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Risk Assessment has driven many political mistakes

By Charles Essery - posted Friday, 24 April 2020

Risk Assessments invade every part of modern life, yet most of us have no understanding of how reliant our lords and masters have become on these models, created by unseen bureaucrats and consultants who inform our society's leaders. Most of us would have come across the term "Risk Assessment" (RA) in our careers, be it to acquire a reasonably affordable insurance policy for our first car, or for those in the workforce who have had to implement a risk management plan drawn up by a consultant. It's the fashionable technique of the late 20th and now 21st century in many fields of life, just like "time and motion" was from the 1920s-1960s.

NSW Health and the World Health Organisation are committed users of risk assessment, sometimes to ensure outcomes are achieved and other times to guarantee that outcomes will never be achieved, tied up in infinite rolls of red/green tape. From personal experience, both organisations have managed to stall the adoption of potable water recycling for decades.

When I left academia to join a NSW statutory authority, I acquired resources and staff to investigate real world pollution problems, and we achieved great changes. But in the background, some of my less adventurous scientific colleagues were pushing risk assessments that were the 'be-all-and-end-all' for risk averse management. Just as real climatologists ignored the fanciful claims of climate modellers in the early 1990s, we ignored this trivial pursuit by the deskbound scientists, while my staff and I went diving in the ocean outfalls, scrambled up stormwaters and boated down the massive sewers that drain Sydney's waste to the treatment plants. We were the naive fools. Now, just as climate change and its simple but seriously flawed models drive global government policy, risk assessment outputs MUST be obeyed at all costs, including the loss of common sense.


Risk Assessment is not real science, but rather management and political manipulation of data to deliver RA ranking for options. In many ways it's a consultant, expert panel and advisory body all rolled into one… and because it delivers 'numbers/rankings' from a model (often a simple Excel spreadsheet), and creates beautifully simple charts, it must be fact and hence must be obeyed.

Over the last twenty years, epidemiologists and economists have been busy using models to assess risk. In the case of Imperial College London's voluminous production line, the UK (and now most western democracies) readily absorb the notoriously alarmist models and RAs like those of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in the early 2000s through to their alarmist predictions of 10,000+ heart attack deaths resulting from the then impending Brexit 'no-deal' to the hundreds of thousands of deaths predicted for the UK Corona virus. Imperial College has a poor track record, yet continues to have influence, despite being categorised by even the Guardian as being part of the now global "Project Fear. For those not familiar with this, it started as a humorous reference to those Remainers spruiking the Brexit impending doom, but now is applied to alarmist predictions anywhere on any topic.


RAs are usually simple 'models', mostly spreadsheet-based, sometimes more sophistated with bespoke software fed by databases. But like our climate models and epidemiological models used by the likes of Imperial College, they can be simple or sophisticated and driven by massive super-computers requiring terabytes of data. Irrespective of the models' complexity it is underlying assumptions and boundary conditions of these models that govern the effectiveness of the model predictions/risk-ranking. In addition, the quality and relevance of the data inputs are critical…"garbage in, garbage out" applies to simple statistical tests, spreadsheets or multimillion lines of computer code used in global climate models. The case of climate models is particularly intriguing.

The 2009 exposure of the "Climategate" gang and Dr Mike Mann's manipulations to give the IPCC and Al Gore the now infamous 'hockey stick' diagram is a classic example of applied risk assessment using bespoke, and difficult to access massive models/datasets. When we see the glossy IPCC reports, we often download the executive summary, as the detail is too complex and voluminous, often extending for several thousand pages and hundreds of thousands of references.

There are a number of issues to consider. With climate modelling, the data sets have been homogenised (adjusted or fiddled with, depending on your viewpoint) to improve the stability of the model results. But then the current practice used to disguise the high degree of variability and uncertainty of these massive, yet fundamentally simple, models is to run 40+ different versions and then "statistically reduce" these down to a single prediction, and if we are lucky, they show us the "error zone". Of course, in the real world of communications, error bars just add clutter and by the time the politicians and media see these originally messy cluttered diagrams, the error bars are dropped, only to be buried in 'appendix X' of their five thousand-page reports. Does that sound reminiscent of "Yes Prime Minister"?


RAs like those by NSW Health have allowed 63 cruise ships to dock in Sydney since January 2020. Yet the Ruby Princess alone, has been tracked as being found to be responsible for nearly 1/5th of Australia's traceable cases of infection and ¼ of attributable deaths. No one knows the contribution of the other 62 ships. The outcome of this RA demonstrates the incompetence of their risk process, either through poor structure, assumptions, 'parameterisation', homogenisation or simply poor data inputs (the human self-reporting of cases by the ship's medical officers?), or the validity of data chosen by NSW Health and the advisory panels used in the risk assessment process. We are yet to see the actual risk assessments from this, and I fear a lot of corrections and adjustments will be being made to try and ensure the best light will be shown on the validity of their risk assessment models.

Appropriate assumptions and boundary conditions for models and risk assessments are critical, but often overlooked in executive summaries and media coverage of predictions. There will be many advantages and positive outcomes from the changes that will have to be made across the global society and vertically up and down each country government/commercial structures. One unforeseen, but critical change, may be that those who continue to blindly believe the doomsday, alarmist predictions of climate change, like the infamous hockey stick graph so blatantly used by the IPCC.

The whole history of modern doomsday models stems from Forrester's "World Dynamics" 1969 model that launched the Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth" in 1974 (updated 2001). When released, the alarmists were spruiking forthcoming Ice Ages! Yet by 1992, the tables had turned and the "Project Fear" message was now about warming and meltdown, caused by a universal "pollutant", carbon dioxide, the fuel for plants that underpins our ecologically active world! It's a funny old world, but not yet driven by sound science.

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About the Author

Charles Essery is an independent water consultant, who has been an Australia resident since 1990.

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