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Linking lifestyle choices with risk -

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Robyn Williams: David Spiegelhalter, Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge spends his days talking to the public about risk in general, and the demand is incessant.

David Spiegelhalter: There's just this endless demand for discussion about every sort of risk and uncertainty, whether it's how long people are going to live, or Fukushima and risks of nuclear power, or all the latest scares about drinking alcohol, eating meat, all those sort of lifestyle things. So no, it is really a big time in risk and uncertainty.

Robyn Williams: So if someone comes up and ask you about nuclear power and what the figures actually tell you, what do you tell them about the prospects of nuclear power when they ask?

David Spiegelhalter: Nuclear is quite tricky because the usual risk thing is you go back and count the bodies, and certainly of course that makes coal extremely dangerous, and people are even now counting the bodies of people who get killed putting up solar panels and been killed by collapsing windfarms and things like that. But nuclear is difficult because on the face of it it looks extremely safe if you count the bodies, but of course there are big events like Chernobyl, and first of all it's highly disputed what the effects of Chernobyl are, secondly the relevance of it, given what a crummy old reactor it was compared with the stuff that has been built since and being built now.

And then of course Fukushima comes along which, when you look at it, certainly compared to the tsunami, I wouldn't say it's a non-event, but in terms of health impacts it is a non-event. I mean, just people have not been harmed by the Fukushima nuclear accident. However, it has had an enormous impact on nuclear power in this country and elsewhere, on people's feelings, because of this enormous dread risk of nuclear power. Many people have said that it is amazing that a rather crappy old reactor with very inadequate protection managed to survive as well as it did. And a number of people, even quite prominent journalists, have said, well, whoopee, that was really good thing.

And certainly in this country, in the UK, there hasn't been the same anti-nuclear reaction that there has been elsewhere. So I've been pulled into that slightly, I've been giving evidence to the parliamentary committee on risk communication in the energy industry, on how one can get, say, a balanced communication. The problem is we know that nuclear power ticks all the fear factor boxes in terms of it is strange, it is not understood, it has all these nasty effects, it is imposed upon us, it's not natural, and so on. So from a psychological point of view we know that people are anxious about it. This is a tricky thing to deal with.

And one of the other areas about this of course is the trust that people have in the source. People don't tend to trust what the government says. So the issue there is trying to set up a body...the Health and Safety Executive actually has got a reasonable reputation, and it may be disliked sometimes but it is a reasonably trusted body. And so trying to improve the way that they communicate their results, taking into account people's feelings and taking their anxieties really annoys me when I get asked, you know, 'Aren't people stupid about how they react to nuclear power,' and, 'Aren't people so stupid.' I don't think people are stupid. People are anxious. People are people. I'm a person and I have my feelings about things, and we know that attitudes to risk are a combination of our emotions and our feelings, and, if we stop and think, what we can actually analyse. And both of those aspects are really important and have to be taken seriously.

Robyn Williams: Can you make sense of what the Germans did though?

David Spiegelhalter: The Germans had a highly political reaction. There's always been a very strong antinuclear campaign in Germany anyway, and then German ministers really upped the rhetoric after the Fukushima disaster. They called it a disaster and immediately amplified the risk. And so they are closing down their nuclear industry. The fact that they will have to get electricity from France which has got nuclear power stations just over the border I for one find quite laughable, but never mind.

Robyn Williams: And what about coal use, which seems to be going up a bit in Germany?

David Spiegelhalter: That's the problem. In terms of health risks, coalmining...and in terms of climate change, these are really, really negative things that can happen. So Fukushima is having a very bad effect on the future I think, and not because of the actual health effects of Fukushima.

Robyn Williams: It's these real events that change people's attitudes rather than the numbers, the calculations, the sorts of things that you do. What can you do about that?

David Spiegelhalter: Yes, that's a problem, and of course it's true, and of course the non-events don't change people's attitudes. The fact that people have been generating vast amounts of power from nuclear reactors for years without any accidents of course tends to get glossed over. But quite reasonably people are worried about big events happening.

I say what I'm doing is putting life into numbers, and that is deliberately ambiguous, taking everyday things and trying to show what the numbers are, but also on the other hand making numbers things that live and actually can grasp people and enable people, really (I know it's a bit of a cliché to say) empower people to see what's important and what isn't. And that is I guess what I try to do in my job.

Robyn Williams: You're not a person in risk management, you don't tell organisations or even nations what to go and do, you just tell them what the scientific evidence, the maths happens to be. Are there any organisations out there that can substitute for that risk management job, you know, the actuaries, the insurance people?

David Spiegelhalter: Well, actuaries and insurance in the end only tell people what the odds might be and what a reasonable premium might be. In the end it’s a management and political decision what to actually do about risks. And there's a whole institute of risk management that deals with this, largely concerned with businesses in terms of their enterprise risk management and how important having a risk manager in the senior board level is who understands about the risks. We can see how in the financial industry the lack of good risk management and what that lead to. And so this is really vital.

