Cost / benefit and scale

15
Apr
2008

Given any endeavor, what is an acceptable level of risk? I think this question is difficult enough if there is only one person involved and he or she is the one taking the risk. But what is an acceptable level of risk where more people are involved, but have no say in the decision? What if the entire world is involved? The New York Times has a fascinating article this morning about minuscule but theoretically possible risks from the Large Hadron Collider due to open soon in Switzerland.

Of course, this article talks about the largest of all possible risks, total world destruction. But what about the smaller risks that are taken daily in building a polluting chemical plant for example? How about an even smaller scale, like building a tall building? At some point we are reduced to complete immobility, never making anything or progressing in any way. How does one weigh the benefits of any project against its possible negative outcomes? There is of course no standard for cost benefit analysis, because people would have a hard time agreeing on what the value of each potential “cost” (say, health or human life) is.