In February of 2020 I finished a book called Risk Savvy by Gerd Gigerenzer. At the time I read the book, I could not predict that thinking about risk would come to dominate the remainder of the year. Throughout 2020 and into the start of 2021, humanity across the globe has demonstrated how poorly we think about and handle risk. The United States has clearly been worse than most countries, as we have failed to understand the risk of COVID-19, failed to grapple with the risk of crowds and appropriate uses of force, and failed to adequately assess the risk of a President living in a state of denial and delusion. As Gigerenzer writes on page 6 of his book, “Risk Literacy is the basic knowledge required to deal with a modern technological society,” and in many ways, the United States and the rest of humanity have shown that risk literacy is deeply lacking.
Gigerenzer believes that we are smart, that we are resourceful, and that with proper aids and education, we can become risk literate. Whether we recognize it or not, we already calculate risk and make decisions based on risk. Understanding risk can lead to us packing an umbrella and wearing a waterproof windbreaker when the weather station forecasts rain. We can make sound investments without understanding every aspect of an investment thanks to savings vehicles that help us better understand and calibrate risk. And we can decide to go to a movie or skip it based on aggregated reviews and ratings scores on Rotten Tomatoes.
At the same time, we have had trouble understanding our individual risks related to COVID-19, we have had trouble understanding the risks and benefits of wearing masks, and we have dismissed what seem like impossible possibilities until they happen to us personally, or happen in a dramatic way on tv. We are capable of making good decisions based on perceptions and understandings of risk, but at the same time, we have still shown ourselves to be risk-illiterate.
It is clear that moving forward societies will have to do better to become risk literate. We will have to improve our ability to communicate risk, estimate risk, and take appropriate precautions or actions. We cannot live in a world free from risk, and new technologies, ecological pressures, and sociopolitical realities will change the risk calculations that everyone will have to make. Improving our risk literacy might mean that we don’t have over 400,000 people die during future respiratory pandemics. It might mean we have robust economic systems that don’t damage the planet. And it might mean we are able to live together peacefully with global superpowers competing economically. Failure to address risk and failure to improve risk literacy could lead to disaster in any one of those areas.