Monday, November 09, 2009
This is from an article, with my comments,
several factors shape people's perception of risks:
Trust. The more we trust the people informing us about a risk, or the institution or company exposing us to the risk, or the government agencies that are supposed to protect us, the less afraid we'll be. The less we trust them, the greater our fear. Not sure about this - politicians & journalists are the 2 groups at the bottom of public trust lists & they are the ones pushing almost all scare stories whereas scientists come pretty high up & they are the ones who say nuclear is safe & make up the large majority of prominent warming sceptics. This suggests that advertising of scare stories is a much greater cause of worry than the intrinsic trustworthiness of the fearmonger. It should be acknowledged that politicians have gone to considerable lengths to find fakecharities or scientists, invariably ones they employ, as front men - hence the firing of Professor Nutt for not making scary claims about drugs.
Control. The more control we have over a risk, the less threatening it seems. This explains why it feels safer to drive than fly, though the risk of death from motor vehicle crashes is much higher. True
Dread. The more dreadful the nature of the harm from a risk, the more worried we'll be. Cancer is generally considered a more dreadful way to die than heart disease, yet heart disease kills roughly 25 percent more Americans. True & entirely reasonable
Risk vs. benefit. The more we get a benefit from a choice or behavior, like using a cell phone when we drive or that "nice, healthy-looking tan" from the sun, the less concerned we are about any associated risk. Though this applies only to personal benefits not those to society as a whole.
Human-made vs. natural. Natural risks seem less scary. Solar radiation causes an estimated 7,100 melanoma deaths in the U.S. per year. Yet many sunbathers worry more about nuclear radiation. Among more than 90,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, only about 500 cancer deaths have been attributed to radiation exposure over the past 59 years. This is a biggie. I'm not sure that this is innate rather than that the Luddites controlling the media & politics give infinitely more coverage to new alleged risks. I don't think Victorian sailors showed an aversion to steam ships on the grounds that though they sank less often than sail ships they did so for new reasons like boiler explosions.
"Could it happen to me?" Statistical probabilities like one in a million are often used in risk communication, usually to no avail. One in a million is too high if you think you could be "the one." That is why the public sometimes demands additional regulations to cut already low risks to zero. This also suggests reporting error as a cause. By definition, if the risk is higher, the chances of it happening to you, except where it is very strongly limited to particular risk groups, is higher. This is probably why the AIDS virus scare was pushed since, if it had been seen to be overwhelmingly limited to gays & drug users there would have been less public interest & thus less money.
New or familiar. New threats--for example, West Nile virus when it first appears in a community--generate concern. After residents have lived with the risk for a while, familiarity lowers their fear. For diseases over the very long term, ie centuries, there is something to this since diseases mutate to take only the already weak. Also when a disease first appears it is difficult to assess the threat & it can quite easily spread 1,000 times more or 1,000 less than the median estimate - it is therefore wise to worry much more than the median estimate. This happened with mad cow disease & indeed SARS. Fortunately we have not yet found something where the error has been significantly on the low side.
Children. Any risk to a child seems more threatening in the eyes of adults than the same risk does to them. Which is entirely reasonable in itself since they have much longer life expectancy. However it does give the fearmongers a handle. Any time you are told we must have no smoking/ID cards/more prisons/more global warming regulations/censorship "for the children" you can be fairly sure that anybody using children as a moral hum,an shield is out of all the other arguments.
Uncertainty. The less we know, or understand, about a risk, the scarier it seems. And uncertainty is, by definition, the other side of the coin of the promotion of unproven or false fears since they are unproven but it is inherently impossible to disprove an unspecific scare. The entire anti-GM foods scare is based on claiming that some unknown effect might happen from some unknown cause, at some unknown period in the future.
Perceiving risk through these emotional and intuitive lenses, which have been identified by researchers Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischhoff, and others, is natural human behavior, but "It can lead us to make dangerous personal choices," Ropeik says. Driving may have felt safer than flying after September 11, 2001, but those who opted to drive rather than fly were actually raising their risk. Risk misperception can threaten health by making us too afraid, or not afraid enough.
Finally, as George Gray points out, failing to keep risk in perspective leads us to "pressure government for protection against relatively small risks, which diverts resources from bigger ones."
"By understanding and respecting the way people relate to risk," Gray says, "risk communicators can play a vital role in improving the public's health."
This list does not include air crashes, which may be above the 1 in a million listed but difficult to accurately assess, being killed by meteorite - my own favourite which can be assessed as about 1 in a million in a lifetime of being killed by a dinosaur killer meteor (which hit 65 million years ago), or another 3 mile island (well under the million to 1). Interestingly it does include Radon in homes which is a risk only if you accept the LNT radiation damage theory, while epdimemiological evidence shows Radon beneficial.