How Risky Is It, Really?

Why our fears don't always match the facts

What We Don't Know About Risk Can Hurt Us

The world is a dangerous place, just not the way most of us think it is.

The goal of my writing is to raise awareness of what I call The Risk Perception Gap, the danger that arises when we worry about some things more than the evidence suggests we need to—or less about some things than the evidence warns we really should. (See How Risky Is It, Really?) These misperceptions are the natural product of a system of risk perception that, all in all, does a decent job of keeping us alive, but because of some ancient instincts and mental processes, sometimes gets things wrong…in dangerous ways.

The news constantly offers examples. Here are three that teach important lessons about why we get risk wrong, and the risks that arise when we do:

Radiation Risks From Japan

The United Nations just published a report on cancer deaths so far, and the likelihood of others in the future, due to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan—you know, the one that freaked out the world about nuclear energy.

In a report titled Levels and effects of radiation exposure due to the nuclear accident after the 2011 great east-Japan earthquake and tsunami, these international experts found:

No radiation-related deaths or acute diseases have been observed among the workers and general public exposed to radiation from the accident.

The doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low. No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants.

Cancer Risk From Food

A study of 600,000 women in England found that eating organic food—you know, the more “natural” and therefore presumably healthier kind (although repeated studies find minimal nutritional difference between organic and non-organic food) which is supposed to reduce our exposure to pesticides and risk of cancer—has no such effect.

In a release headlined Organic food doesn’t lower overall cancer risk, Cancer Research UK reported:

Women who mostly or always eat organic foods have the same overall chance of developing cancer as women who never eat it, according to a new study from the UK's University of Oxford and published in the British Journal of Cancer that followed over 600,000 middle-aged women for nearly a decade.

Spreading Ebola

Have you heard about how Ebola is spreading? The news is full of stories with headlines like Ebola Reaches Capital of Guinea, Stirring Fears and Black Death is so 14th century. Ebola is spreading in West Africa now. Ebola is an exotic disease isolated (so far) in central African locations—quick, can you locate Guinea, Sierra Leone, or Liberia, on a map? It causes a scary death in which blood vessels become perforated and you bleed internally and out all the pores in your body. No wonder, then, the frightening news stories ominously reporting that “Ebola has killed hundreds in rural Central Africa over the past four decades, but it is unusual for it to reach urban centers.” Wait. Hundreds of deaths, over 40 years? Compared to, say, the millions from malaria, dengue fever, HIV/AIDS, and dysentery in the very same region?

 

Okay, so what if the evidence doesn’t justify our fears? What’s the matter with a little "better safe than sorry" precaution? Well, our fears have real-world impacts:

Back to Coal

Post-Fukushima, fear of radiation from nuclear power plant accidents—so pronounced because it’s human-made, unlike radiation from the sun; because it’s invisible, so we feel powerless to protect ourselves from it; and because it’s associated with deeply stigmatized worries about nuclear war—caused Japan, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy to all but abandon nuclear power, which emits no particulate pollution (which the World Health Organization estimates is responsible for an estimated 16% of lung cancer deaths, 11% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and more than 20% of ischaemic heart disease and stroke worldwide) and no carbon dioxide, which contributes to global climate change. And guess what those countries are now using more of to make electricity instead? Coal and other particulate/carbon dioxide-emitting fossil fuels.

Changing Priorities

Our fear of commercially-produced food, tied in part to our fear of chemical pesticides—in part because these chemicals are unnatural/human-made; invisible; associated with the high pain and suffering of cancer; and imposed on us by industries that have a track record of lying about the potential harms of some of their products, which inspires even more fear—is fueling wide resistance to all crop biotechnology, which could produce all sorts of improvements to nutrition and the viability of food crops in a climate-changing world.

Distracting Diseases

Fear of exotic diseases like Ebola, or the West Nile virus when it first came around a few years back—in part because we are more afraid of the unfamiliar, and way more afraid of dying in nasty ways—temporarily distracts us from efforts to combat the major killers, which scare us less, in part because they are more familiar, and don’t lead to such gruesome deaths. They just kill way more of us!

 

Can We Recognize the Disconnect?

Nonstop coverage in the 24/7 news cycle magnifies this phenomenon, because what worries us most is going to get our attention, and what gets our attention is what feeds the media beast. But the media don’t create these risks, and they certainly didn’t create the innately subjective risk perception system that makes things feel too scary, or not scary enough. Those are intrinsic to human psychology.

But just because this psychology is built into us doesn’t mean we can’t wise up, recognize that we occasionally make these mistakes, and be aware that such misperceptions pose all sorts of dangers themselves. Recognizing the threat of the Risk Perception Gap can get us started toward applying what we know about why we make these mistakes to try to make fewer of them. Until we take those steps we will remain at risk from the subjective nature of risk perception, and vulnerable to dangers from which we have the knowledge to protect ourselves.

David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an Instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

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