Risky life not so risky

My latest reading is Dan Gardner’s Risk.  It’s in the “popular science” category, meaning that everything is not specifically referenced and many serious social scientists are likely to dismiss it without turning the first page. Nonetheless, I found it engaging.

The essence of Risk is that we’ve never had it so good yet we’re so scared. Fear is a significant part of our day-to-day lives and yet there’s no rational reason for much of this. What exactly are we afraid of?  Who or what is making us so fearful? Are we right to be scared? What are we basing our fear on exactly?

Dan quotes from numerous studies to illustrate his points. The main output seems to be that our gut or instinctive reaction can get things wrong or distorted. This flies against the oft quoted “go with your gut”, or “what is your instinct telling you”. But based on lack of concrete information, the rational “head” part of our brain might not get much of a look in and so we accept instinct. It could be faulty, but knowing nothing else we accept it as truth.

Take for example nuclear energy. If asked for their first reaction when they hear those two words, most will probably shudder and mention Chernobyl or Sellafield. Their reaction is negative. Nuclear power is a bad thing in their books. Ask them exactly what’s bad about it, how likely is another fallout, what exactly was the extent of existing fallouts relative to other catastrophes, what’s good about it, etc, and it’s likely that they cannot give a well-informed answer. This begs the question; where does instinct get its information from to form the negative reaction given?

The answer: half stories, news reports half read, sensationalisednews reports that make us sit up and listen, films that aren’t real, creative marketing activities, etc, etc.

The problem is that most of us are experts in only a few domains or even in no domain at all. When we hear a story that’s not in our area of expertise, we typically do not hear enough to put it in a realistic perspective. Our news sources feed us what the author termed the “relative” risk as opposed to the absolute risk.

Here’s an example: In 2006 the US FDA issued a warning about a particular brand of birth control pill.  The newspapers (even respectable ones) presented this warning along the lines of women using this pill are twice as likely to have blood clots as those using another brand. Gut reaction is to freak out. Cue worried customers demanding a refund and a health check. But what does the risk actually mean? What is being doubled? How big a risk is it?  Most newspaper reports omitted the absolute risk. Apparently it’s approximately 6 out of 10,000 women developing a clot. That’s 0.0006 chance, a tiny tiny fraction of 1%. Doubling, even trebling that is still a very negligible risk. But many reports didn’t explain this. A little information is truly a dangerous thing. This shows that we need to question what our media gives us. We cannot accept things at face value.

There are now so many media outlets competing for our attention that they have to do whatever is required to grab that attention. Even well respected media outlets will tweak a headline if it means the reader / viewer will take note. Here’s one from the BBC: “Kenyan renews Chelsea goat offer – A Kenyan man has told the BBC how happy he is that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has agreed to renew his marriage offer to her daughter”. The initial reaction is “Eh!”. Reading down the article, Hilary Clinton’s exact words were “My daughter is her own person. I will convey this very kind offer”. It’s not quite the same as the headline yet it’s not an obvious lie either. It’s more a bending of the truth to garner the reader’s attention.

The media also have the problem of needing to present us with jargon-free information that a non-expert in a particular domain can understand. The problem then is one of lost-in-translation. Getting the point across without seemingly extraneous or complex details in an eye-catching way can cause distortions. Nothing bugs scientists more than reading the “abbreviated” “popularised” version of their research, the version that omits the ifs / buts / maybes / known limitations that they have published in more official sources. Next time you see a headline that says something like “GN foods are good / bad / indifferent for our health”, don’t take it at face value, ask yourself where the research might have come from, who sponsored it, do they have a financial stake in the results, how big was the study, what type of data analysis was carried out on it. If answer cannot be found, then an open mind needs to be kept.

As another example take the newspaper headline concerning paedophiles quoted in the book – “Pervs running riot in our schools”. The aim is to freak out parents. They see the headline, gut reacts dramatically to a threat to the well-being of an offspring, they feel the need to buy the newspaper to read all about it, newspaper sales go up. Yet the number of hard core violent paedophiles out there is minuscule. There are many other threats out there to worry about (e.g. falling down the stairs) that are far more likely to occur.

Marketing will happily fudge the truth.  It’s not in their interests to do otherwise. Step one is creating the climate, step 2 is filling the gap with the product / service in question. Step one could be nourishing the fear, the loss, the gap, whatever might be missing that this product / service might sort out. For the marketing to work, it needs to be presented in a way that appeals to people, raising and magnifying the fear or loss or whatever it might be. If this step fails, then the marketing fails. Plenty of examples are given in the book – a poster in a doctor’s waiting room emphasising the problem of high cholesterol as a dramatic health problem. A closer look in the ‘fine print’ reveals that the poster is sponsored by an organisation creating anti-cholesterol pills. George Bush’s Presidential campaign emphasised the threat of terrorism, magnifying it out of realistic proportions. Then came the message; vote for us and you’ll be safe from this terrorism. Are these “products” that should be marketed using traditional marketing techniques? I’m not so sure.

The ultimate message is to get out there and live your life. Yes, there are risks but keep them in proportion – how likely are they to happen, what’s the worst thing that could result if they did actually happen? Being realistic, my biggest risk factor is getting whacked on the head by a Dublin Bus wing mirror, and it probably wouldn’t even kill me. Actually, it’s highly unlikely to ever happen!

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Posted on August 15, 2009, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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