Risk In Perspective: Hazard and Risk Are Critically Different Things

This series is something neuroscientist Alison Bernstein and biologist Iida Ruishalme have been brewing over for a long time. Risk perception is such a big crux in science communication that it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on. We decided to cross-post it both on SciMoms and Thoughtscapism in the hopes of spreading the message far and wide.

The difference between hazard and risk is a critical distinction

Hazard and risk describe two different but related concepts. The difference may sound like an unimportant jargon-filled distinction, but this difference is critical to understanding reports of hazards and risks.

A hazard is an agent that has the potential to cause harm.

Risk measures the likelihood of harm from a hazard.

risk hazard sharksHazards only become risks when there is exposure. Sharks are a hazard. But if I never go near the ocean, I have no exposure to sharks and face no risk of a shark attack. (Granted, even if you go in the ocean, the risk of shark attack is actually very low.) Despite this difference, we tend to consider all hazards as risks, regardless of our level of exposure.

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Risk In Perspective

This series is something neuroscientist Alison Bernstein and biologist Iida Ruishalme have been brewing over for a long time. Risk perception is such a big crux in science communication that it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on. We decided to cross-post it both on SciMoms and Thoughtscapism in the hopes of spreading the message far and wide.


Common perception of dangers vs the actual hazards they pose, by Susanna Hertrich (posted with permission).

Our decisions as parents and as consumers are exercises in balancing risks and benefits. However, risks are not always intuitive and our cognitive shortcuts can lead us astray.

Misunderstandings about risk complicate our ability to make informed decisions about everything from vaccines and medical decisions to what food we eat and feed our children. Unfortunately, humans, on the whole, are intuitively terrible at assessing risk in our own lives. Our difficulty in assigning risk seems to be innate, as discussed in this piece from Undark (Know This First: Risk Perception Is Always Irrational). Continue reading

Posted in health, parenting, psychology, science communication, vaccines | Tagged , | 6 Comments

UNEP’s Narrow-minded Views on Innovation

Screen Shot 2018-02-02 at 15.53.31World’s energy production needs all the innovation it can get, but UN-director Erik Solheim appears not to have gotten the memo.

GUEST AUTHOR: This piece was written by journalist Øystein Heggdal, and it was originally published in the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen on the 2nd of February 2018. We cooperated on a translation of the article for it to appear here English.

There is an ongoing petition campaign with the aim to change the politics at UN’s Environmental Program (UNEP) whose director Erik Solheim is. The campaign is lead among others by the climate scientists James Hansen, and it was started in connection to the COP23 climate meeting in Bonn last year. Solheim and the UNEP arranged the largest side-event of the meeting, called Sustainable Innovation Forum, where tech companies could present their ideas about how societies can be steered in a direction that protects the planet and which helps us avoid the problems of climate change.

no scientific sense hansen

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Wolf Reintroduction Is Great, But Probably Not A Miraculous Landscape-Changer

Perhaps you’ve seen one of these videoclips: the scene opens up of wolves galloping in the snow, then landscapes of rivers and mountains opening up before you. Pictures of deer and elk, bears, bison, beavers, badgers, foxes, eagles, and so on, are paraded before us to beautiful music. They are all told to be living again in harmony and balance, thanks to one factor: wolves. You hear the exalted voice of George Monbiot saying things like “Birds began to return to the park!” and “But this is where it gets truly remarkable, it turns out that reintroduction of wolves even changes the course of rivers!”

Large predators are an important part of upholding the balance of ecosystems, for sure. But does an ecosystem “miraculously” return back to normal, including its physical landscape, by introduction of one of its main predators, 70 years after its removal?

Uplifting videos, like the ones produced by the Sustainable Human and the National Geographic, certainly do a good job convincing us that this is what has in fact happened. They are truly lovely (if a tad melodramatic) stories, too. But I think they would be better if they were accurate.

Wolves change rivers not so fast.png

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At the Source: Where 13 % of Swiss Electricity is Created


On our way in to the plant with my girlfriends

A friendly nuclear engineer I met at the screening for the movie New Fire made the off-hand mention that he might be able to give a tour of his nuclear plant, Gösgen – an offer I held onto like a leech! Yesterday it happened. It was a bit of a walk to get there from the Däniken train station, but the day was sunny and the place was not hard to find… we just followed the source of the clouds.

It is sort of amazing to realize that the little dome (to the left of the hyperboloid cooling tower) is the source of so much energy, that the mere waste heat from that process continually vaporises water enough to create decent-sized clouds.

Well at the entrance to the plant, we were met by my nuclear contact, and he handed us over to the great care of our tour guide for the day, Heinz, who had grown up playing on the greens around the power plant.


Enter the obligatory jokes, “Look, even the trees are dead here!!” (For posteriority, let it be stated that it’s January)

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Off the Press: Nuclear Energy Is a Fast and Inexpensive Way to Improve the World

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 15.25.47

This piece was originally published in the Finnish newspaper Aamulehti on Friday 8th of November 2017. The article is based on an earlier English blog piece I wrote, which was quite a bit longer than the 4500 character limit at the paper, and unlike it, included plenty of graphs and hyperlinked sources. For a long version of the topic you can head on over there. However, I felt I could hardly turn down a reader’s kind request to translate the newspaper-published piece as well. So here it is: the TL;DR version of my economical arguments around low-carbon electricity. A few graphs added. Continue reading

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Nuclear Energy Is the Fastest and Lowest-Cost Clean Energy Solution

I’ve joked to my friends that if there is anything that proves how important I consider the clean energy topic to be, it’s me digging into electricity pricing. I have a natural aversion to economics – I’ve demoted that aversion somewhat from the position of idealist elitism it carried back when I was a teenager (anything to do with money was about greed and not worth considering). Now I acknowledge that my prejudice toward economics is a flaw in my character which means I’m probably missing a whole lot about a fascinating and complex aspect of societal dynamics. I’ve battled that weakness a couple of times to catch a glimpse of that complexity.

So, when I used to hear people complain about nuclear energy being expensive and slow to build, I would thoughtfully nod my head, thinking: “Well, they probably have a point, it’s expensive, and it’s quite a project to build a plant. Still, it’s important because it can provide astounding amounts of reliable carbon-free energy, so we just have to stomach that slow and costly process.”

You’d think I would have learned by now about the risks of making assumptions based on hearsay?

When someone pointed me to a graph comparing the best build-rates we’ve ever had on carbon-free energy over the last half a century (first the excellent one presented by Climate Gamble, then another from Cao J et al, Science, which you see below), I had to stare at it for a while to process how wrong I had been about that “slow to build” part.

How much do power plants cost- (1)

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