Your Risk vs. Everyone’s Risk

This is so obvious it’s embarrassing to be writing about it, but it’s also obvious that a large fraction of my fellow citizens just don’t get it; so I have no choice:

There is a difference between personal choice and epidemiology. 

Wikipedia says, “Epidemiology is the study of the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations. It is the cornerstone of public health, and shapes policy decisions and evidence-based practice by identifying risk factors for disease and targets for preventive healthcare.”  I’m happy with that definition.  Lots of people are charged with the responsibility of worrying about the epidemiological consequences of various choices; and so they should be. 

Personal choice is different.  It’s up to you whether you want to worry about something that might affect you adversely.  Or it should be.  These days I find that an awful lot of other people think it’s up to them whether I should worry about my risks.

A concrete example might help clarify this distinction:  Project Gasbuggy.   Back in middle of the 20th Century, certain parties proposed to use nuclear bombs to collapse salt domes underground, releasing vast quantities of natural gas that was (and still is) stored in such natural formations.  The gas thus released would be radioactive, of course, so it was proposed to mix it with other natural gas to dilute the radioactivity to “acceptable” levels.

This proposal was rejected, but let’s suppose it had recently been implemented.  Should you worry?  Let me rephrase that: should you be worried for your own safety?  Exposing millions of people to radioactive natural gas would probably cause thousands of “extra” deaths per year from cancer, so epidemiologically it would clearly be a Bad Thing.*  But your chances of dying of cancer would probably be boosted from about 20% to something like 21%.  (These are not carefully calculated numbers, but it hardly matters for the purpose of my argument.)

Let’s face it: regardless of how much exercise you get, how meticulously you optimize your diet, how good your medical plan is or how carefully you avoid all dangerous practices and hazardous materials, you, personally, are going to die.  You need to start by facing this fact.  Once you have done so, you should realize that all you have any control over are the time and cause of your death.  And not much control at that.  It pays not to be foolish, but people are pretty foolish anyway.  (Or are they?  That’s another question.)

So, in my opinion, for the reasons stated above, you would be silly to worry for you own safety about many things that we all might agree would be unethical to impose on the population at large.


*Note added in proof:   Upon reflection, I’ve realized that good ethical decisions are not that simple, especially when they affect millions of people.  Suppose Project Gasbuggy had gone ahead, and suppose it had indeed caused (let’s say) 1000 additional people to die of radiation-induced cancer in the following half century.  Does that make it a Bad Thing?  It depends on how many people the additional natural gas saved from death.  Any decision affecting millions or people will both cause some to die “prematurely” who would otherwise have lived much longer and prevent some deaths that would otherwise have come “prematurely”.  (See the post “Premature Deaths” in this collection.)  Rational ethics requires consideration of both numbers.  In fact, rational ethics also requires consideration of many other factors, such as quality of life for different people.  Rational ethics is hard!  I suppose that’s why so many people resort to a list of Commandments to guide their behavior.  (Morality is not the same as ethics.  Duh!)

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