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Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Probabilistic Safety Assessment & Management (PSAM)

Michael G. Stamatelatos
Michael G. Stamatelatos
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Harold S. Blackman
Harold S. Blackman
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ASME Press
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There are not many certainties in life. In fact the only certainty is that life is finite. Humans do not like uncertainty. In fact in many cases they prefer a certain loss over an uncertain gain. Insurance companies thrive by these preferences.

In the world of politics this is amplified by the need for politicians to be elected and re-elected. It is very difficult then not to make promises and establish certainties. In the realm of accidents and crisis this usually is reflected by the statement that “this will never happen again”.

In that spirit an action plan was started in the Netherlands to eradicate the legionella bacteria, when 31 people died and 200 became seriously ill after visiting a floral exhibition and watching a fountain. Until it became clear that the costs of fighting the one disease was 1.5 times larger than the money spent on fighting all other infectious diseases in the Netherlands. At that time questions were raised regarding this implementation of the precautionary principle, especially since eradication in this context cannot lead to extinction and therefore even after all the money has been spent a repeat of the accident cannot be excluded.

This is just one of many possible examples where the recognition that people do not like uncertainties is translated in an attempt to give the people certainty. The question can be raised whether certainty is what people really want. Often it is stated that “people do not understand risk”, especially by politicians. The statement that “You don't know what you don't know” by a secretary of defense is certainly an exception rather than a rule.

Experts, policymakers and politicians should realize however that “the people” are actually just experts — in their own field -, policymakers — in their own company or job — and politicians — in their family and in their local community. “The people” are not mindless creatures. They have an intelligent view of the world, are well capable of dealing with sophisticated choices and therefore should be treated like that.

People know that there are not many certainties and much of the distrust that arises between the people and their political leaders is that the latter seem to be in denial.

Risk informed decision making is not comfortable. It needs the recognition that one is not certain and that guarantees cannot be given. Nevertheless that is the truth and telling the truth is the only basis for prolonged trust in the political leadership that has to guide the population in sometimes threatening times

This paper is a contribution to the ongoing discussion about dealing with uncertainty and the role of risk assessment in this process.

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