Teaching Risk Analysis in School

Good points:

“I regard myself as part of a movement we call risk literacy,” Professor Spiegelhalter told The Times. “It should be a basic component of discussion about issues in media, politics and in schools.

“We should essentially be teaching the ability to deconstruct the latest media story about a cancer risk or a wonder drug, so people can work out what it means. Really, that should be part of everyone’s language.””

As an aspect of science, risk was “as important as learning about DNA, maybe even more important,” he said. “The only problem is putting it on the curriculum: that can be the kiss of death. At the moment we can do it as part of maths outreach, maths inspiration, which is a real privilege because we can make it fun. It’s not teaching to an exam. But I actually think it should be in there, partly to make the curriculum more interesting.”

Reminds me of John Paulos’s Innumeracy.

Posted on January 26, 2009 at 1:55 PM25 Comments


John January 26, 2009 2:33 PM

I find it most interesting, particularly juxtaposed with “Risk Mismanagement on Wall Street.”

Tons of money is wasted on exaggerating minor risks. On the flip side, ignoring risks because they are “rare” has burned many people who take such chances frequently.

I think the right balance is a much more difficult question than many realize, and it will be almost impossible to fully agree.

Sort of like airline risks: I agree with both Schneier and Hawkley a lot. Schneier is right that risks are exagerated and control are wasteful. Hawkley is multiplying those risk against over a billion passengers every two years.

Brandioch Conner January 26, 2009 2:58 PM

“Sort of like airline risks: I agree with both Schneier and Hawkley a lot. Schneier is right that risks are exagerated and control are wasteful. Hawkley is multiplying those risk against over a billion passengers every two years.”

The problem is that Hawley is not doing anything to prevent future attacks. Only past threats (and not even realistic ones at that).

Once again, let us break down the threat scenarios a bit.

#1. Terrorists hijack a plane. Simple the solve. Keep the OLD security systems in place to find guns and bombs. Add to that reinforced doors to the flight decks to keep the terrorists away from the pilots until the plane can be landed. For a bit more protection, have security personnel on the flights armed with tonfas. There, problem pretty much solved.

#2. Terrorists blow up a plane in flight using a bomb of some kind. Difficult to solve. Focus on improving the detection systems. And just learn to live with the idea that there is no perfect safety. Flying is still safer than being in a car on the highway.

And in both scenarios, you get to keep your nail clippers.

AlanS January 26, 2009 3:18 PM

I was reading something on a blog the other day, forget where, and the person was having a go at Hawley, pointing out that the new security precautions create new risks. You don’t have to be in an airplane to terrorize people. You could terrorize travelers and disrupt travel just as easily by blowing people up in airports. So instead of nineteen hijackers taking over 4 planes maybe the next one is suicide bombers standing in TSA screening queues in nineteen major airports the day before Thanksgiving.

Davi Ottenheimer January 26, 2009 3:52 PM

So easy, even a caveman can do it.

But seriously, putting risk in math(s) reminds me of how security was typically handled in computer science…and isn’t that a big part of the problem today?

Nick Lancaster January 26, 2009 4:06 PM

“Risk literacy.”

It’s called CRITICAL THINKING, the failure of which is why we all get forwarded letters from friends and family telling us about the latest plot by gangbangers to follow you home as an initiation, or Arabs yukking it up at the local Dunkin’ Donuts.

Brandioch Conner January 26, 2009 4:38 PM

“You could terrorize travelers and disrupt travel just as easily by blowing people up in airports.”

It could have been here. That’s a point that has been brought up, frequently. And the technology to do so is easily available.

Not to mention the fact that the terrorists have a selection of targets. Even if the TSA had 100% security at the airports … that just means that the shopping malls are more attractive targets.

There is no such thing as “safe”.

But, statistically, if you live in the USofA then you are more at risk from a member of your own family than from a terrorist.

Now, think about what the economic situation would be if the money spent on the TSA and such had, instead, been put into upgrading / extending our nation’s infrastructure.

