Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Science of Risk

Part of what I do is being able to work in the absence of absolute certainty. Perhaps it's easier to "think outside the box", when the there is nothing left of the box but trace bone and blood, shattered lives to be pieced together in late hours. It's why I've turned down promotions that would take me to headquarters or academia. I love the field work. Part of what fascinates me about it is the cross disciplinary commonalities in the field of studies, and always the application of science to the legal process. So I tend to look through the entire world through those eyes.

So it was when work took me to Hawaii for a few days. Brigid Jr, was adopted into a Hawaiian family so I feel closer to her when I'm there. As it was a business trip, I was only able to play tourist for a couple of hours, boarding a bus from hotel to the beach with some Japanese tourists.

I read somewhere that the Japanese view Westerners as stone, but regarded the Asian countenance as water, a generalization that does justice to neither. Liquid water carves the stones that guide the streams, and in glacial form carve deep valleys that lead to the sea. The pond sits calmly still as the stone and landslides crash like a waterfall.
What is the difference between ice and stone? They both sit solid and still, melt when intense heat is applied. Both are powerful, and both can be destroyed in a moment of careless nature. Time and tide waiting for no one.

Who and what we are is simply who and what we are. When I observed myself pushing my way through their group, I vowed not to be that rigid stereotype but to become more like water for this day. I would infuse my motions with the smooth physical flow of a stream. I would place myself in the current and simply float, drifting where the day took me. I couldn't wait to refresh my travel weary skin in the ocean while boogie boarding the waves I'd seen through the window on final approach. I could see the great ranks of inviting waves curling towards me and my pulse quickened.

As my bus companions headed for the shallows, I noticed a young man with binoculars staring out into the water, watching intently. He wasn't a tourist and was carefully studying the landscape, how the water lined up, the break of the waves. I shyly approached and said "Aloha kakahiaka aku, how is it today?" He replied "Stay where the water is smooth, if you get out much further than that (and pointed) the rip current will take you there, pointing to a little huddle of rocks that stood sentry at the distant edge of the tourist swimming area. He looked at me very carefully and said quietly,"If you make it past that", pointing to even bigger rocks way off in the distance. "you will be ". . . and he paused. "Pau?" I said, not sure if I got the word right, and we both nodded.

I wondered what would have happened if I'd ignored the warnings and just jumped in, swimming past all the caution signs into those friendly looking breakers that looked like a post card. And I began to think how easy it is to die. To just disappear, with little warning or fanfare, off the face of the planet. I had gone from the airport to asking directions to the bottom of the food chain in little more than hour.

Ignore the signs and there is a price.

There is a great book called "Deep Survival", that tells a story of a rock there, a popular photo site, where the waves crash against it majestically. Tourists stop, the breakers breaking behind them showering them with drops of the sea. A man will pause to adjust a setting on his digital camera, and look up to find his lover gone, never to be seen again.

As the book so well points out, one of those things that kills us is that we don't understand the forces of nature we engage. The environment my generation grew up to expect, is one of peace and sustenance. There are many people struggling, but unlike much of the rest of the world there is food in abundance, light and heat. A domestic den of civilization. Then we go into nature and the playing field is leveled and we are tested in ways that life or TV does not prepare us for.

Most of us sleep through the test and we come out of the experience never really knowing what we did or didn't do to survive, yet somehow believing that we are hardy, knowledgeable adventurers. As pilots say "been there - done that". It's smoke and mirrors.

I watch and I'm aware, reminded regularly that several somethings are out to eat your crop, eat your pets, or eat you, simply because they are hungry. There is not a "let's all just get along" in nature, a fact that is oft lost on the urban dweller.

Most people don't think about it until its too late, when they leave their predictable environment for something new, something that cares little for their outcome. Fate is long of fang and claw, cold teeth gnashing against the soft underbelly of life. Some people may think about it once in a great while, the responsibility for their own survival something that only occasionally haunts the edge of their subconscious, thinking "Oh I could do it if I had to, no big deal".

I felt that way when I first learned to fly, gaining the foolish confidence that culls the weak out early. Testing my craft, testing my limits.There is a psychological theory developed by Gerald J.S. Wile, a professor emeritus of psychology at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, known as "Risk Homeostasis". It grew out of traffic studies but always fascinated me. It's base premise is that an individual has an ingrained target level of acceptable risk which does not change. This level varies between individuals. When the level of acceptable risk in one part of the persons life changes; there will be a corresponding rise/drop in acceptable risk elsewhere.

