocks such simplistic notions on the head in his excellent book ‘Antifragility’. Taleb shows that risk aversion cultivates immunity to Black Swan thinking and therefore creates fragility in systems and risk.
The recent debate about vaccinations illustrates the problem of risk aversion thinking. Research released on Monday 20 May 2013 shows that over 50% of Australian parents are worried about childhood vaccinations. (Worry grows over safety of childhood jabs http://m.theage.com.au/national/health/just-one-little-jab-20130519-2juz6.html). The research shows that more parents are worried about the side effects of vaccinations than the possibility of the major disease. The research also indicated that it was highly educated parents who were most cynical of medical intervention.
At the same time as childhood vaccination rates are decreasing the NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson on 19 May 2013 said he would introduce amendments to the Public Health Act that would give early childhood centres the right to refuse children who hadn’t had their shots. (NSW bill to ban ‘anti-vax’ kids http://m.smh.com.au/national/nsw-bill-to-ban-antivax-kids-20130519-2jubr.html). What an interesting quandary.
Taleb makes the point that the only way to develop a robust response to serious disease is to be vaccinated with a small portion of the disease (so much for the ideology of zero harm). In other words, the only way to prevent serious harm is to administer a small amount of harm. Taleb lists over ten industries where harm is required to prevent greater harm. There are by-products involved with the administration of preventative harm but we are assured by those in the medical profession that the risk of immunisation far outweigh the risk of not being immunized. The anti-vaccination lobby claim that childhood vaccinations have links to autism and a host of other nasty by-products (http://antiantivax.flurf.net/) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaccine_controversies).
So here is the quandary. Society and industry is becoming more risk averse and fearful of harm. Fed by the ideology of zero, this mindset fosters an amplification of every minute administration of harm or the potential of by products causing harm. At the same time, as Taleb argues, this now creates an increased risk and risk blindness or what he names resistance to ‘antifragility’. People often question opposition to zero harm as if the advocates have no cause for opposition. Here are some good health reasons as to why zero and risk aversion are dangerous.