Clive Robinson January 26, 2009 5:17 PM

One thing that caused me to raise an eyebrow was Professor Spiegelhalter’s comment,

“The only problem is putting it on the curriculum: that can be the kiss of death.”

Why on earth would that be?

I was educated in the UK some time ago and we where taught “Modern Math” which included amongst other things set theory and logic.

This was as part of the standard curiculum prior to any teaching specific to that required for “O Levels” or higher qualifications.

It strikes me that teaching probability would actually be quite fun both for the teacher and the students. Especialy if it went into elementry game theory so why should the Prof consider it a KOD…

fuchikoma January 26, 2009 5:19 PM

In Canada, I took CALM – Career and Life Management in high school – it was a mandatory class that basically equates to health class – it was the most basic things you could think of, and a lot of non-educational parts like the group exercises to agree on which gear you should have on the moon or a desert island, and a bunch of thinly veiled personality profile tests.

This would be something to actually give a class like that some value.

(I also think debt management, and personnel management should be in the HS curriculum since so many fail to do it well in real life!)

Cannonball Jones January 27, 2009 3:23 AM

I’ve been thinking along those lines for ages ever since I considered becoming a RMPE (Religious, Moral & Philosophical Education) teacher. I had hoped to be able to largely skirt around the R and focus on the MP part, paying particular attention to teaching children critical thinking, rationalism, skepticism, risk analysis and other such invaluable tools which seem to have been passed over by the rest of the educational system. The Scottish educational system seems to be moving in a direction which would allow the creation of such a class but I’ll still wait a while before the career change.

CGR January 27, 2009 3:27 AM

One could do worse than start with this excellent book:


and use some of the examples in it (for schools, maybe modified to make the subject matter more relevant). One of the shocking messages in the book is how badly even senior professionals in medicine and law understand the implications of probabilistic expressions of risk. Just doing the math is by no means enough: the math has to be translated into terms that are meaningful and which take into account both the probability of an event happening and the size of the population under consideration.

Noble_Serf January 27, 2009 8:18 AM

I think my parent’s generation called this “common sense” and they often mixed it with something called “personal responsibility.”

I don’t know where this lore came from. Perhaps one day some scroll or tome that defines these things can be located so that we may understand.

Clive Robinson January 27, 2009 10:24 AM

@ Cannonball Jones,

“I considered becoming a RMPE (Religious, Moral & Philosophical Education) teacher. I had hoped to be able to largely skirt around the R and focus on the MP part”

There’s a reason why the R is first…

Unfortunatly the “PPI/PFI/Acadamy” systems set up by Blair / Adonis where people with money can buy influence and worse set the agender in the way children are taught.

It is destined to become another way for the camel to get through the eye of the needle, as the rich men buy the kingdom of their god (with apologies to King Charles and his Bible – Matthew 19:24).

It apears to be just another step downwards for education in the bulk of the UK.

From what I understand of the issues it apears that if you where born between 1958-72 then you got the best of British education system.

It is almost as though we have returned to Victorian times where if you had the wealth you could purchase a title and enforce your moral views on the lower levels of society by philanthropy.

Lest people think I have a bias religion is unfortunatly just the visable tip of the “agender iceburg”.

Importantly it is an issue of security (both national and information) that we should be taking seriously.

If not for the simple reason of what sort of society do we wish to grow old in and if it will be economicaly viable to support our pension funds etc or if we will as in times past work ourselves unto death…

Jim Slaby January 27, 2009 12:27 PM

I’ve long advocated teaching probability theory in high school, which supports far more useful life skills than calculus for most kids who aren’t on a track to go into the sciences. I wonder if states would resist this kind of change to the curriculum, since no one who studied probability be like to ever buy a lottery ticket.

Jason January 27, 2009 1:50 PM

@Clive Robinson denouncing “religion”

I live in America and have my entire life. I was under the impression that “religion” comprised more than just Christianity / Judaism / Islam.

