Irrational Attitudes Toward Risk

June 3, 2011
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When is the last time you heard anyone suggest that the climbing of Mt. Everest should be banned? Never? Yet:

When is the last time you heard anyone suggest that the climbing of Mt. Everest should be banned? Never? Yet:

The overall mortality rate for Everest mountaineers during the entire 86-year period was 1.3 percent; the rate among climbers was 1.6 percent and the rate among sherpas was 1.1 percent. During the past 25 years, a period during which a greater percentage of mountaineers climbed above 8,000 meters, the death rate for non-Himalayan climbers descending via the longer Tibetan northeast ridge was 3.4 percent, while on the shorter Nepal route it was 2.5 percent.

This is courtesy of Robin Hanson, who goes on to say:

Contrast this to strong widespread feelings that bike helmets should be required, even though cyclists suffer only about 7 injuries per million miles of biking, and despite serious doubts if helmets help. Even the proverbial banned lawn darts caused ~30 deaths a year with 10-15 million of them in use, far far less than a 2% death rate among users.

Why do ban activities with very low risks yet celebrate very high risk mountain climbing? Status seems the obvious explanation.  It takes a lot of money to even attempt to climb Everest. We celebrate high status risk-takers, and ban low status ones.