I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
Many say these are the most dangerous violent times humans have ever faced. Pundits dismiss those fears with numbers that show how these are the Best of Times, Who's right? It doesn't really matter. What does is, why are people so worried.
Second-guessing of Sony's withdrawal of "The Interview", and of CIA torture in the 'War on Terror," ignores a basic truth about human behavior: When we are afraid, reasoning and morality readily give way to whatever feels like it might keep us safe.
A civil debate about genetically modified food offers hope about our capacity to make judgments about risk based on facts, not just on our feelings.
Just because there is more information available doesn't ensure that we make more informed choices. The modern media provide information in ways that play right into the brain's instinct to do as little work as possible, including the work of getting that information, and thinking carefully about it.
If somebody tells you the risk of something is "1 in a million" or "1 in ten thousand" or even "1 in ten", you still don't know nearly enough to gauge how big or small that risk actually is. Get more information before you decide how worried to be.
Companies fear, and GMO opponents hope, that labels on food will scare consumers away. But more and more research indicates that isn't what happens.
Facing several controversies involving scientific complexity, the European government created a Chief Science Adviser to provide independent objective expertise and input into policy making. when some groups didn't like what the science said about genetically modified food, they objected to the whole idea of independent science advice to government. The EU government has caved to public pressure and abandoned the Chief Science Adviser function. We should ALL be scared by a move away from evidence-based policy making, toward a solely values-based approach.
A hybrid potato that can reduce food waste and eliminate a suspected carcinogen in cooked potato products would seem to be an environmentalist's dream. But the hybrid was created using biotechnology to blend potato genes from different varieties, so opponents of genetically modified food are fighting to keep this potentially beneficial product from ever reaching consumers.
Increasingly, scientific research is being done in ways that seem to advocate the scientists' point of view, more than to objectively and dispassionately represent "the facts." Society is at risk when science is hijacked by advocacy-masquerading-as-objective-science, whether such distortion is done by researchers working for companies, governments, environmental groups, or just by scientists who allow their personal views to color the questions they ask and the way they describe and promote their findings.
Ebola is starting to pose a serious risk to public health in America. But the threat is not the disease itself. The real danger is a growing epidemic of fear, an infection that spreads much more readily than the virus, is far harder to treat, and which threatens to cause much more sickness and death. The longer this epidemic of fear persists, the greater the likelihood that fear of Ebola in the United States will harm public health far more than the deadly hemorrhagic virus itself.
Big News! Climate change makes news! There's sustained, high-profile coverage in the major media this week, prompted by the UN Climate summit in New York. It's great news that climate change is making news. But it’s also sad, because as soon as the events are over, coverage will fade away, at least until the next meeting, or the next violent weather event, or the next political controversy stirred up by those still trying to promote doubt.
The odds of a large scale terrorist attack were low before that fateful day, and remain low now. But risk perception isn’t just a matter of the probabilities. It’s how the risk feels, and any risk that feels like a risk to you feels scarier than a risk that only endangers somebody else.