Monday, 9 March 2009

Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear – Dan Gardner ****

For me, the title of this book is somewhat misleading. ‘Risk’ suggests probabilities, but what this is really about, as the subtitle suggests, is fear. Our unnatural fear of things going wrong, and how that fear is manipulated by those who want to encourage us to buy things or to follow certain political lines.
Dan Gardner makes the distinction between two types of thinking -what once would have been called head and heart, but he rather more crudely calls head and gut, as in gut reaction. In reality, of course, this is all going on in the brain – but it does seem to be the case that once we slip into ‘gut’ thinking we lose control of our ability to assess a danger and overreact.
Gardner shows eloquently how we can be persuaded that something is more frightening than it really is by the way we hear about it all the time. For example, many more people are killed in car accidents than terrorism – yet most people are a lot more scared of terrorism. He makes the point that this in part reflects the way that we see a lot more in the media about the dangers of terrorism than we do about car crashes – and how language like the ‘war on terror’ has given terrorism more weight than it truly deserves.
There are other aspects of fear here too, from medical fears and fears of paedophiles to the way fear is used to sell and to raise money for charity. Misuse of statistics is one of the common techniques here – there’s a wonderful example of the way such numbers are made up – so it was a little disappointing that Gardner himself seems to misuse statistics in making his point. He gives the annual risk of dying in a car accident as 1 in 6,000. Now this is very high – it’s actually closer to 1 in 15,000 (though that may reflect better safety in the UK than wherever he is looking at – he implies it’s the US, but doesn’t explicitly say this, which is another trick of misusing statistics). However even that is misleading in the way it’s compared with the risk of air travel, because we take a lot more car journeys than plane journeys. The chances of dying in this car trip, as opposed to this air flight (surely what more people are frightened of) is actually less by car than by air.
He also does some pretty fishy manipulation of probabilities. He says ‘The probability of the earth being walloped by a 300-metre asteroid in any given year is 1 in 50,000, which makes the odds 1 in 500 over the course of a century.’ No it doesn’t. That’s like saying ‘The odds of getting a head with one throw of a coin is 1 in 2, which makes the odds 1 in 1 over two throws.’ That’s not how probabilities combine. He also draws an illogical conclusion on the death penalty. He points out that people who are against the death penalty have their views strengthened when they read a balanced report on whether or not the death penalty deters crime. But his surprise at this is only valid if people are against the death penalty because it doesn’t deter crime. I’m against the death penalty because it’s morally indefensible, and because courts sometimes convict innocent people, and no one can justify killing an innocent victim. Gardner was confusing associated information with causality.
This might seem picky, but a book that is attacking the way that fear is misused to make a point shouldn’t get this kind of thing wrong itself. Even so – and despite it getting a bit repetitious (it’s what my agent calls a magazine article of a book), it’s an effective insight into human behaviour, and one that more of us should take account of.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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