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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2007, 14:05 GMT
'Risk professor' to help public
Construction worker in China
Cambridge is appointing a professor to help the public understand risk

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

What are the odds of being poisoned or marrying the wrong person? How dangerous is it to catch a plane? Is it worth taking a punt on the stock market?

Whether it's health or wealth, we're expected to weigh up the risks of everyday living.

But even though we might be given the statistics, it's not always easy to put such numbers into a meaningful perspective.

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So in an attempt to help people and institutions make sense of statistics, the University of Cambridge is creating a new professorship, the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk.

Funded by a 3.3m donation, appropriately from a hedge fund manager, the professorship will "play an important role in clarifying the understanding of risk in many fields of human endeavour".

"The way to confront risk is via mathematics and statistics," says Professor Geoffrey Grimmett, head of the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics.

And the challenge for the new professor will be to help the public to navigate the numbers thrown at them.

"People are bombarded with information - but how do they reach a useful mind-frame to guide their decisions?"

Professor Grimmett says that science and maths can provide people with a way of dealing with uncertainty, using predictions that draw upon statistical data and previous experience.

Poisoning

This "outreach" work is putting maths - and the evalution of risk - into practical contexts.

For instance, what are we to make of health stories which seem dramatic but where the actual level of danger is much harder to gauge?

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The death of the ex-spy Russian Alexander Litvinenko drew a huge amount of public interest - and was followed by a wave of testing for traces of radioactive material. But if you had been dining at the restaurant at the centre of the investigation, what were the realistic chances of contamination?

The human form of mad-cow disease has been a prominently-reported public health issue, but for the shopper what was the danger from eating meat? Was it any more risky than the drive to the supermarket?

In court cases, expert evidence can be delivered with persuasive statistics. And the university points to cases such as "sudden infant death syndrome" where the probability of an event becomes an issue facing a jury.

The new professorship, with an appointment to be made later this year, will have to disentangle the heightened interest from the statistical level of risk.

Tough choices

Weighing up risk can be about very tough and very distressing questions.

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Another medical example given by the university is the choice facing "an apparently healthy woman who is judged to be at risk of breast cancer and is advised to undergo mastectomy. Should she do so?".

"There is no certainty in this process and each possible action involves danger and risk."

A greater understanding of risk wouldn't make this an easy choice, but the university hopes it could be taken with the best available information.

"It is to be hoped that these women, in facing such an important decision, have been helped to take into account the great cost of suffering from cancer, the probability of the disease, and the relative certainty, yet distress, of mastectomy."

There's even a suggestion that the rules of risk could be applied to finding a partner.

"If a 29-year-old man decides to marry his girlfriend of three years, what is the chance that he will meet a more suitable partner at a later stage?"

In a "mathematical idealisation" the answer is to "interview a certain proportion of the candidates without making an offer, and then to appoint the first person who is better than all those seen so far".

Such a ruthless approach could have its own serious health risks too.




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