I’d love to have had a course that would have exposed my young mind to Abrahamic religions plus Hindu plus Buddhism plus Zoroastrianism plus even cooler stuff like Native American belief systems and still throw in philosophy (which, regrettably, I can’t name by name).

Don’t skip the ‘R’, just don’t focus on how worshiping the Christian God is “right” and everyone else is “wrong.” There are lots of ‘R’s out there. Expose the kids to all of them while they are still receptive to ideas that don’t exactly match their own preconceptions.

moo January 27, 2009 2:30 PM

@Jason: That’s a good point.

I try to be open-minded about religious beliefs, but one of the biggest problems I have with religions in general, is that so many religious parents (and Sunday-school teachers, etc) go to such lengths to indoctrinate kids with religious beliefs at a very young age. The kids get their heads filled with religious junk and they are too young to think critically evaluate what they are being told.

At the very least, classes introducing and examining a bunch of different religions would make them realize that there’s more than one worldview that might make sense.

Clive Robinson January 27, 2009 4:15 PM

@ Jason, moo,

With regard to religious beliefs due to circumstances in my early life I had the chance to look into other main stream beliefs. Which in later life spread to less well recognised belief systems.

You will find as you start on the path there are a number of issues, not least being what defines a religion (try defining it yourself, you will be surprised as not all have gods or other trapings we tend to think of).

One thing a lot of religions have in common is the belief in “something better” usually after shuffling of the mortal coil. Which is sad for a number of reasons not least that it encorages all sorts of odd behaviour as has been witnessed through the centuries. And worse it discourages us from taking more interest in those we share our planet with.

If you get the chance have a look at those belief systems that have a “stewardship” ethic as opposed to an “ownership” ethic. Oh and look into what happened to the first reports of the Bushmen of the Kalahari and why they where surpressed.

Most religions have a moral and philisophical code underpining them from which our laws have been derived.

However over the years a lot of religions have alowed the political imperative to become the reason for their continuance. And as we now have politicians this kind of makes some religions redundant in modern life, which might account for the falling numbers of worshipers they have.

The only two things that my experiance has made me realise that I am prepared to stick my neck out on are,

That there must be very strong segregation between politics and religion otherwise both lose meaning and credability.

That children should be taught morals and philosophy pertaining to the world they live in, in prefrence to what is generaly regarded as “religion”.

tomj January 27, 2009 10:57 PM

Risk assessment is nearly impossible for the individual. But one thing is for sure: we will trade a known set of bad conditions for an unknown set of worse conditions.

Think of drug ads. They cure one problem but promise the potential of many much worse problems. High cholesterol, which as no symptoms can be cured with a drug which could cause liver failure (and death).

Actually that example is more weird. No symptoms, a potential disease process cured by a drug that might kill you.

Bone building drugs are being pushed on people who have no disease, no symptoms. The potential side effects are very bad.

People cannot assess risk when given bad information. In fact, you might say that the sales ad is designed to remove rational thought, or create the illusion of rational thought.

It would probably be better to teach the many ways sales ads distort reality so that we make a particular decision, maybe even based upon our sensitivity to risk.

David Spiegelhalter January 28, 2009 4:12 AM

I appreciate the comments made in this discussion. Risk Literacy has got components of critical thinking, tackling innumeracy, and teaching probability, but these are only aspects of the general target: trying to get people to face up to uncertainty in a reflective manner.

It’s generally considered OK to admit uncertainty when dealing with gambling and sports, but otherwise there appears to be a pervasive desire for categorical and assured statements. This may be a natural human urge for reassurance that someone knows what’s going on, but it would be far more honest to admit that we never know what is going to happen, and we often don’t know what’s happening at the moment, let alone understanding the reasons for events.

Probability provides a structure and language for illuminating many (although not all) aspects of uncertainty. Our grandly-titled Risk Roadshow is trying to make these ideas interesting and relevant to school students, in the hope that they may be able to deal a bit better with all the claims they get bombarded with every day.

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