how not to do a risk assessment

So, the risk management mavens for the City of Portland, Oregon have provided us all with an object lesson in how not to make risk based decisions.  It seems that one of the local young rowdies had the audacity to urinate into one of the reservoirs supplying the city with drinking water.  This particular reservoir contains 38 million gallons of water.   Horrified at this sullying of the public water supply, the city fathers made the obvious decision – empty and refill the reservoir.   I mean, it had pee in it!   Never mind that the uncovered reservoir contains all sorts of other contaminants (animal urine and feces, dead birds, pollutants carried by rain, etc.) as a matter of course.   Never mind that the concentration of urea caused by the wayward urinator would be around 3 parts per BILLLION – the EPA allows up to 10 parts per billion of arsenic in tap water, people.  No, because this particular infintessimal contamination made the news, 38 million gallons of water is going to be dumped.  As someone who has witnessed small children lugging jerry cans of water to their homes located miles away from the communal tap in Rwanda, this makes perfect sense to me.

It is this kind ridiculous approach to risk management that ensures that society will spend billions of dollars protecting itself from the wrong risks, and leave us vulnerable to the ones that really threaten us.

We need to get better at this, folks – science knows that people are bad at judging risk.  That’s why we need to train professionals in all fields to use evidence based methods and processes which compensate for our built in handicap in this area.  The basis of for good risk analysis is to train kids in critical thinking skills early and often throughout their education.  Maybe, they’ll be better at this stuff than we are.


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