IEET contributor, Andrew Maynard: “I had a roller coaster of an interview with Seth Shostak (Director of the Center for SETI Research and host of Big Picture Science) last week on risk and black swan events. I was poised to talk about rare but high impact events like a mega-eruption at Yellowstone National Park, or a major asteroid hit.”
I was going to put these into context with more common risks – such as getting cancer, dying from excessive heat, or being killed by a dog bite (yes, it happens more than you’d think).
I was prepared to talk with authority about micromorts, and the relative risk of being killed in a fall versus a car crash (surprisingly similar as it turns out).
I’d done my homework.
Not that it mattered. Like all the best interviews, this one went off piste at frightening speed.
We talked about the risks of new technologies; the dangers (or not) of using cell phones; probability distributions and sparse risk-event data sets; insurance companies and premiums; to fear – and sharks; dread; emotional responses to perceived risks; getting your kids vaccinated (do); familiar risks; unfamiliar risks; ebola; confusing concern with fear; making sense of big numbers. We even talked about how extending our lifespans to centuries might change how we think about risk.
We didn’t talk about micromorts.
But with hindsight, that may have been the wafer thin mint that pushed us over the edge of risk-gluttony. A black swan event well-avoided.
(And, just in case you’re wondering, your chances of dying in a mega-eruption at Yellowstone during a one month vacation, are around a tenth of a micromort. Probably.)
We all have at least some musical talent. But very few of us can play the piano like Vladimir Horowitz. His talent was rarefied, and at the tail end of the bell curve of musical ability – that tiny sliver of the distribution where you find the true outliers. Outliers also exist with natural events: hurricane Katrina, for example, or the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Such events are rare, but they often have outsized effects.
In this hour we imagine the unimaginable – including the unexpected events labeled “black swans” – and how we weigh the risk for any of them. Also, how a supervolcano explosion at Yellowstone National Park could obliterate the western U.S. but shouldn’t stop you from putting the park on your vacation itinerary.