I've pushed the envelope, purposely and sometimes simply because I had additionally safety features in my gear that I thought would offset the increased risk. That mind set is what Dr. Wile studied. Psychologically, risk homeostasis shows that varying individual trends toward risk adjustment become displaced by the introduction of a safety feature. The concept results an inadvertent psychological neglect of natural automated adjustments to these barriers. In the most basic of terms - if you add in additional safety features, many individuals up their personal level of risk to compensate and the accident rate remains stasis.

I'm one of these people. Give me the extra gear and I would be the one climbing the sheer face of rock. But then you look at what you are doing, and you look at yourself. For me it was a day I was in a little airplane alone over the mountains. Looking down, it looked so pristine and perfect. After a wind that lasted all night and morning, the snow had packed into what skiers called "breakable crust", the kind that holds your weight so very well, then suddenly doesn't.

As I flew westward, everything around me howled of the winds fluid past, the keening power not abated as forecast, winds sluicing downward from a day that still roared. Tossed about by a mountain waves indifference, having to make that split second decision that would lead me away to safety or give way completely beneath me, I looked up towards the other seat. It was a habit pattern from seeing my instructor for so long. All I saw was a reflection in the window. Mine. It's a different way of looking at things, just as the panel you've stared at for months or years as a novice looked completely different when you were alone, how I looked at everything around me looked different as well. Every mistake, every decision, every movement, it all boiled down to the person in the glass. Nature didn't care.

That visage stared back at me as I looked into the tumbled glassiness of a tropical ocean. What's a little wave? What's a little undertow? I remembered the exhilaration of my first solo white water rafting trip. I also remember when my single-man raft flipped and I was trapped underneath the rushing water, bumping against rocks much bigger than I was. Many things could panic me - spiders, airport food, blind dates, but being upside down, under water in the cold and fading light, did not. If there was panic there, it quickly trailed on behind me in the water and I simply pushed my little raft off of me, not attempting to stand, but pointing my feet downstream and floated free. Pointing to to dancing light, to precious air, and water that calmed down to quiet pools further downstream, crickets chirping in encouragement.

Did that mean that I got back into the water that day? No. Not alone. I may have had the current or the rocks figured out that time. Next time, I might not be so lucky.

Author Jon Krakauer wrote about mountaineer guide Scott Fisher, the one who encouraged him to climb Mt. Everest. "We got the 'big E' figured out" he told him" "We've got it totally wired". Yet, on Everest, Scott Fisher died. The psychology of oblivion is not a new science, I've been studying it for years. Making someone else into a believer, coming to terms with the unfamiliar forces of nature is hard. Few think of it. Few of us believe in our own mortality until we're faced with it, and then, even then, after the threat passes, we forget. So we have no way to prepare for what seems too removed a possibility. As Christopher Burney, who was a prisoner of war at Buchenwald said "Death is a word which presents no real target to the minds eyes".

I agree, the surest way we can become a believer in mortality, short of dying, is to sit and contemplate those things.The world we reason about isn't the one that we reside in, I thought as a wave crashed down into the ultimate storm tossed dream, which to comprehend, is to share. How old is survival? It's as old as fear.

And so that day, instead of body surfing in the growing white waves, I sat, as I will here so early this morning. Sat and thought of blue as deep as death or desire, of tumbled glacial turbulence, of currents that pull you down, deeper than you ever expected to go.

Sat. Very still and quiet. Like stone.


  1. Interesting. As I watch and refresh the page I can see you revising. Myself, I depend on the new "Preview" button. It allows me to see a post without publishing it and so far, it's worked with every media embed I've used.

    But the important part. Even with the post unfinished it is powerful. Unfortunately, almost nobody is listening.

  2. Regarding what the Prof. was studying:

    I saved a quote from an old Compuserve AVSIG forum (a close friend ran that forum, that was dedicated to avaition) that's always stuck with me:

    "When you get away with something dangerous or stupid without cost, your perception of stupidity and acceptable danger changes a little bit”

    JAL Captain John Deakin

    Deakin was one of the few Americans to be a senior 747 pilot with JAL.

    Enjoyed the post....again. And the weather is crap around here, no flying, biking and gardening I guess.

