October 5, 2004

Risk Perception and Radiation

Evangelical Outpost has an interesting piece that argues that the popular conception of the dangers of radiation, incuding thehealth dangers of radiation from nuclear bombs and radiological weapons, is overblown.

Most people don't estimate risk based on a rational risk calculus.

There are a couple of reasons for this:

First, most people are functionally innumerate-- they don't understand numbers beyond making change.

Second, a subfield of social psychology that studies perception of risk, as here, shows that certain characteristics of risks lead people to overestimate them. For example, an unfamiliar risk tends to be overestimated, as are risks over which people feel no control.

Radiation, invisible, mysterious, and out of individual control, is an exemplar of a real risk that is widely overblown.

The existence of political movements with a state in exaggerating these risks adds to the fear. Do a Google search on "Alar," for example, and you'll get dozens of sites such as this that still argue that the pesticide, used on apples until banned, really was terribly dangerous. A contrary view is expressed here. Few of these sites have real data, mind you. For that, you'll have to dig deeper and perhaps go to a (shudder!) library.

Years ago, Congress passed something called the Delaney Amendment that sought to ban anything in food and cosmetics that presents any risk of cancer at all.

The emotionally freighted issue of the alleged health risks of electrical and magnetic fields (EMF) is another example of a risk overblown by a combination of psychological and political factors.

Hence the receptivity in some circles to Sen. Kerry's tirade about "bunker buster" bombs.

Demonstrating the cogency, no doubt, of H. L. Mencken's remark that "No one in this world, so far as I know ... has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people."

Of course, the "What, me worry?" approach also has its political backers, although usually less shrill

One moral of the story is that in this damn'd business of politics, one needs one's brains all the time. That is a risk to which many, perhaps most, are especially averse.

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