Big Risky Business

After my global warming rant, I thought I’d give a brief heads up to this weeks Time cover story about risk. Although it only very briefly mentions global warming, the article does an excellent job of explaining WHY we don’t respond to explanations of risk.

We pride ourselves on being the only species that understands the concept of risk, yet we have a confounding habit of worrying about mere possibilities while ignoring probabilities, building barricades against perceived dangers while leaving ourselves exposed to real ones. Six Muslims traveling from a religious conference were thrown off a plane last week in Minneapolis, Minn., even as unscreened cargo continues to stream into ports on both coasts. Shoppers still look askance at a bag of spinach for fear of E. coli bacteria while filling their carts with fat-sodden French fries and salt-crusted nachos. We put filters on faucets, install air ionizers in our homes and lather ourselves with antibacterial soap. “We used to measure contaminants down to the parts per million,” says Dan McGinn, a former Capitol Hill staff member and now a private risk consultant. “Now it’s parts per billion.”

At the same time, 20% of all adults still smoke; nearly 20% of drivers and more than 30% of backseat passengers don’t use seat belts; two-thirds of us are overweight or obese. We dash across the street against the light and build our homes in hurricane-prone areas–and when they’re demolished by a storm, we rebuild in the same spot. Sensible calculation of real-world risks is a multidimensional math problem that sometimes seems entirely beyond us. And while it may be true that it’s something we’ll never do exceptionally well, it’s almost certainly something we can learn to do better.
The problem with habituation is that it can also lead us to go to the other extreme, worrying not too much but too little. Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina brought calls to build impregnable walls against such tragedies ever occurring again. But despite the vows, both New Orleans and the nation’s security apparatus remain dangerously leaky. “People call these crises wake-up calls,” says Dr. Irwin Redlener, associate dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “But they’re more like snooze alarms. We get agitated for a while, and then we don’t follow through.”

If you haven’t spent any time reading about these kinds of issues, it is worth taking the time to work through the article. Most of us are hard wired to react to stress and risks in certain ways. That’s probably why I have always driven slowly and spend more time worrying about the realistic threat of global warming than I do thinking about an avian flu pandemic or the consequences of a terrorist attack. Just me and my stupid serotonin levels, thankyouverymuch.

There was one part of the article that caused me to almost hurt myself snorting at.

The government must also play a role in this, finding ways to frame warnings so that people understand them. John Graham, formerly the administrator of the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, says risk analysts suffer no end of headaches trying to get Americans to understand that while nuclear power plants do pose dangers, the more imminent peril to both people and the planet comes from the toxins produced by coal-fired plants. Similarly, pollutants in fish can be dangerous, but for most people–with the possible exception of small children and women of childbearing age–the cardiac benefits of fish easily outweigh the risks. “If you can get people to compare,” he says, “then you’re in a situation where you can get them to make reasoned choices.”

The government? Like the president, the vice president, the head of the FDA and the EPA and all those politically motivated individuals? All those who are absolutely opposed to any support from industry. Industry, who just might have a slight interest in seeing the realistic risks of current policy slightly – adjusted? Oh! I feel better now. Thanks.

Somehow putting risk assessment in the hands of the current (and probably future) administration seems, well, risky to put it best. Maybe we should just go by a couple of bags of chips, a carton of cigarettes, and a couple of six packs; hop in the ol’ Ford Pinto and drive up north. Then we can do our part to help the environment, we could feed the polar bears – with ourselves. It’s not risky, it’s a sure thing death sentence.

Better than trusting the government.

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