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Risk: a very short introduction – Baruch Fischhoff & John Kadvany ***

I have to confess to a personal interest in the subject of one of OUP’s pocket ‘a very short introduction’ guides. My first job was in Operational Research, which is very much about optimising decision making, and this book is strongly focussed on the difficulties of decisions where risk is involved. Not all difficult decisions do involve risk – for example anything comparing apples and oranges. I might be deciding between two products, one of which is very stylish and the other very practical. The comparison is not easy, but there’s not really risk attached. But this book is all about those decisions where we have to factor in risk – how to insure cars, for example, and the decision whether to try to keep a very premature birth alive are discussed early on.
The reason I confessed the interest is that I find this stuff fascinating, but I suspect this may be to some extent my inner geek coming out, and to the general reader it might be less interesting. The book contains is an effective analysis of making risk decisions, risk perception and communication and the interaction between risk, culture and society. There’s perhaps not as much that’s practical as you might expect, but I think that is fairly inevitable in this format. The book certainly gives a clear overview to the way theory has developed to help understand and manage a risk component to decision making.
I suppose my biggest disappointment with the book is that it isn’t really about risk, it’s purely about risk-based decision making, and particularly that it is only concerned with negative risk. I make this distinction because I think there is a lot to be said about risk in a positive sense. By positive risk, I don’t mean the kind of thing where someone risks their life trying to hop up Everest without oxygen – that’s just stupid showing off. What I mean is the kind of risk involved in creativity.
Every time someone is creative there is an element of risk. Whether it’s a new work of art or the product of business creativity – perhaps bringing a new product to market or a new way of working – there is risk involved, which still needs to be analyzed and considered. But this is good risk – there can be no creativity without it. Arguably it’s this type of risk that stops life from being bland. Yet this aspect of risk doesn’t come across at all in the book because it is so focussed on the assessment of negative risk and its impact on decisions.
What it does, it does well. But it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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