Risk Interconnectivity: Sloppy Thinking at the WEF

3 02 2015

Ok. Normally I like the reports that the long-term research people at Zurich Insurance publish on their Twitter account. They sometimes contain some really interesting insights into various risks we face. The most recent post, however, is an exercise is tautological reasoning combined with cool graphics.

For social scientists, one of the most infuriating vague terms is “social,” a term of 19th century coinage that is so broad it can mean almost anything. Personally, I think that we should try to use it as little as possible, except when a term like “social scientist” has become entrenched. It’s not an analytically helpful word since pretty much everything involving more than one or two people is social.

Now the authors of Zurich’s Global Risks 2015 Report tell us that As global risks transcend borders, cross-cutting challenges can threaten social stability, perceived to be the most interconnected with other risks in 2015

Ok. But “social stability” is such an inclusive term it would be hard for it not to linked to all of the other risks shown here. I’m not saying this a bad report, but the use of the almost meaningless term “social instability” is intellectually sloppy. Doubtless the sheer inclusiveness of this term will contribute to the report being cited by many people, especially those who sell services designed to combat various types of social instability. The Zurich report will thus get lots of mentions, which helps with brand awareness for the company that published it. That’s fine in the world of commercial research. It’s also fine at Davos. However, as academics we must guard against sloppy terms like “social instability” entering academic discourse.

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