WHEN ARE RISKS REAL?
By William Rish, PhD  |   June 16th, 2015
   
risk analysisRisk is defined as the chance of suffering harm.  Scientists would say that risks are real when there is a measurable probability of harm.  Under this view, the necessary conditions for risks to be real are:
  • Presence of a source of risk,
  • A way to be exposed to the source of risk,
  • A mechanism by which the exposure can cause harm (sometimes called causality).
Risk assessment specialists attempt to quantify risk by using data and models linking sources, exposure pathways, and mechanisms of harm to develop quantitative measures of risk, based on probability and level of consequence.  Some take the position that this technical analysis of risk ought to be the authoritative basis for regulatory decision making.
 
But there are other views of when risks are real.  No less of a technical geek that Nikola Tesla said “Today's scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.”
 
From a purist perspective, so long as there is uncertainty, there is risk.  There are, thus, no cases in which risk is not real.  And yes, the evaluation of relative likelihood and seriousness of harm is important.  But there is an important and sometimes subtle relationship between our common sense notions of risk and values, on the one hand, and statistically measured relative frequencies and quantification of harm, on the other.
 
From a humanistic perspective, risk is simply the potential of losing something of value.  In this view, whether or not a risk is real is, as Plato described beauty, “in the eye of the beholder”.  This is why attempts to communicate risk in technical terms can be frustrating, and why understanding how people perceive risks and determine the acceptability of risk is crucial.  Risks are real to a person when they have sufficient reason to suspect the presence of a cause that may result in harm to something that they value.  To meaningfully discuss risk with this person, it is necessary to understand the reasons for their suspicion, the harm they fear, and what it is that they value.
 
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William Rish, PhD, HullRAC Director
William (Bill) is a Principal and the Vice President of Hull's Environmental Market at Hull.  He also directs The HULL Risk Analysis Center (HullRAC) and has over 30 years of experience in risk assessment, decision analysis, and environmental consulting. 
 
Bill has been on the forefront of environmental liability evaluation, including the development of probabilistic techniques for quantifying environmental liability associated with contaminated sites in financial terms, and is published expert and expert witness in risk assessment and uncertainty analysis.
 
Bill received a Ph.D. in Engineering and Public Policy from Carnegie‑Mellon University.
 
 
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