Book Excerpt: 'How Risky Is It Really?'

We may be living longer, but many people think these are the scariest times humans have ever faced. But author David Ropeik says it takes some work to determine the differences between true dangers and false alarms. His new book, “How Risky Is It Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts,” offers some suggestions, and is excerpted below. Ropeik is a former award-winning TV news reporter, who also teaches at Harvard’s continuing education program.

The Dangers of the Perception Gap

We spend a lot of time and energy on the critical task of figuring out
where danger lies. But in our focus on the risk at hand, we ignore the
secondary risk that arises if the way we respond to danger feels right,
but doesn't comport with the facts. The Affective Risk Response system
includes a remarkable set of tools that we have developed in order to
protect ourselves. But those tools evolved when risks were
simpler-snakes and lions and starvation and the dark and bad guys with
clubs and spears. In our modern world of more complex risks, the
Affective Risk Response system can lead to perceptions and behaviors
that feel right but that make things worse.

At both the individual level and the societal level, we need to pay more
attention to the hidden risk of the Perception Gap, which can threaten
us in three ways:

1. The Perception Gap can lead to risky personal behavior.
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, a
lot of people were so afraid of flying that they drove to distant
destinations instead. Driving, because it offers a sense of control,
feels safer, but it's a more dangerous way to travel. In the three
months following September 11, the death toll on the roads rose
significantly compared to what was statistically normal for that period.
Many of those deaths were the result of a Perception Gap.
2. The Perception Gap causes stress. Worrying too much causes clinical
stress, and the list of bad things that stress can do to your health is
long and sobering. It is absolutely true that one of the things we
should fear is fear itself. Fearing too much is bad for our health.
3. The Perception Gap can lead to social policies that don't maximize
the protection of public and environmental health.

We sometimes demand that the government spend money and resources to
protect us from things that feel frightening, but which may not be the
biggest risks. For instance, the U.S. government spends much more on
cancer research than on research into heart disease, which is easy to
understand given how much suffering cancer causes. Yet heart disease
kills 20 to 25 percent more people than cancer every year. It's the
number one cause of death in the United States-in most of the developed
world, in fact. Wouldn't more lives be saved if the biggest threat, not
the scariest, got the most resources?

Sometimes the Perception Gap shows up not in the inefficient way we
spend our money, but in policies that protect us from one risk, and
create others. For example, our worries about radiation led to
regulations that limited the use of nuclear power. So instead we use
more coal and oil. But that creates other risks. Burning fossil fuels
produces carbon dioxide gas, which is changing the climate of the earth.
And it produces microscopic air pollution particles, which contribute to
lung and heart problems that kill tens of thousands of people around the
world each year. Compare that to the World Health Organization's
estimate of the overall death toll from cancer from the Chernobyl
nuclear power plant accident for the entire lifetime of the 600,000
people exposed to radiation. The experts estimate that that death toll
may reach 4,000.3 Our fears have led to policy choices about power
generation that may not have been the safest policies for human or
environmental health.

This is an example of what is known as risk/risk trade-offs. Like our
energy options, almost all risk issues involve these choices. But when
we don't see those trade-offs because one threat has certain Affective
characteristics that evoke more fear, the result is a Perception Gap
that leads to policies that might not do us the most good.

So at both the individual level and the societal level, understanding
the roots of our fears can help us judge risks more carefully and more
thoughtfully, and that should help us make more informed and healthier
choices for ourselves, our families, and society.

Copyright © 2010 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

This program aired on June 8, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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