Our Risk Perceptions Do Not Make Much Sense

So much of what we think and do about risk does not make sense. (…) In Europe, where there are more cell phones than people and sales keep climbing, a survey found that more than 50 percent of Europeans believe the dubious claims that cell phones are a serious threat to health. And then there’s the striking contrast between Europeans’ smoking habits and their aversion to foods containing genetically modified organisms. Surely one of the great riddles to be answered by science is how the same person who doesn’t think twice about lighting a Gauloise will march in the streets demanding a ban on products that have never been proven to have caused so much as a single case of indigestion.

That’s Dan Gardner, in the introduction to his 2009 book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. Gardner also has another book out titled Future Babble, on the lack of accountability — not to mention the lack of accuracy — of experts making predictions.

I have the students in my Law, Economics, and Organization seminar read the beginning chapters of Gardner’s book as part of our in-class discussion of risk sharing and incentives, and they usually find Gardner’s book to be thought-provoking.

Here is more:

Handguns are scary, but driving to work? It’s just a boring part of the daily routine. So it’s no surprise that handgun killings grab headlines and dominate elections while traffic accidents are dismissed as nothing more than the unpleasant background noise of modern life. But in country after country — including the United States — cars kill far more people than handguns. In Canada, 26 people die in car crashes for every one life taken by a handgun. And if you are not a drug dealer or the friend of a drug dealer, and you don’t hang out in places patronized by drug dealers and their friends, your chance of being murdered with a handgun shrinks almost to invisibility — unlike the risk of dying in a car crash, which applies to anyone who pulls out of a driveway.

Yet my wife still wonders why the three things I tell her every morning are “I love you,” “Have a good day at work,” and “Drive safely.”

Me? Since we bought a house immediately across the street from Duke’s East Campus, I walk or take the bus to work.

One comment

  1. Gabriel Power

    Re: “survey found that more than 50 percent of Europeans believe the dubious claims”, obviously they do not! Revealed preferences trump claimed preferences every time.

    I agree, of course, but the contradictions are probably explained by ambiguity aversion. The dangers of smoking are well understood. The threat posed by GMO is not.