[Viewpoint]Weighing risk

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[Viewpoint]Weighing risk


A popular joke in Korea is that you can be hit by a sewage truck while trying to avoid a garbage truck. Simply put: You can face a bigger risk while trying to dodge a smaller one.

A serious accident happened in the small city where I grew up. In the middle of the Soyang River, which runs through the city, is Jung Island. A small ferryboat that links the city and the island capsized and 10 people drowned.

Witness accounts about the accident, however, were almost unbelievable. They said that a cow aboard the ship had an explosive bowel movement. When people around the animal hurried to avoid the obvious, the ship lost balance and capsized.

Although I was a child at the time, I thought they should have reacted with a little more restraint. But, alas, there’s no guarantee that I would not have also tried to avoid the foul hazard. And even If I had managed to stay calm and bare the unpleasant shower, there is still no guarantee that others would have done the same.

Americans are no exception to emotional reactions that may defy reason. Just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, thousands of Americans decided to drive to their destinations rather than fly, feeling it was safer. Moreover, the boarding process for planes has become painfully complicated.

Since Sept. 11, the number of airline passengers has dropped 17 percent, while time spent on the road has increased by 5 percent.

But there is a problem with this reasoning. According to a 2006 research report by three Cornell University professors, 2,302 more died because they drove instead of flying in the two years after the Sept. 11 attacks. The professors said the number was arrived at by factoring in other reasons for accidents, such as bad weather. These victims could in many respects be called second-round victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The victims failed to recognize that driving is more dangerous than flying. According to “The Unthinkable” by Amanda Ripley, the possibility of dying while onboard a commercial flight in America from 1992 to 2001 was eight out of 100 million, while the possibility of dying in a car accident while driving the same distance was 65 times higher.

As I see the development of the scare over asbestos-tainted pharmaceuticals, I can’t help feeling that something is seriously off-kilter. While no one is using the situation politically, the scare is similar to last year’s mad cow beef controversy. The public sees a situation emotionally, not scientifically, and experts are being made puppets of the public.

According to a report Thursday in the JoongAng Ilbo, only one of 11 experts on the Central Pharmaceutical Affairs Review Committee argued that the asbestos-tainted drugs are harmful to human health. And yet the committee still ruled that the drugs should be recalled and banned from further sale. When the decision was put to a vote, six supported a recall.

The meeting minutes showed that most of the members on the panel said there were no health risks, but the pharmaceuticals should be recalled “taking into account public sentiment.” Are they really experts? Since when did the Central Pharmaceutical Affairs Review Committee change its title to become the “Public Sentiment Consideration Committee”?

I think last year’s candlelight protests have shown some meaningful aspects of demonstration culture. But the fatal weakness of the protests was the lack of the truth. A recently published report on the candlelight protests says, “The 100 days of lies and madness” gave a stone-cold analysis of the situation.

“When one out of 45 million dies of the human form of mad cow disease, the death ratio may be small, but for the victim, the fatality is 100 percent,” Kim Hong-shin, one of Korea’s celebrated authors, said at the time.

The book, however, refutes Kim’s remarks.

“Kim argues that everything is dangerous unless the possibility of the disease breakout is zero percent. If that argument is true, then nothing is safe, from cold water to all foods and medicines,” it said.

There are more than the two opposite sides of risk and safety in the world. Our everyday lives takes place in the middle of the spectrum between the two ends.

The seriousness and the degree of a problem are the issue. So, we - particularly the self-proclaimed experts - must think about the sewage truck coming behind the garbage truck.


The writer is an editorial writer and a senior reporter on cultural news of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun

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