Tuesday, 20 December 2011
Friday, 16 December 2011
On risk perception and what society does with it.
What annoys me most about our way of warning about dangers in as spectacular a fashion as possible, and in our equally spectacular ways to respond to these dangers, is that more often than not the spectacle becomes more important than actual efficiency. We are favouring appearance over substance as if we were dealing with a summer movie rather than a public safety issue. The omnipresent threat of litigation exacerbates that problem, leading to such idiotic labels as "do not dry your pet in the microwave oven" or "may contain nuts" on a jar of peanuts.
Let us consider cigarette smoke, which was fairly early on suspected of causing several diseases and which, despite the industry's lobbying, was eventually demonstrated to be a major cause of lung cancer. The CDC estimates that smokers are 15 to 30 times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers. That's not a 15 to 30% greater chance to develop it (which wpuld already be scary enough); it means that for every 15-30 people who get lung cancer, only one will be a non-smoker. Very scary thought indeed! Luckily, we have all been warned of this risk and can make decisions accordingly. That's a good thing. But this particular signal, if we're not careful, could one day be drowned in the noise; having successfully warned the public about a particular threat, we want to do the same thing for other perils... even ones that are not only far less dangerous, but sometimes downright lost in the background of everyday dangers.
For example, we've all heard of asbestos, and how it is dangerous to our health. Taking preventions against unnecessary exposure to asbestos is a very good idea. But what scientific evidence tells us (according to the American Cancer Society) is that asbestos has a real effect, but not the kind that can be quantified with dramatic numbers. A source of worry, yes, especially inm cases of chronic exposure. But nowhere near on the level of cigarette smoke. And yet what do we observe? That the public reaction to asbestos is way more dramatic than it is to cigarette smoke, the former being generally considered one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse and the latter a mild annoyance.
Now it's sugar's turn. The world health organization has lowered the amount of sugar a person should eat each day to very small levels, by western standards. Not that it's a bad idea not to ingest as much sugar as a typical westerner, because they do tend to overindulge their sweet tooth... but come on, we all know this will be interpreted by the public at large as "sugar is toxic". That's even the way many media present it. Advocating restraint regarding overindulgence doesn't mean you have to create a sugar psychosis in the population.
Perspective, perspective. You've naturally heard of mad cow disease and its human counterpart, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. It's as frightful a disease as can be imagined. A food-borne illness that causes accelerated neurodegeneration in a matter of months and is invariably fatal. It's the stuff of which horror movies are made.
But how many victims did it actually make? Again according to the CDC : "as of June 28, 2012, variant CJD cases have been reported from the following countries: 176 from the United Kingdom, 27 from France, 5 from Spain, 4 from Ireland, 3 from the United States, 3 in the Netherlands, 2 in Portugal, 2 in Italy, 2 in Canada and one each from Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan." That's a total of 227 from all sources, ever. Not that it's any less terrible for making so few victims, but that's 60 persons less than have died from falling down steps in Canada alone in only one year (1). You'd never guess it from the amount of press mad cow disease gets, though. And to this day, people who have lived in Europe during the peak of the epidemic are barred from giving blood in Canada.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't care about dangerous things that just happen to be slightly less frightful than the bubonic plague or the Ebola virus. There's a lot of sense in reducing risk to life and limb whenever we can. On the other hand, we shouldn't go to the other extreme and entertain the notion that we live in constant danger and that every sheet of paper is out to give us a nasty paper cut and give us septicaemia (over 2000 victims annually in Canada). That will lead us to be scared all the time and, paradoxically, make us less safe by according as much importance to fairly innocuous things as to genuine dangers.
(1) Statistics canada, Table 102-0540. Deaths, by cause, Chapter XX: External causes of morbidity and mortality (V01 to Y89), age group and sex, Canada, annual (number), 2005