“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less,” Marie Curie advocated.
A philosopher and one of the leading experts on topics relating to risk, Simona Morini is professor of ‘Decision and game theory’ and ‘Philosophy of Science’ at the Faculty of Arts & Design at the IUAV University in Venice. She, too, is convinced that in an increasingly interconnected system understanding risk and its complexity is crucial. “Risk should not be feared but rather it should be faced” she advises. But to be able to face up to it “we need to fully understand what we are talking about when we use the word risk.”
In recent weeks, the word risk has become very familiar to us. However, the contemplation of risk is nothing new or even recent - it goes way back. A number of experts trace the concept – and the related concept of insurance – back to the 17th century…
The actual word ‘risk’ is relatively recent: the term is linked to the advent of insurance, which in turn is linked to the advent of statistics, which in turn is an evolution of probability theory. The term ‘risk’ as we know it today has been spreading at the same pace as the ‘science of uncertainty’: first comes probability then statistics. When this science, which emerged in the 17th century, was fully developed we learnt how to manage uncertainty and, as a result, to mitigate risk. But the emergence of risk is also related to a culture associated with the rise of an increasingly more democratic culture. A culture that took responsibility for risk to prevent it from impacting the living conditions of the vast majority of people.
The world has always been risky in various ways and forms. However, we have developed a different sensitivity to risk
Until the 1950s, occurrences of the word ‘risk’ in newspapers and in the Media were few and far between - just a few tens of thousands. Today, there are millions of occurrences of the word ‘risk’ …
This means that risk has become a socially significant phenomenon. It was not by accident that Ulrich Beck explained that we are living in the global risk society. The question at this juncture is: are we living in a riskier world or are we perceiving risk differently? In actual fact, we are not living in a riskier world. The world has always been risky in various ways and forms. We have a different sensitivity to risk.
Can you help us to understand ‘what risk is’ today and how it has developed in technologically advanced societies like ours?
The perception shifts but the nature of risk shifts too. Today’s risks are largely different to the past – the risk from technology is one example. The risk from technology differs from natural risk (like earthquakes, tsunamis and natural disasters). Today we see how apparently insignificant risks can lead to disastrous consequences. Devices exist that have the potential to threaten the very existence of life on our planet – just think of the atomic bomb. This is a new reality requiring new methods and a new approach to ‘minimal risk’. There are risks that have a very low probability of occurring but because the consequences would be disastrous, even that low probability becomes significant, must be calculated and taken into account when we have a choice to make.
Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less
Technologies become widespread much faster than in the past. The acceleration in the spread of technology also speeds up and increases the inherent risks, but the consequences of assuming risk may only be understood in the long term.
In addition to the acceleration factor, we should regard risks as now being on a global scale …
This has become very clear during this latest pandemic. In terms of time, we have the speed of its spread and the delay in the reaction. In spatial terms we saw the rapidity with which it shifted from local to global. What’s more, risks like a pandemic develop and spread in environments that are in inherently complex and hyperconnected. Past pandemics were devastating - perhaps even more so than this one - but economies and life systems were less interdependent.
We cannot apply the theory of probability to non-deterministic environments, at most we can understand the trends
Complex systems are very efficient as far as the economy, innovation, society and even science are concerned. But interconnection means that if something goes wrong, as in the case of coronavirus, then the whole system collapses. We have continuous discontinuity because the phenomena are not linear: the exception becomes the rule.
However, from an economic point of view, we behave as if we were dealing with linear phenomena …
Yet we are constantly living in the exception. As Benoît Mandelbrot (the discoverer of fractal geometry) informed us in his book The (Mis)Behaviour of Markets: A Fractal View of Risk, Ruin and Reward, we rely on economic models which no longer represent the complex systems in which we find ourselves. These models may work at a local level, but if the global dimension is complex and therefore interconnected, then economic models no longer work at a local level because the scale has changed.