Accident and Design: Contemporary Debates in Risk Management

By Christopher Hood; David K. C. Jones | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR

Quantitative risk assessment and risk management: risk policy by numbers

THE EXTENT TO WHICH “STATISTICS ARE SIGNS FROM GOD”

A third major issue in contemporary debates over risk management turns on the extent to which management regimes should rest on quantified evaluations of risk (QRA) as opposed to more qualitative assessments. The majority of writers and practitioners continue to defend the role of QRA and thereby uphold the spirit (in more subdued form) of Prior Roger Schulz of Taize, who claimed that “statistics are signs from God”. Their challengers, on the other hand, are likely to be of a more cynical persuasion and to argue that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

The emphasis placed on quantitative techniques of risk assessment undoubtedly reflects human preoccupation with rendering the future calculable and knowable, at least to some degree, thereby reducing feelings of helplessness. Knights & Vurdubakis (1993:730) comment that by “constituting something as a statistically describable risk makes possible the ordering of the future through the use of mathematical probability calculus”. As a consequence, “by creating a possibility out of what had been a threat, it enables us neither to ignore it nor to be frightened by it” (Turner 1994:146).

It is most certainly true that much of the running in risk management policy has been made by quantificationists. The argument for quantification is that any rational system of risk management must rest on systematic attempts to quantify risks and to assess them against a pre-set array of objectives by methods analogous to cost-benefit analysis (e.g. the 10-9 failures per hour standard for flying control systems in modern aircraft). QRA has developed into a major instrument of public policy (The Royal Society 1983). Rigorous quantification of risk, it is held, is the only effective way to expose anomalies and special pleading (cf. Breyer 1993) and in that sense promotes policy rationality, for example by pointing to the very different value-of-life settings implicit in different areas of UK transport policy, notably road and rail transport (cf. Jones-Lee 1990, Evans 1992).

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