[ RadSafe ] Article: How We Confuse Real Risks with Exaggerated Ones

John Jacobus crispy_bird at yahoo.com
Thu Nov 30 08:47:10 CST 2006

Considering the current concerns of Po-210, this
article is probably relevent in trying to understand
public fears.


TIME: Scince and Health
Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006

How We Confuse Real Risks with Exaggerated Ones

Our emotions allow us to ignore some threats as we
grow overly concerned with others

Cass Sunstein earns his living researching how
misplaced fears skewer our ability to assess risk, so
he figured himself the last person to fall into the
same trap. But when his teenage daughter planned a
long-distance swim last summer, Sunstein found himself
dwelling on the remote possibility she would drown.
"It's crazy," says Sunstein, a University of Chicago
law professor specializing in risk regulation. "But I
couldn't counteract my brain's rapid, intuitive
emotional system for evaluating risk." 

Few of us can, and that's a dangerous problem. When
our emotions overtake our reasoning we worry about
sensational events which are statistically unlikely to
harm us — such as airline disasters, shark attacks, or
terrorism — rather than everyday dangers that kill
thousands. John Graham, who spent four years as
administrator of the federal Office of Information and
Regulatory Affairs, says news of SUV tire failures
left him besieged with demands for tire pressure
warning systems even though government reports listed
41 car-crash deaths per year due to under-inflated
tires, versus 9,800 deaths from side-impact crashes.
"People's capacity to visualize a risk is an important
part of the attention they give to it," says Graham.
"If you're within six months of a Three Mile Island, a
Love Canal, or a 9/11, the policymakers and the public
don't have the patience for the kind of cerebral risk
analysis we need." 

That falls in line with what Princeton professor
Daniel Kahneman coined "the availability heuristic":
the concept that if people can think of an incident in
which a risk has come to fruition, they will
exaggerate its likelihood. "Somehow the probability of
an accident increases [in one's mind] after you see a
car turned over on the side of the road," says
Kahneman, who won a 2002 Nobel prize for his work.
"That's what availability does to you: it plants an
image that comes readily to mind, and that image is
associated with an emotion: fear." 

But our experiences also sway us, goading our brains
into assessing risks based on rapid whispers of
positive or negative emotion. "If you look at
genocide, we just don't react," says Paul Slovic, a
psychology professor at the University of Oregon.
"With 9/11 we lost 3,000 people in one day, but during
1994 in Rwanda 800,000 people were killed in 100 days
— that's 8,000 a day for 100 days — and the world
didn't react at all. Now you see the same thing with

Nassim Taleb, a probability expert at the University
of Massachusetts, says the first step to better risk
assessment is understanding that most dramatic news
images represent the exception rather than the rule.
"Television," he says, "messes up the probabilistic
mapping you have of the world." Our questionable math
skills don't help either; most people have trouble
distinguishing the statistical difference between one
chance in 1,000 and one chance in ten million. "Both
sound small," says Graham, "but one is
ten-thousand-fold more likely." Understanding those
numbers, rather than taking what Sunstein calls a
"risk-of-the-month" approach, will save lives. "Right
now we've got a lot of concern about vivid events,"
Sunstein says. "We'd do much better with a more
disciplined approach." 

On Nov. 26, 1942, President Roosevelt ordered nationwide gasoline 
rationing, beginning December 1.   

-- John
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com

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