A couple of years ago I got into an argument with an old scientist friend about risk assessment. This is the process whereby someone wishing to build, for example, a chemical refinery, analyzes risks associated with various processes, and produces a document stating that, say, rates of leukemia will go up by maybe one case per hundred thousand, and so on. The same is done for other risks. These assessments are comprised of much guesswork, and I can say from having dissected far more than my share that they’re also filled with fudging and outright lies, and a healthy (or unhealthy) does of good old-fashioned obfuscation. Often, the documents state that there will be no adverse impact at all. My friend was saying that at some point the risks start to become minimal and it’s no longer feasible to attempt to reduce them any more. It becomes a matter of diminishing returns: It may cost a certain amount to cut the increase in leukemia to “only” one additional hundred thousand, but it may cost ten times that much to reduce it again by half. The same would hold true, obviously, for other risks. The question of diminishing returns, I told him, is not as big a problem as accountability. And I guess accountability is really what I’ve been talking about through this whole discussion of prisons. My students [in prison] have been held accountable for their crimes. The student at the party killed someone, and it cost him his freedom. Other students stole or harmed people or corporations..and for that they’re giving up parts of their lives. I told my scientist friend that I thought the authors of these risk assessments ought to be held accountable for their predictions.
“Oh, I’ve heard that one,” he said. Make the CEO’s and engineers live just downwind of the plant.”
“Wait,” I said.
He talked over me. “The problem is that so often these engineers go job to job, and of course the CEO will be in charge of plants all over the world.”
“No,” I said.
He continued, “Which plant are you going to have the CEO live next to? It just won’t work.”
“That’s not what I was going to say,” I said. “I was going to simply suggest that if an engineer and a CEO say that the cancer rate won’t go up if they build a certain type of manufacturing facility, and after the facility is operational it ends up they were lying, or simply wrong, and the rate does go up—“
“You’re not going to suggest prison, are you?”
“No, not at all,” I responded. “I’m going to suggest a life for a life. They kill, they die. Isn’t that how capital punishment is supposed to work?”
“You’re not serious.”
“I’d think that would be a deterrent.”
“You’re crazy,” he said. “If they had to put their lives on the line, none of these facilities would ever be built.”
I looked at him and smiled.
See also risk assessment in Fight Club.