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Poll data offers remediation for worries and real threats

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This page was written by Vinton G Cerf

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Dr Vinton G Cerf, an early pioneer of the internet, discusses the opportunity to use the Poll's insights to reduce worry and achieve genuine improvements in safety.

2021 World Risk Poll

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Utilising risk perception data to inform transparency and improve Safety

I viewed this poll as a more detailed variation on “What keeps you awake at night?” with the potential to transform responses and insights into actions to reduce worry about safety and achieve genuine improvements in safety.

One potentially valuable outcome of collecting this data is to compare the perception of risk against actual data about risk in each country, to the extent that such data are available. Governments seeking to reduce fears of risk might adopt transparency tactics to offer accurate data. In a meeting at 10 Downing Street a few years ago, I was told that there was an internal debate about releasing police data for crimes committed in various parts of London. One side said that releasing the data would cause trepidation and perhaps departures and loss of property values. The other side thought that the data would spur better policing. Interestingly, the data was released and improved the policing of the riskier neighbourhoods, leading to an overall reduction in crime throughout the city.

Some results were not surprising. For example, experienced risk also increased worry, presumably because the risk was no longer hypothetical. Demographic variations had notable influence. In lower- average- income countries, food insecurity outweighed concerns about genetically modified products. It was, however, frankly alarming to read that in lower-income countries, people trusted friends and celebrities more than governments as to food safety. On the other hand, the wherewithal to monitor food safety requires resources that may not be adequate in countries with lower GDP, so this phenomenon is perhaps not unexpected.

There was a distinct difference between men and women in the perception of risk of violence or harassment, with women more worried than men. What surprised me is that this worry was significant even in the higher income countries. This concern strikes me as very real and should be a primary target for remediation in all countries. It is also consistent with a number of other gender-specific concerns including biases in pay and cultural treatment. Not surprisingly, worry about health and physical safety at work was more apparent for men who were engaged in potentially hazardous work. This was also tied to mental health concerns. I was very surprised to see that Canadians had a very high level of worry about mental health relative to their southern neighbours.

It was very disappointing to read that nearly half the people polled were worried about the safety of genetically modified (GM) food. This, despite the evidence that there is little or no difference between engineered modifications and those achieved through conventional crossbreeding. It struck me that more and better information about GM products is needed but the low trust in governments may impede growth in trust in them.

Cyber-risk concerns were broadly expressed, especially concerning misinformation, disinformation and fraud. I took this as a healthy attitude and one that could be leveraged to increase awareness of safe computer and networking practices. The increased use of computers in almost all aspects of modern living, especially smartphones and tablets, does put populations at risk. Cloud providers can provide more robust and secure services, and countries have the opportunity to cooperate to reinforce mutual efforts to identify and bring to justice abusers of the Internet and computer-enabled devices. Historically, government and private sector efforts have been largely unsuccessful, as a reading of headlines over the past several decades illustrates. The fragility of cyber-infrastructure should be a paramount worry of governments, private sector and citizens and also a target for academic research into ways to improve reliability and resistance to cyber-attacks.

To say I was disappointed by the significant dismissal of climate change as a threat, especially in China and the US, is an understatement. It is very tempting to label this a “damn fool” phenomenon given abundant evidence that our voluntary behaviours are contributing to a massive and increasingly evident threat to safety on many dimensions: weather, food security, infrastructure reliability, flooding and a host of other hazards.

My primary takeaway -- and an evident opportunity for the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, is to use these data as a guide to action both to reduce real risk and the worry about risk. Some of the solutions have associated concrete actions such as with cyber-security. Others will require increased trust through transparency from governments seeking to resolve problems and threats outlined by this global poll.

Since the data are compiled on a country-by-country basis, elected officials have the opportunity to derive from this data actions that might make a distinct difference in their respective countries. The data also offers a clear opportunity for researchers to find technical means to remediate some of the worries and real threats that have been identified. Lloyd’s Register Foundation and Gallup deserve considerable credit for bringing these matters to light so they can be dealt with in forthright and transparent ways.