    Regards - Don

  3. Goose Creek had a line in one of their songs,"I've lived through the fire, lived through the flood..." I've done both of those, very quick unplanned events that should have killed me, and these brief experiences really do shape you. Keep up the great writing, Brigid. You can really knock them out of the park.

  4. I've always believed that, at any level of competence, that notion that "We've got it wired" is the direct cause of any subsequent death.

    Driving in Eastern Kentucky, in the Appalachian Mountains, I observed that the most dangerous places were the ones where there were guardrails.

    As Niven put it, paranoia is a survival trait.


  5. "Psychologically, risk homeostasis shows that varying individual trends toward risk adjustment become displaced by the introduction of a safety feature... ...In the most basic of terms - if you add in additional safety features, many individuals up their personal level of risk to compensate."

    This is so true. I guard against this in all aspects of life, but particularly in my chosen sport - open wheel racing. From time to time, I watch a collection of videos of fatal racing accidents, just to try to stay "sober" in this intoxicating pursuit. As you say, the surest way we can become a believer in mortality, short of dying, is to sit and contemplate it. I have practiced that for decades.

    Now and then the contemplation becomes more tangible, as it did last week when a 9 year old girl died in a race at a go-kart track here in Colorado. She was good, as in nationally competitive, and had local industry sponsorship. Everyone is "devastated" as if that cliche describes it at all.

    What it really is is a deep fatalistic sadness that a noble life ended in a noble pursuit, accompanied by an emptiness brought on by the paucity of noble lives these days, with a dash of relief that it wasn't our own turn. Her accident was a one in a million event, and preventable. Many are not, when a physical envelope is being pushed hard, as man so often does.

    I race a kart much faster than hers, and I'd like to think I would have objected had I ever driven past that particular hazard. Lord knows I've made a stink about lesser things. There's already one track in Colorado I won't race at, out of concern for lax safety practices, so yes, just as Wise observed, my perception of safety correlates to my level of risk taking.

    One friend I raced with eventually chickened out, and won't even watch some forms of racing anymore. (We hardly speak these days...) Another, who still takes the risks I do, had his personal close call away from the track, with a brain tumor. Me? I spent a week in intensive care once, and have really cool scars... We don't know how our stories end, and to me it's best to live vividly but with some prudence, and let the chips fall where they may. To retreat is much more frightening.

    But that's not what prompted me to write. What first struck me about Wile's risk homeostasis theory is altogether different. It's how applicable the theory is to the unfolding financial debacle in America, and how predictive it is of the mischief caused by government/banker distortions of markets.

    As you say, people are struggling, but there is still abundant food, heat and light. Beneath the perception of living in a "big safe pen" the fact is that we have meddled, probably irretrievably, with the equation that led to that abundance. It's quite probable that our only way out of this mess is forward, through a collapse.

    We may soon look down to adjust the camera, and look back up to find the big safe pen is gone. Most Americans will be startled to discover that those hungry things, never considered but always circling outside the pen, are here - RIGHT NOW - to eat our crops, pets and selves.

    I won't be startled. This is why I'm a survivalist, in a nutshell.

    Academics are often unable to apply their own theories to political and economic matters, even when they fit perfectly. But who knows? Wise may be a closet Austrian economist...

  6. I do not choose to avoid risk--that would be virtually impossible. But I do choose to avoid unacceptable risk. As those studies you mention, point out, my notion of unacceptable risk will be different than yours or anyone else.

    I recognize that as a mother of small children, my level of acceptable risk has grown less, even as my kids' acceptance of risk grown!


    PS: for a fascinating read on Buchenwald, try Eugen Kogon's book, The Theory and Practice of Hell.

  7. One question that comes to mind in regard to the basic risk homeostasis concept is, what effect does increased individual capability have on the calculation? Mario Andretti and I both drive automobiles, for example; is our individual level or degree of risk homeostasis going to be equivalent when measured against some (probably indirect, at best) arbitrary external scale? I wonder to what extent the "safety feature" impact you noted correlates to capability? Keeping to the driving metaphor, seat belts don't make me a better driver in and of themselves, do they contribute to my being a "safer" one and thus alter my personal level of homeostasis? If so, then "surviving the wreck" would seem to equal "better driver".

    Classical strategy teaches that "risk" is simply another measure for "opportunity". If you stipulate the ability to realise an opportunity as capability (particularly in light of the white water rafting experience you describe), what do you suppose might be the effect on the risk concept you summarised so artfully? My initial thought is that there are two main periods of increased risk; when homeostasis is destabilised due to changing personal factors (like capability or safety features) as well as when homeostasis is achieved but all (particularly transient) external factors aren't accurately included in the calculation (the Mt. Everest example you mentioned, for instance).

