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Time’s Risk Analysis

When it comes to analyzing the “multidimensional math problem of risk,” we can learn to do better, says Time magazine. Indeed.

Time Magazine’s cover feature this week, Why We Worry About The Things We Shouldn't... ...And Ignore The Things We Should was a welcome reiteration of a long-standing problem. Why is the amount of energy we expend on threats to our health in inverse proportion to their actual risk.

“We pride ourselves on being the only species that understands the concept of risk, yet we have a confounding habit of worrying about mere possibilities while ignoring probabilities, building barricades against perceived dangers while leaving ourselves exposed to real ones. Six Muslims traveling from a religious conference were thrown off a plane last week in Minneapolis, Minn., even as unscreened cargo continues to stream into ports on both coasts. Shoppers still look askance at a bag of spinach for fear of E. coli bacteria while filling their carts with fat-sodden French fries and salt-crusted nachos. We put filters on faucets, install air ionizers in our homes and lather ourselves with antibacterial soap. "We used to measure contaminants down to the parts per million," says Dan McGinn, a former Capitol Hill staff member and now a private risk consultant. "Now it's parts per billion."

At the same time, 20% of all adults still smoke; nearly 20% of drivers and more than 30% of backseat passengers don't use seat belts; two-thirds of us are overweight or obese. We dash across the street against the light and build our homes in hurricane-prone areas--and when they're demolished by a storm, we rebuild in the same spot. Sensible calculation of real-world risks is a multidimensional math problem that sometimes seems entirely beyond us. And while it may be true that it's something we'll never do exceptionally well, it's almost certainly something we can learn to do better.”

But that multi-dimensionality was beyond Time when it came looking at pesticides, which featured as one of the ways “corporations, politicians and other folks with agendas to push” exploit statistics:

People defending the safety of pesticides and other toxins often argue that you stand a greater risk of being hit by a falling airplane (about 1 in 250,000 over the course of your entire life) than you do of being harmed by this or that contaminant. If you live near an airport, however, the risk of getting beaned is about 1 in 10,000. Two very different probabilities are being conflated into one flawed forecast. "My favorite is the one that says you stand a greater risk from dying while skydiving than you do from some pesticide," says Susan Egan Keane of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Well, I don't skydive, so my risk is zero."

The unfortunate, and perhaps unintentional, implication is that pesticides are risky because these are the standard statistical ruses used to defend their use (a toxin is by definition toxic, so we’ll put that down to bad copy-editing); but there are perfectly good statistics born of perfectly sound scientific methods for demonstrating that the risk from synthetic pesticides are extremely low.

Moreover, the likelihood of being hit by a falling airplane has not been cited as a defense for using nail polish or frying an egg in a Teflon-coated pan, two of the most widely-discussed health scares of the past year, which Time didn’t address.

Finally, there is the rather prickly question of how the public learns to worry about improbable health risks. Time points out that we are victims of an evolutionary inheritance that predisposes us to react emotionally to the perception of danger rather than engage in dispassionate actuarial analysis, but the magazine is rather coy about fingering who exactly it is that keeps warning us about risks we otherwise wouldn’t perceive.