Over the Xmas break various family members were engaging in an interesting conversation whose starting point was the way many people are excessively, indeed sometimes hysterically concerned about the dangers of asbestos fibres from nearby demolitions or renovations.
The background theme was how poorly people understand risks, especially small risks, and how they misplace their anxieties about risks.
I suggested that the emotional energy people put into obsessing about floating asbestos fibres would be better invested doing something about much larger dangers such as, say… global warming.
To put things in a bit of perspective, consider:
“This end-Permian extinction is beginning to look a whole lot like the world we live in right now,” Payne said. The end-Permian extinction (mentioned in an example in the previous post on this blog) was a catastrophe 250M years ago when the great majority of land and marine species were eliminated.
Payne is “assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University… a paleobiologist who joined the Stanford faculty in 2005, studies the Permian-Triassic extinction and the following 4 million years of instability in the global carbon cycle.”
Payne says: “The good news, if there is good news, is that we have not yet released as much carbon into the atmosphere as would be hypothesized for the end-Permian extinction. Whether or not we get there depends largely on future policy decisions and what happens over the next couple of centuries.”
See The Day the Seas Died: What Can the Greatest of All Extinction Events Teach Us About Climate Change?
Well, there’s impact (utility) and probability. What actually is the change in probability of mesothelioma given low exposure to asbestos? Without knowing that, it’s hard to say whether worry about the neighbor’s house is obsessive or not.