The Tab Meets: Professor Risk

TOM BALDERSTONE talks to Churchill fellow “Professor Risk” about living life on the edge.

Andrew Wakefield bbc Churchill College danger David Spiegelhalter interviews risk tab cambridge Winter Wipeout

BBC presenter, samba band member, former Winter Wipeout contestant and self-styled ‘Professor Risk’, Dr David Spiegelhalter is not your average Cambridge academic. I sat down with Dr Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk, to learn something from a man who has claimed that “the biggest risk is not to take risks” and to discuss his new book, The Norm Chronicles. But before I could even turn on my microphone, the professor had launched head-first into effusing about one of his favourite topics: statistics.

“Some of my public health colleagues are concerned with the things I talk about, because it could lead to the sort of compensation/trade-off behaviour I think they aren’t very keen on, like going to the gym and then the pub. The statistics I’ve seen do seem to imply that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours are fairly additive, you do one thing and get a benefit, you do others you get some harm. But you can’t use statistics to exactly predict the consequences of actions; you certainly can’t say to an individual that this sort of behaviour will cause this effect.”

So clearly, the professor has gained something of a fun-loving, risk taking persona at this university. Is it something that he’s always had, or has it grown as his studies developed?

“I think I’ve always ‘gone for it’ to some extent, but I don’t think I’m reckless. I always try to go a little bit out on a limb, and that’s actually what I feel my job is about. When I talk in schools I talk about how risk taking is a positive thing, but recklessness is not. It’s just stupid. But go for it! You may fail – I personally have failed at lots of things, but it’s fine; at least you find out something. The samba, the skiing, the other stuff I’ve taken up since middle age, since about 45.”

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Or maybe it’s an age thing?

“Yeah, I think I’ve got bolder as I’ve got older… I give talks to retired people’s groups about why you should take more risks as you get older, encouraging bungee jumping pensioners or whatever. Of course I’m very privileged – I’m really fortunate in my job, and that position of security enables you to be more daring. The wonderful thing about being older is that it’s okay not to be good at things. It’s like the dog walking on its hind legs. It’s not that it does it well; it’s that it does it at all.”

So you’ve got a book coming out in June, what’s it about?

“Well it’s a mixture of fiction and fact. It’s got 26 chapters that work through everything, starting with childbirth and ending with death and old age. There’s a factual element, there’s graphs, there’s numbers. I especially like the historical stories. Like health and safety, health and safety’s riveting! It sounds like the most boring thing you could think of, but it’s really fascinating if you look at the ghastly historical conditions that people lived in.

“It also features three characters – my co-author Michael Blastland wrote the fictional bits as well as lots of the non-fiction. “Norm,” who’s completely average — he tries to measure risks and be rational and can be a right old bore. He’s got two friends. One, “Kelvin”, is enormously reckless and takes these huge risks. Then there’s the cautious one. We’ve been very archetypal, we’ve called her Prudence and she’s a woman obsessed with all the horrible stuff that could happen to her and her family. There’s the reckless, the cautious and the rational and it’s about the dynamic between them.”

Is a ‘gut instinct’ approach ever the best method?

“Gut reactions are fine for many situations , but they can take you too far – in both directions. It can lead to people acting more cautiously, especially when you don’t trust what ‘experts’ tell you about the supposed hazard. GM foods and pesticides, BPA, all that stuff. It can lead to an enormously over-cautious approach. But of course it can go the other way, people who are much more impulsive and naturally more risk-taking can also go with their gut. And of course it’s fun to hammer along the road at 100 miles an hour, but not a great idea.”

So it’s about finding the balance?

“I can’t tell people how to live their lives, I just think it’s a great shame when people are making themselves anxious because of perceived risks. Listening to people worried about the MMR vaccine, who go through an enormous amount of anxiety about the vaccine and yet the real risk is that their children will get measles. They don’t trust others, they believe conspiracies, they believe Andrew Wakefield. Why they trust Andrew Wakefield I don’t know. It’s clear that sharing endless facts and information has almost no effect on some people.”

Is it possible that fear is our biggest limiter?

“I suppose in a way, but things change. 30 years ago when people made lists of what they were worried about, on the top of the list was microwave ovens! People change and they get used to stuff. There’s a lovely phrase called ‘risk-mongers’. Andrew Wakefield’s a risk-monger, newspapers can be risk-mongers. These people make their money from promoting fear, and we need to be aware of them. Not fish mongers. Don’t print that – ‘Professor says beware of fish-mongers!'”