We’re gambling on unlikely outcomes

(July 18, 2020)

PEOPLE have a weird relationship with numbers, especially probabilities. How we view those numbers depends on whether we are considering the probabilities of a good or a bad outcome.

If it is a bad outcome, it will never happen to me. If it is a good outcome, then it’s almost money in the bank!

Millions of Canadians every week demonstrate this kind of reasoning when they spend money they don’t have on lottery tickets and other forms of gambling. Tell them they have only one chance in a thousand to win the next draw, and some would sell their mothers to buy more tickets.

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler had the opposite intention, however, when he said storms like the recent one that hit the Brandon area were a “one in 1,000 years flood event.” He meant, “No need to worry, folks” — couldn’t possibly happen again, right?

(No doubt he gave the same speech a couple of weeks earlier to communities in southeastern Manitoba, as they bailed out their basements from a similar storm.)

That same mathematical idiocy leads people to ignore public health warnings about masks and physical distancing, because the risks are so low for them to catch COVID-19. Couldn’t possibly happen to me, they say, on their way home from the crowded beach, lined up (shoulder to shoulder) to buy tickets for tonight’s draw, betting for a win against much worse odds.

People are just not getting the picture that, in our world today, all bets are off. Previous predictions about what is likely to happen are almost pointless. Using probabilities to decide on funding priorities for floods or pandemics is a waste of time, for example, because we don’t (and won’t) have the data sets we need to calculate them properly.

Who knows what it really means, when both the Arctic and Antarctic are warming at a rate several times that of the rest of the planet? When Siberia hits temperatures in July that are hotter than Houston? Those things alone are signs, when it comes to calculating outcomes, that systems beyond our control are also beyond our comprehension, if we rely on the tools of probability.

We need to approach our problems – and our potential problems – differently. If you want a fancy phrase, call it “qualitative analysis.” Otherwise, just call it systems thinking, or applied common sense.

Look at water issues from the perspective of watersheds and their management — and find the points of vulnerability (such as the Rivers dam). What would happen if the dam failed — and how could the system be rejigged to relieve pressure on that dam, not just now, but in the future, given that more extreme weather (drought and rain) will certainly lie ahead, thanks to climate change?

A stitch in time saves nine, we have been told for centuries, but we seem to have forgotten that wisdom. Our probability calculations and resulting economic assessments cost us more in the long run, because they too often fly in the face of common sense — a cheap and increasingly rare commodity in these Trumpian times.

In April, I got a call from a former student, who was watching the pandemic unfold and remembered my course on “Disease and History” at the University of Winnipeg 20 years ago. It was a troubling course that year; we toured the virology lab, and I had to devote an entire class afterward to reassuring students because of the security flaws we observed.

Then I offered an assignment to assess Manitoba’s emergency response to a potential Ebola epidemic — and had to take another class to calm them down because of what they found.

Briefly: Many of the phone numbers on the emergency list were dead; others went to people surprised to find they were on the list. Asked how the airport authority would screen incoming passengers from abroad, we were told not to worry, because there were no direct international flights “from those places to Winnipeg.”

Pressed further, the airport person said anyone who “looked sick” would be put in a separate room – no special precautions — and then admitted the only medical personnel available to do any screening was a veterinarian. At that point, there were no hospitals with HEPA-filter, negative-pressure environments in the city — only the new Canadian Blood Services building and the virology lab had them. And so on!

Of course, the odds were this kind of epidemic would never happen here, and for 20 years, it hasn’t. But whatever experts had been consulted along the way, my students could have easily set up a better system. I only hope some of them eventually did.

From pandemics to the climate crisis, we need more common sense and less preferential gambling on best possible outcomes. Ideology, whether political or economic, has to stop getting in the way of practical solutions.

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