Probability Neglect and WA’s Shark Slaughter

The term probability neglect is a term used in psychology to describe the phenomena of extreme measures taken to avoid the small risk of danger.

The following excerpt is taken from Cass R. Sustein, Probability Neglect: Emotions, Worst Cases, and Law (2001):


When strong emotions are triggered by a risk, people show a remarkable tendency to neglect a small probability that the risk will actually come to fruition. Experimental evidence, involving electric shocks and arsenic, supports this claim, as does real-world evidence, involving responses to abandoned hazardous waste dumps, the pesticide Alar, and anthrax. The resulting “probability neglect” has many implications for law and policy. It suggests the need for institutional constraints on policies based on ungrounded fears; it also shows how government might effectively draw attention to risks that warrant special concern. Probability neglect helps to explain the enactment of certain legislation, in which government, no less than ordinary people, suffers from that form of neglect. When people are neglecting the fact that the probability of harm is small, government should generally attempt to inform people, rather than cater to their excessive fear. But when information will not help, government should respond, at least if analysis suggest that the benefits outweigh the costs. The reason is that fear, even if it is excessive, is itself a significant problem, and can create additional significant problems.

This is a clear indictment of what not to do in the face of a small chance of danger but it is precisely what the Western Australian Government is doing.

The public are not only acknowledging this probability neglect but are pushing against it. Despite this, the Western Australian government is refusing to acknowledge the very small chance of injury to bathers from sharks and has legislated a shark slaughter in defence of human recreational users of the ocean.

Not only does this legislation diminish the value of sharks, it diminishes the agency of the public to decide for themselves whether or not they choose to enter the ocean and take responsibility for themselves.

The human / shark interface is being forced into narrow parameters within an artificial construct of man-made legislation with the aim of having the human side of the interface the ‘winner’. It would seem that when the rights of animals, including endangered species, are not being protected and the rights of humans to enact their free will are not being allowed that neither side could possibly ‘win’ this game which is being played out without the consent of either party.

Lesley Rochat’s brilliant campaign, “rethink the shark” captures the idea of probability neglect perfectly. It shows, in stark reality, the actual causes of human death per year versus those caused by sharks: toasters and chairs cause many more deaths than sharks.

Various unfortunate accidents can befall human beings anywhere and at any time as Lesley Rochat ‘s wonderful series shows. However, sharks do not even deserve a mention. In fact, human deaths at the hands of other humans rank much, much higher and here, in Australia, where one woman is killed per week by a current or ex-partner, no legislation is being enacted. We need to question the priorities of governments and it appears that the priority of the Western Australian Shark Mitigation Program is not to protect people, it is to eradicate sharks despite widespread international condemnation.
Looking at the policy as being sound on the basis of protecting bathers lives would be erroneous as more bathers die of drowning; 290 to 2 according to the placard below. This hasn’t caused the government to have volunteer surf lifesavers at every beach.
On this basis alone, the policy is dubious and faulty and its real intent is showing. It is a policy to eradicate sharks from the oceans.

This placard is a good example of the probability neglect of Colin Barnett’s shark slaughter policy. The woman holding the sign and much of the public at this rally are much more savvy than the government they have elected. They realise the chance of danger is small, so why then doesn’t the government?

There are various hypotheses here, the chief being a fiscal concern. There is fear of litigation that the government will be sued for failing to adequately protect its citizens while in the ocean. There is the fear of a drop in tourism due to fear of being bitten by a shark…the whole think reeks of the plot of Jaws quite frankly, but in reverse. Colin Barnett thinks he is Chief Brody, Quint and Mayor Larry Vaughn all in one. If the government were to put their policies where their mouths are, they would have volunteer lifesavers at every beach.

The chance of being bitten by a shark is so small it doesn’t even merit discussion. This is the heart of probability neglect; the government is neglecting to acknowledge that the probability of a shark bite incident is small and are instead acting as if it were inevitable. If the government could acknowledge that they are neglecting this probability, then the sharks and us would all be better off.

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