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Science, Sep 19, 1969, p. 1232 - Starr, Chauncey, "Social Benefit versus Technological Risk"In this article, the author uses empirical data to explore the relationship between risk and benefit in a variety of societal activities. These activites fall into two general categories, those in which the individual participates on a "voluntary" basis and those in which the participation is "involuntary," imposed by the society in which the individual lives. Since this study uses historical data, it offers insight into what risk-benefit relationships are traditionally acceptable.
The statistical fatality rate (deaths per hour of exposure of the individual to the activity) is the risk measure. For "voluntary" activities, the amount of money spent on the activity by the average involved individual is assumed proportional to its benefit. For "involuntary" activities, the contribution of the activity to the individual's income (or the equivalent) is assumed proportional to its benefit. The author observes the following:
- The acceptability of risk appears to be crudely proportional to the third power of the benefits (real or imagined).
- The social acceptance of risk is directly influenced by public awareness of the benefits of an activity, as determined by advertising, usefulness, and the number of people participating.
- The public is willing to accept "voluntary" risks roughly 1000 times greater than "involuntary" risks.
- The acceptable risk is inversely related to the number of people participating in an activity.
- The statistical risk of death from disease appears to be a psychological yardstick for establishing the level of acceptability of other risks.
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