The Economists reviews of “Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear” by Dan Gardner
THE official death toll from the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001 was 2,974. But in 2002 America’s death toll on the roads grew by more than 1,500—casualties of the terrorism-inspired exodus from safe aeroplanes to dangerous motor cars. A swan washes up on a British shore, dead from bird flu, and the press panics, while the 3,000 people who die every year on the country’s roads (13 times the number of people who have ever died from bird flu) go largely unremarked. Human beings are notoriously bad at dealing with risk. Two new books explore why, and investigate the effects that misunderstanding risks can have on public policy. The first, an excellent work by a Canadian writer, Dan Gardner, is a broad meditation on the nature of risk, beginning with a psychological explanation for why people find it so difficult to cope. Mr Gardner analyses everything from the media’s predilection for irrational scare stories to the cynical use of fear by politicians pushing a particular agenda.
His take on terrorism in the book’s penultimate chapter is refreshing. He punctures ludicrous claims that “this conflict is a fight to save the civilised world” (George Bush) or that terrorism’s threat is “existential” (Tony Blair), and expertly deflates the more self-serving statements made by the terrorism industry that has mushroomed since the September 11th attacks.
Mr Gardner never falls into the trap of becoming frustrated and embittered by the waste and needless worry that he is documenting. A personal anecdote about an unwise foray into a Nigerian slum in search of a stolen wallet disposes of the idea that the author is immune to the foibles he describes. What could easily have been a catalogue of misgovernance and stupidity instead becomes a cheery corrective to modern paranoia.
The second book, by Simon Briscoe, a journalist on the Financial Times, and Hugh Aldersey-Williams, a writer, aims to be more focused. It forsakes a general treatment of risk for a rigorous analysis of several dozen of the most popular media scare stories, ranging from family breakdown and over-inflated housing markets to climate change, genetically modified foods and unsafe vaccines.
The book, however, feels rushed, which is a shame because Mr Briscoe is something of a statistician. Many chapters come to no definite conclusion on the magnitude of the risk they analyse, instead simply presenting a mass of evidence and leaving it for the reader to decide. A gimmicky scoring system gives each story marks out of five in three separate categories of “panic”, “risk” and “personal empowerment”, but nowhere is it explained exactly what the scores mean. As a guide to which risks to fear and which to ignore, it is not much use.
The chief paradox in both books is that anybody alive today faces far fewer risks than at any time in human history. Diseases that killed millions are found only in medical textbooks in large swathes of the world; life expectancy has risen hugely over the past two centuries; and, despite misty nostalgia for better times, most societies are safer today than even 50 years ago. Yet fear and panic have not disappeared—instead of worrying about polio, famine or war, people fret about wrinkles, paedophiles and virtually undetectable levels of industrial chemicals in food. Both books try to correct this irrational view of the world, reassuring readers that most of the hobgoblins by which they are menaced are unnecessarily frightening.
Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear.
By Dan Gardner.
Virgin; 368 pages; £17.99