A City, If You Can Keep It: The night is dark and full of terrors

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A Winters Express op-ed column

The world is a dangerous place … or is it? That depends on you. Firestorms, COVID, police brutality, earthquakes, mass shootings, dams breaking — news stories and social media posts abound on these topics. If it bleeds it leads. Some people exude fear of these events, I’m looking at you — anyone who has driven alone in their car with their windows up wearing a mask and gloves in the past year. What it seems to be is fear of the unknown, the less we know about something the more we fear it. The dark corners of my bedroom stoked fear of monsters and velociraptors for me when I was of single digit age. Now I enjoy the dark and my only fear is stepping on a Minnie Mouse teacup or some other small plastic toy lying in wait to pierce my foot at night. But how accurately do we each gauge risk? Do we understand the likelihood of the risks we are being fed constantly by the news and the people we know on social media? Everyone’s risk profile is different. There is a way to measure your risk literacy — with a Berlin Numeracy Test. I stumbled upon this when reading about how perceptions of the danger from COVID differ based on political leanings. What is “Risk Literacy” you ask? To quote riskliteracy.org, a website setup by researchers at the University of Oklahoma, “Risk literacy refers to one’s practical ability to evaluate and understand risk in the service of skilled and informed decision making.” I consider myself fairly adept with numbers and estimating risk, but as I am always cognizant of the Dunning-Kruger effect, I took the test not knowing what to expect. I recommend everyone take the test on riskliteracy.org, it takes about 10 minutes but there is no time limit, and be sure to read the questions carefully. If nothing else, it will give you a piece of information about yourself when you read about an emergent terror in the world. The partisan impact on perception of COVID risk that I was originally researching was also interesting. In a Brookings Institute study of Gallup polling data on the economics of recovery, when respondents were asked what they thought the COVID hospitalization rate was, 25 percent of Republicans and 9 percent of democrats gave the right answer. Interestingly, 41 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of Republicans believed the hospitalization rate was up to 50 times higher than reality and another 27 percent of Democrats and 22 percent of Republicans believed it was 20-49 times higher than reality. The actual hospitalization rate of COVID is 1-5 percent. The graph of Democrat responses is right-skewed (few on the left for low risk and the number of responses increase as answers move right to higher risk – think of a stretched-out J) with nearly 70 percent of Democrats believing the risk to be 20-50 or more times higher than reality. Republican responses are bi-modal (concentrated both low and high risk with few answers falling in the middle – think of a U) with equal amounts getting the correct answer as believing the risk is 50 times higher than reality. The respondents were also asked to take an abbreviated Berlin Numeracy test to see if basic familiarity with statistical risk was a significant driver of incorrect answers and they found it wasn’t. The Brookings Institute researchers discovered that “a large partisan gap remained, even among those with high numeracy”. Republicans with high numeracy skills were twice as likely to get the right answer than their Democratic peers. Democrats with high numeracy skills, on the other hand, were almost twice as likely to overestimate. Brookings Institute researchers also found those with low numeracy scores … greatly overestimate risks of hospitalization, regardless of party, but Democrats are still more likely by a large margin.” This would indicate that at least on the topic of COVID, cognitive dissonance due to political leanings play more of a role in perception of danger than education or statistical expertise. Given that information, the response in red states like Florida may have been more appropriate than in blue states like California. Maybe you believe the political bias you assume I have is influencing how that sentence was written. Or maybe your political bias is influencing how you read that sentence. Don’t look to an opinion columnist for COVID advice, go take a Berlin Numeracy Test and read the actual raw data yourself. Just beware of sensationalized reporting when you do (like using percent change without context), particularly when coupled with direct or indirect advocation for the return to mandated restrictions.

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