Interestingly the Institute of Risk Management is really pushing also this idea of risk appetite, that it's not all about health and safety and being cautious and trying to avoid all risks in any sense at all. They are really pushing the idea that the corporations should be very upfront about what their risk appetite is, you know, what are the chances they are prepared to take in order to further their objectives, and that that should be determined at a very high level in the board. So there are some really exciting developments showing that risk isn't just about being cautious and dampening down activity and entrepreneurship.

Robyn Williams: But seeing that there is a good reason to be adventuresome and getting results.

David Spiegelhalter: Well, it's sort of keeping that adventuresome under control and realising that good fact any just normal life, the way we live our lives, we should be adventurous, we should try new things, we should take risks. Taking risks is cool, it's a great thing to do, but being reckless is not.

I do a lot of schools talks, and that is really what I'm trying to communicate, the fact that getting up, going out there...I think the Olympics have been a good example of people really trying hard, not always succeeding at all, very few get medals, but really going for it, taking risks, taking a chance, putting some effort into it, not knowing what the result will be is great. But being reckless is not, and we have seen that happen in the banks, we've seen that happen in all sorts of places. And that's not cool at all.

Robyn Williams: What are micro-lives?

David Spiegelhalter: Ah, this is the new thing we're working on. I think the last time I talked to you about micromorts. Micromorts is a one in a million chance of being killed. You know, like just something nasty happening to you. I did a parachute jump recently for a TV program, and I worked out roughly it's about seven micromorts, that's seven in a million chance of me dying doing that parachute jump, and I thought that was okay.

But what about the risks of...we're always being warned about eating too much and being a slob and drinking and smoking. They are not going to kill you on the spot. If I go out and have a pork pie for lunch or anything, unless I actually choke on it it's not going to kill me on the spot. But if that's all I live on, is pork pies, it's not going to do me much good. So how can we quantify that element of risk in a similar unit that is quite good? So we came up with this idea of micro-lives. A micro-life is 30 minutes of life expectancy, it's 30 minutes of your life.

Why a micro-life? It turns out that a million half-hours is 57 years, which is about a sort of average adult life at the moment. Someone in their mid-20s can expect to live about 57 years. So you have got, if you are a young person, a million half-hours ahead of you. How are you going to fritter those away? You're going to watch a TV program, that's a half-hour, that's one micro-life gone just like that.

The thing is that you can by changing your behaviour gain or lose those micro-lives. That's what epidemiology does. So it shows that if you smoke heavily you're going to lose about 10 years of your life, on average. About every two cigarettes is as if you're losing half an hour of your life. So, two cigarettes is a micro-life.

Once you get that sort of unit you say, oh, what about other stuff? And it turns out that, for example, drinking...and drinking is interesting because the first one, the first drink each day is actually medicine. The latest evidence suggests it gives you a micro-life. Unfortunately the second and third take it off again. And so it goes medicine, poison, poison and then it goes poison, poison, poison, poison and keeps on. Of course you may get drunk and fall down the stairs on the spot, you may go on until you are 100, but on average and that's what it is doing.

So we can do that with other stuff as well. The trouble is I'm a bit overweight, so it looks like being five kilograms overweight, every day that you are five kilograms overweight, which is what I am, at least, that is another micro-life gone. And there is a study about eating red meat from Harvard, a big study, and that is just eating a burger a day is about half an hour of your life. Whereas if you take a statin, on average it's about half an hour on your life, it cancels out the burger.

Robyn Williams: Yes, the other day they said statins really are something that everyone should take.

David Spiegelhalter: I don't take them but I think I really should if I was a rational about it because it's half an hour, it cancels out a bit of slob behaviour. But other things, exercise, an interesting one, getting off out of the sofa...and the first 20 minutes each day looks like it's about two micro-lives, it's an hour increase in life expectancy for the first 20 minutes. The second 40 minutes only gets you about 20 minutes on your life expectancy, so you're doing all this exercise but you're not actually gaining that much. But the real thing is just being a slob in front of the...recent calculations, two hours in front of the television is half an hour off your life, a micro-life gone.

So you can start doing all these sums and start seeing the magnitude of what is important, and for me it has really convinced me that this business of just getting off your backside, out of the sofa, eating a decent diet and not drinking too much, it really is true.

Robyn Williams: And you don't have to wait several decades to find out.

David Spiegelhalter: No, you can do the calculations. I found I'm changing my behaviour because of it, it's quite extraordinary.

Robyn Williams: You're not becoming obsessive?

David Spiegelhalter: No, no, I don't think so, but I do tend to start counting these things a bit more now. And the whole point about this...I mean, people have known this science for ages, it's not new science, the crucial thing is it's trying to put the life into the numbers, it's trying to make these into things that people can actually understand and take home and say, well, 'that actually is important and that actually isn't important' in terms of what they do.

Robyn Williams: David Spiegelhalter is Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge.