The challenges of risks with low probabilities and high impact
This article touches on a similar theme as The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. I highly recommend reading it given our current circumstances.
Article Abstract (Via ArXiv)
Some risks have extremely high stakes. For example, a worldwide pandemic or asteroid impact could potentially kill more than a billion people. Comfortingly, scientific calculations often put very low probabilities on the occurrence of such catastrophes. In this paper, we argue that there are important new methodological problems which arise when assessing global catastrophic risks and we focus on a problem regarding probability estimation. When an expert provides a calculation of the probability of an outcome, they are really providing the probability of the outcome occurring, given that their argument is watertight. However, their argument may fail for a number of reasons such as a flaw in the underlying theory, a flaw in the modeling of the problem, or a mistake in the calculations. If the probability estimate given by an argument is dwarfed by the chance that the argument itself is flawed, then the estimate is suspect. We develop this idea formally, explaining how it differs from the related distinctions of model and parameter uncertainty. Using the risk estimates from the Large Hadron Collider as a test case, we show how serious the problem
can be when it comes to catastrophic risks and how best to address it.
Article Introduction (Via Arxiv)
Large asteroid impacts are highly unlikely events.1 Nonetheless, governments spend large sums on assessing the associated risks. It is the high stakes that make these otherwise rare events worth examining. Assessing a risk involves consideration of both the stakes involved and the likelihood of the hazard occurring. If a risk threatens the lives of a great many people it is not only rational but morally
imperative to examine the risk in some detail and to see what we can do to reduce it.
This paper focuses on low-probability high-stakes risks. In section 2, we show that the probability estimates in scientific analysis cannot be equated with the likelihood of these events occurring. Instead of the probability of the event occurring, scientific analysis gives the event’s probability conditioned on the given argument being sound. Though this is the case in all probability estimates, we show how it becomes crucial when the estimated probabilities are smaller than a certain threshold.
Relevant Article: Read our earlier post on the limits of statistics