    If this last be true, then "risk homeostasis" can only ever be an after-the-fact determination. Anything beforehand must be a rough (however well educated) estimation at best.


  8. So someone who wouldn't have driven fast in an older car, drives faster in one with seatbelts. And faster in one with airbags, and antilock brakes, etc. I think that one's the biggest misconception - "These brakes will help me stop faster, so I can drive faster." No, these brakes will help you stop without skidding out of control. There's the same amount of rubber on the road, so it will take just as long to stop.

    BTW, Brigid. Congrats on the 4 mill. I was 4,000,001 last night (with a couple log ons and offs when it was getting close ;) . Was kinda hoping that the 4 millionth visitor would see flashing lights and sirens, and be rewarded with a coupla Cowboy Action Cookies! :D

  9. Honestly, I believe that I engage in an ample amount of risk by existing in this world each and every day...especially driving Highway 86. The science of risk, however, is far too complex for me to consider past my next breath. I'm glad there are cerebral phenoms such as yourself to open up such dark and ominous caves to my narrow field of perception.

  10. Risk factor in the political arena, socialism vs capitalism.

    Socialism presents its way as being void of risk, IE Marx.

    Look at that and the bailouts, the democrats do not like failure.....

    For most Republicans failure is part of the risk and acceptable.

    Through the strata of society are all levels of risk and non-risk takers. In big government how much risk is there,,,, a thing called CYA.

    Your analogy can be overlaid on so many different facets of life.

    Saddest risky event i watched was the free rock climber on a World Wide Sports program years ago. His only safety gear was a pouch of rosin/chalk. ABC was shooting him live as he climbed a sheer face in a Utah canyon. It was the second time ABC had shot him doing a free climb. Three fourths of the way up he lost it..... tumbled about 300 feet to the floor.
    A brief moment of panic then terror watching death unfold.

  11. I don't know if this has much to do with Dr. Wile's observations, but at one time I owned a Cessna 150. It was old then, and the engine was a bit flaky. I had a valve seize on the ground once and another one seize in the air. I was cautious and reluctant to take it very far.

    Then I bought a Maule. New engine. As far as I was concerned, it was pretty bulletproof. By the time I had a few hundred hours on that, I was willing to go anywhere and push the VFR minimums a little if necessary.

    Maybe that has something to do with Dr. Wile. Maybe it just has more to do with John Deakin's observations.

    Later - George

  12. Very nice Brigid... I've become a regular reader of yours in only the past couple of weeks but you're quickly becoming a favorite of mine.

    Deep Survival was a fascinating book.

  13. Beautifully said Brigid, thank you.

  14. Wonderfully said. I have had the same thoughts on my mind today, before reading your post. I just finished hiking across Glacier National Park last week, and it doesn't take long on the trail to realize that the mountain does not care whether you survive or not.

  15. Like all of us, Brigid, your essays first make us think about your words ... and then allow us the opportunity of thinking about our own lives, our experiences and the lessons learned.

    Risk is the unavoidable consequence of surviving. I survived a man with a knife and a teen with a gun. Both events were decades ago but the memories, not surprising,are clear as a bell. The lesson(s) learned have never needed repeating ... except I think I approach ordinary things now with the tickle of a thought in the back of my mind that things often aren't exactly what they seem.

    And ... as my reaction time has gone with age, I know I would have to think my way out of some similar situation now.

    You can, I hope, imagine how glad we all are that you didn't take up the blue water challenge.


  16. Very thought provoking post! I must say that without risk there is no reward. Does that mean to recklessly seek risk? No but be prepared and as you noted even people that think they are not in a risk filled situation may find themselves in one.

    Even the "Food Kitty" parking lot can be filled with risk!

    Once again an excellent post!


  17. Pow.

    I asked my brother and his (Hawaiian) wife about that when he asked his son- who had been working on a plate of food- if he was "All pow?"

    "Bang. Pow. When you're shot, you're done."


I started this blog so the child I gave up for adoption could get to know me, and in turn, her children, as well as share stories for a family that lives too far away. So please keep it friendly and kid safe. Posts that are only a link or include an ad for an unknown business automatically to to SPAM..