Friday, February 27, 2009

Safety Experts

"You can never be too safe."

That's the proposition peddled by safety experts. There are threats everywhere, and you've got to be constantly vigilant against them. Predators lurk on the internet, rapists at every highway rest stop, germs on every bathroom surface. Identity theft will rob you of everything you have. Impurities lurk in public water supplies and deep within your intestinal system. Carbohydrates should be avoided, or is it fat or sugar? All around you is danger, danger, danger...

Unless you buy the safety expert's product or service.

There is no shortage of people eager to give you advice on how to protect yourself—some of it no doubt wise. Each expert, however, inevitably goes overboard in promoting his own chosen threat. A terrorism expert is going to pump up the threat of terrorism, even though the actual chance of it happening to you is infinitesimally small. Police officers will tell you horror stories about crime. Dentists give you unending lectures on dental hygiene, while home security experts will inevitably recommend home security systems. The experts' livelihood and ego are tied up in making his threat seem bigger than it is and convincing you to attend to it more than you normally would.

The fact is, there is no safety. It's an illusion. If you obsess over one safety issue, you are inevitably creating an opening for another, which tends to sneak up on you unannounced and grab you from behind. For example, if a nation dwells too much on terrorism, problems with its economy might go unattended and ultimately cause far worse suffering than any terrorist attack.

Instead, life is a game of probabilities. You can reduce the chances of a certain calamity happening, but you can never eliminate it, and it is unwise to try because attempting to purge that last sliver of risk can be enormously costly and distract you from much bigger threats.

Life is a dynamic balance of risks and opportunities, and it is this balance that the experts rarely seem to grasp. They always want you to attend to their risk above all the others, but if you do so you'll probably end up less safe overall while your real quality of life deteriorates.

Safety is always a double edged sword. You need it to stay alive, but if you focus too much on any one threat, you're going to pay a price in freedom. Every lock you place on your life to keep the bad things out is also going to trap you inside and make it more difficult for you to move and adapt. A life of perfect security is also known as "prison," and even a prison is never as safe as it seems to be.

Everything you do in life presents risks, and you've got to calculate those risks whenever you choose a course of action. It's okay to listen to an expert's advice (or a friend's) but you have to understand that it is a skewed assessment of risk based on the adviser's own personal investments. Your job is to evaluate all the risks, not just the one the expert is peddling.

After you've calculated the probabilities, you're going to have to accept some risk. There is no safe path through life. You will have to make a safety compromise, take a chance and plunge ahead.

Also see Kilroy Cafe #20: Kill the Experts!


  1. Great post, Glenn. Our society certainly suffers from a lack of perspective and disproportionate fear of tiny risks.

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