Understanding (and visualising) risk

Prof Spiegelhalter gave a very thought provoking and informative talk at the University of Leicester

There is ample evidence that humans are frequently bamboozled by statistics, and interpretation of risk factors is an area in which this is most apparent. As an example, research from a number of countries showing that about a quarter of the population cannot correctly answer the question “Which is the highest risk factor: 1 in 100, 1 in 1000, or 1 in 10?” (Galesic and Garcia-Retamero, 2010).

This was just one insight during a fascinating lecture on Quantifying Uncertainty given by David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge. Spiegelhalter, a Bayesian statistician, began his talk with two quotes which he said were very useful in setting an appropriate perspective:

probability does not exist” Bruno de Finetti
all models are wrong, but some are useful” George Box

In other words, probability is not an intrinsic property of  the outside world, but something we apply to it. Risks associated with a number of activities can be compared using a standardised unit the micromort, invented by Stanford University statistician Ron Howard and defined as a 1-in-a-million chance of dying.  For example – how far can you travel by different means for a risk of one micromort? Answer: driving = 250 miles, cycling = 20, walking = 17, motorcycling = 6, hang-gliding = 8, scuba-diving = 5 and skiing = 0.5. Comparisons of this sort lay at the heart of David Nutt’s famous assertion that taking ecstasy has the same risk as horse-riding.

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Psychiatry Ethics Film Festival

The sixth biomedical ethics film festival is taking place at the Edinburgh Filmhouse between November 26th and 28th 2010

The sixth Biomedical Ethics Film Festival is taking place at the Edinburgh Filmhouse between 26th and 28th November 2010. Organised by the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, this year’s selection of films and documentaries are focussed on the depiction of psychiatric issues and the associated ethics. The line-up includes: Girl, Interrupted; The Madness of King George; and opens with The Eighth Day. Documentaries include: Mental – a history of the madhouse; Sectioned; and Stephen Fry – the secret life of a manic depressive.   Showings are followed by an audience discussion led by a panel of invited participants. A full description of the programme can be seen via this link and tickets can be purchased via the Filmhouse website. Having been involved with the Festival for the first time last year, I’m looking forward to another excellent and thought provoking weekend.

Want to edit The Biochemist?

Teams of students have until 15th December to enter the competition (click image for more details)

The Biochemist is the magazine of the Biochemical Society. It carries a variety of interesting articles on molecular bioscience in themed issues, for example: poisons and antidotes, new types of microscopyscience and the media, and ethics (access to these articles is free, but you may be required to give an e-mail address the first time you visit). I think it is an excellent publication (conflict of interest declaration: I am on the editorial board).

The October 2010 edition on epigenetics was edited by a team of students from Oxford University who were picked from a short-list in an open competition. They’ve done such a good job that the competition is running again now, with the chance to edit the October 2011 edition. Teams of undergraduates, postgraduates and/or postdocs are invited to propose a theme for the magazine and suggest some topics that would be included. It is worth avoiding topics that have been covered recently or are to be covered in the next 12 months, including synthetic life, systems biology, the biochemistry of food, marine biology and gut metabolism. The deadline is 15th December 2010; contact editorial@biochemistry.org to register interest.