Kay on Salience
“Alone at home a few weeks ago,” John Kay writes in today’s FT,
I heard a noise and, on investigating, disturbed a burglar who had walked through an unlocked door. I have since installed a new and sophisticated alarm system. The objective risk has not changed but my perception of it has. Salience explains why we go for a check-up when we hear that a friend has cancer or heart disease and why we drive more carefully after passing the site of a road accident. Salient risks are those that everyone is talking about or that we have recently encountered….
How probable is the event? How serious are the consequences? How feasible and how costly is counteraction? These criteria, not salience, should determine the importance of global problems. But they are not always easy to apply. Some scientists believe that a shower of quarks could become a strangelet and pull all other matter into it until the whole earth, you and me included, was compressed into a sphere of 100m diameter. This is a conceivable outcome of experiments in high-energy physics. Other scientists note that no strangelet has ever been observed and doubt that one ever will be. But the trouble with apocalyptic projections is that all, except the last one, will be falsified….
Each year, a million children die from malaria. Those who live in areas where the disease is endemic, and survive, acquire a degree of immunity. They remain vulnerable through their lives to episodes of disease, which sap their energy and productivity. Perhaps a billion or more malarial episodes occur every year.
Almost every study that has asked the three key questions of global issues – how likely, how serious, how preventable – has put the communicable diseases of malaria and HIV/Aids at or close to the top of the list…. Malaria, eliminated from Europe and North America in the last century, has never been salient. But it is largely preventable – sleeping nets treated with insecticide alone dramatically reduce its incidence, and the discovery of an effective vaccine is a wholly realistic prospect.