Everyone knows hang-gliding is risky. How could throwing yourself off a mountain not be? But then again, driving across town is risky too. In both cases, the risks are in fact very low and assessing and comparing small risks is tricky.
A problem we continually face in describing risks is how to discuss small probabilities. It appears that many people consider probabilities less than 1 in 100 to be “too small to worry about.” Yet many of life’s serious risks, and medical risks in particular, often fall into this range.
Howard’s solution was to come up with a better scale than percentages to measure small risks. Shopping for coffee you would not ask for 0.00025 tons (unless you were naturally irritating), you would ask for 250 grams. In the same way, talking about a 1/125,000 or 0.000008 risk of death associated with a hang-gliding flight is rather awkward. With that in mind. Howard coined the term “microprobability” (μp) to refer to an event with a chance of 1 in 1 million and a 1 in 1 million chance of death he calls a “micromort” (μmt). We can now describe the risk of hang-gliding as 8 micromorts and you would have to drive around 3,000km in a car before accumulating a risk of 8μmt, which helps compare these two remote risks.
Before going too far with micromorts, it is worth getting a sense of just how small the probabilities involved really are. Howard observes that the chance of flipping a coin 20 times and getting 20 heads in a row is around 1μp and the chance of being dealt a royal flush in poker is about 1.5μp. In a post about visualising risk I wrote about “risk characterisation theatres” or, for more remote risks, a “risk characterisation stadium”. The lonely little spot in this stadium of 10,000 seats represents a risk of 100μp.
One enthusiastic user of the micromort for comparing remote risks is Professor David Spiegelhalter, a British statistician who holds the professorship of the “Public Understanding of Risk” at the University of Cambridge. He recently gave a public lecture on quantifying uncertainty at the London School of Economics*. The chart below provides a micromort comparison adapted from some of the mortality statistics appearing in Spiegelhalter’s lecture. They are UK figures and some would certainly vary from country to country.
Based on these figures, a car trip across town comes in at a mere 0.003μmt (or perhaps 3 “nanomorts”) and so is much less risk, if less fun, than a hang-gliding flight.
It is worth noting that assessing the risk of different modes of travel can be controversial. It is important to be very clear whether comparisons are being made based on risk per annum, risk per unit distance or risk per trip. These different approaches will result in very different figures. For example, for most people plane trips are relatively infrequent (which will make annual risks look better), but the distances travelled are much greater (so the per unit distance risk will look much better than the per trip risk).
Here are two final statistics to round out the context for the micromort unit of measurement: the average risk of premature death (i.e. dying of non-natural causes) in a single day for someone living in a developed nation is about 1μmt and the risk for a British soldier serving in Afghanistan for one day is about 33μmt.
*Thanks to Stephen from the SURF group for bringing this lecture to my attention.