The Technium

Second Order Risk

There are two orders of risk: First Order and Second Order.

We see car accidents and we read about plane accidents yet we use both cars and planes. We wear a seat belt, and we fly on planes, because we know the risk profile of automobiles and planes — high risk for cars, low risk for planes. The risks of flu, Ebola, lightning, vaccinations, skydiving, of most things are known statistically. Since we know the risk profile we can calculate our response, and how much risk we want to accept. This known risk profile is First Order Risk. We can research the risk and then evaluate our response.

The issue with the novel covid-19 is that its risk profile is completely unknown. It is what we can call a Second Order Risk. We don’t know how contagious it is; we don’t know how lethal it is; we don’t know the age, condition, type of person it favors. And we probably won’t know with any certainty for several years. So we can’t calculate our response. It’s a known unknown. (The unknown unknown is a Third Order Risk.)

Therefore this great uncertainty about the covid-19 virus creates a Second Order Risk profile, and that profile with its huge range of limits suggests extraordinary caution is warranted — even if it laters proves to be a low First Order Risk.