Teaching risk assessment in real life

Teaching risk assessment in real life
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First Published: Wed, Jan 07 2009. 10 31 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Jan 07 2009. 10 31 PM IST
India’s death toll from terrorism has risen to approximately 1,200 a year, so it is not as major a cause of death compared with infant diarrhoea, heart disease, smoking-related deaths or any number of other medical conditions. However, by design, terrorist-related deaths are much more dramatic, visible and traumatizing for large numbers of people.
The recent terrorist attacks and the media’s sensationalist response to them are a challenge for both educators and the children in their care. Little children are more susceptible to fear and phobia and in today’s 24-hour TV news coverage, the imagery that confronts them is both scary and confusing.
So, what should we be teaching children about terrorism and how should we do it? The usual answer to such questions is to propose another subject on to our already overcrowded curriculum but it is easier and more effective to incorporate salient features of awareness into our existing subjects.
The most important aspect of introducing education on terrorism is to reassure the child and allay irrational fears. We can do this by giving them the ability to calculate probable outcomes.
Calculating probable outcome is a fundamental life skill and knowing that the chances of being a victim of terrorist violence are incredibly small is highly reassuring for children of all ages.
The fact is that approximately one in every one million eight thousand Indians will be killed each year by terrorists and since probability has no memory, the chances of dying at the hands of terrorists on any particular day for the vast majority of people are incredibly small. Children need to know this.
They need to learn that by understanding statistics and probability theory they can calculate all manner of risks and outcomes and make more informed decisions as to the possible dangers they face and how to behave.
At present, we teach mathematics in the abstract without applying the mathematical principles to our daily life. Where probability has been taught in our schools, it too has been done in an academic way with little or no attempt to apply it to everyday life. The result is that risk assessment in society has little correlation with ground realities. This needs to change.
Children and many teachers need to learn that contrary to popular myth, television makes us more fearful. Many studies have shown this to be the case.
In particular, studies have shown how TV news can lead people to believe that the stories reported are closer to home or that they happen more often than they do in real life. We need to teach our children about the role of the media in creating or feeding our fears in this way.
They need to learn that while the media does not usually lie, it always looks for the more dramatic angle to any news story, and in the case of our TV news channels, when they find it, they repeat it ad nauseam throughout the day, so that a 5-second incident is shown many, many times.
The media also adds to the climate of fear by sensationalizing statistics and other data. After the latest Mumbai terrorist attacks, much media space was used to portray India as one of the terror hot spots of the world, second only to Iraq in numbers killed by terrorists.
While this is true, what was not taken into account was the population differences between the countries. In fact, India, which ranked second behind Iraq and ahead of Pakistan in number of terrorist killings, falls well behind both countries when the size of the population is taken into account.
In fact, the chances of being killed by terrorists are almost 10 times more likely in Pakistan and 200 times more likely in Iraq.
The failure of our schools to teach risk assessment has led to us living in a fearful “what if” society where many lack the ability to calculate risk and probability and live narrow lives in irrational apprehension.
It only takes one sensational news story for holidays to be cancelled, social outings curtailed, for senior citizens to live in exaggerated fear of their domestic helps and the whole fabric of our lives to be blighted.
Lacking the ability to calculate probability also blights our lives in other ways. Many of our children grow up to become susceptible to unrealistic ambitions. They see a few succeeding in getting into good colleges and grossly overestimate their chances of doing so.
As parents, educators and concerned citizens, we need to ensure that our children’s fears, aspirations and dreams are based on a realistic assessment of reality, so that our children can lead lives of reasonable expectation, free from exaggerated fear. To do this, we need to arm them with the tools and analysis which make them more aware of the risks and the effects of the news media.
Abha Adams is an education consultant. She writes a monthly column on training and education as they relate to careers and the workplace.
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First Published: Wed, Jan 07 2009. 10 31 PM IST