Wisdom of Crowds?

From the Time Magazine cover story:


It's not impossible for us to become sharper risk handicappers. For one thing, we can take the time to learn more about the real odds. Baruch Fischhoff, professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, recently asked a panel of 20 communications and finance experts what they thought the likelihood of human-to-human transmission of avian flu would be in the next three years. They put the figure at 60%. He then asked a panel of 20 medical experts the same question. Their answer: 10%. "There's reason to be critical of experts," Fischhoff says, "but not to replace their judgment with laypeople's opinions."

A former student of mine (hat tip to Angel) wrote her thesis on this gap between risk perception and risk analysis. Her recommendations look a LOT like the ones offered in this article.

And don't even get me started on the role that fear-mongering and caricature contrarian (a.k.a. John Stossel) journalism play in semiotically wrecking our sense of risk...


tiny said...

Many times the inability to accurately assess risk builds from common wisdom, which is difficult to overcome. The Time article, in fact, makes a similar mistake by claiming that women of childbearing age are possibly at risk from pollutants in fish. NOT TRUE: the women are at no risk at all. The possible risk is to the potential fetus as the CDC admits, "Methylmercury exposures to women of childbearing age are of great concern because a fetus is highly susceptible to adverse effects. " Thus a woman who has no plans to reproduce (or even if she does) is in no danger from fish no matter her age or ability to reproduce.

Doc Mara said...

I said "don't get me started..."

These embedded premises in "common wisdom" are tough to overcome. These premises (risk to potential fetus=risk to women of child-bearing age) have incredibly stressful consequences (as opposed to male smokers around women of child-bearing age). It is tough to un-embed these assumptions as it is a sort of hand-to-hand combat of ideas. Each time these assumptions get reified in the public sphere, it takes a Herculean effort to convince people to ever reconsider what they take at face value as "true." THAT is why I hate public skeptics like John Stossel, who do MUCH to dismiss the few public reservations individuals may have in unproblematically accepting whatever risk the corporate media wants you to pay attention to INSTEAD of their own very real risk (masking itself as libertarianism, when, in fact, these contrarians really serve very powerful interests). It's hard to kill misinformation that is embedded in particular cultural frames (see Lakoff, etc.).