Sunday, March 27, 2011

There Is No Safe Technology

If I were to tell you that I had invented a piece of technology that would make your life a whole lot more convenient, and even had the power to transform every aspect of our society, but it would case the deaths of tens of thousands of people each year, would you allow it to be implemented? What if told you that this technology would change life as we know it, and that everyone would want this technology, but one in every thousand people would have to die to make it a reality, with millions more hurt or maimed, or suffering corollary diseases like asthma? If it were put to a popular a vote, would you vote for it or against it? What if I told you a million people were going to die every day around the world because of this technology, with another 50 million hurt or maimed? Would you change your vote? Be honest.

Of course, such a technology already exists. You probably already have it at your house. It's called an automobile. A simple search of statistics will tell you that somewhere between roughly 40-50,000 people have died on America's roadway's each and every year. Similarly, there are over a million deaths worldwide every day related to cars, according to the WHO. Do you now support banning cars? Why not?

Almost everyone knows someone who has been seriously hurt or injured in an accident. There are over 10 million collisions every year. Some of those result in severe injury or paralysis. They are so common that lawyers in every city get rich off of litigating such cases.

I think that's the context against we must view the nuclear plant meltdown in Japan. While almost everyone knows someone who has been affected by a car crash directly or indirectly (I know I do), not many of us know anyone who has been effected by a nuclear disaster. The deaths of even the worst case scenario in Japan pale in comparison to the amount of people killed worldwide thanks to cars. Yet, we do not give up our cars. We even freely choose to use them when there are safer public transportation options available, even though our chances of death are much, much higher. The number of car drivers worldwide is increasing dramatically, with the resulting increase in deaths, yet there is none of the worry that there is over developing nuclear power.

The behavioral economist Dan Ariely tells us that after the September 11 attacks, people turned away from flying out of fear and chose to drive instead to get to their destinations. This uptick in driving caused an uptick in traffic fatalities too, ultimately causing more deaths than the attacks themselves.

I say this not to endorse nuclear power in any way, but only to remind people of the choices and tradeoffs that we make for the use of technology, which are  all too often forgotten. As with many issues, it's all how we think about it.

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