from the world's big
When the Policy Makers Who Are Supposed to Protect Us, Get Risk Wrong
You and I make risk judgments for ourselves all the time, based on a few facts and a lot of subjective, instinctive emotional factors. As a result we sometimes worry more than the evidence says we need to, or less that the evidence says we should, and that Risk Perception Gap, as I call it, can lead to mistakes that are dangerous all by themselves. But don’t we want government risk regulators to be smarter than that. Don’t we want the experts who are supposed to protect us to make decisions that are better informed, more objective, more rational?
Well, they try, using a science-based definition of risk. But because risk is such an emotional thing, there are huge arguments about whether we should even use that science-based approach. And even when we do, it doesn’t always prevent government from making the same dangerous mistakes about risk that you and I sometimes make as individuals.
Risk (the probability of a certain consequence) = equals Hazard X Exposure.
- Is the 'thing" (a product, an ingredient, a process, a behavior) hazardous
- How hazardous?
- At what dose?
- To which people in particular?
…while Exposure considers…
- Are we exposed, since something’s that hazardous isn’t a risk until we’re actually exposed to it. (Think of a poisonous snake locked safely in a cage.) - How much?
- In what ways?
- How regularly or rarely?
- At what age? (Stuff that’s bad for young kids may not do that harm to adults).
When you measure all those things and put them into the Risk = Hazard X Exposure formula, you can do a reasonable job defining the facts about a risk. But as fact-based and objective as the Hazard X Risk formula seems to be, because risk is so emotional there are serious questions about whether we should even use that seemingly logical approach.
To help you understand the problem, imagine you are a government official in charge of chemical risk and public health, and you get a report suggesting that some industrial chemical may be hazardous, based on tests of lab animals. Toxicologists have tested a lot of animals but they still aren’t sure. Some tests say there is a risk. Some say there isn’t. And those are just uncertainties on the hazard side of the formula. There is practically no exposure information on this chemical at all. Are people exposed? How? To how much? In what ways? You don’t know. You have less than half the information you need, about only one half of the Hazard X Exposure formula, not enough to act. But there might be danger. What would you do?
Some people argue that in cases like this, regulators shouldn’t do anything, that they shouldn’t declare that something is hazardous until they know for sure, based on all the important facts from both sides of the Hazard X Exposure formula. This is sometimes called the risk-based approach, or what industry likes to call “Sound Science” – don’t regulate things until they are proven to be harmful. But others, especially environmentalists, say we should act at the first reasonable hint of hazard, rather than continue to experiment on the public while research is done to get all the facts, which can take years. This is called hazard-based risk management, similar to the Precautionary Principle, which essentially embeds in law the common sense and hazard-based approach of “Better Safe Than Sorry”. Ban suspected hazards until they are proven safe.
Most governments use a combination of the two because each approach has merits and flaws. The hazard-based/precautionary/’first prove it’s safe’ approach (like the way the FDA requires extensive testing on drugs before they can be sold) protects us against things that may turn out to be harmful (as the U.S. did with thalidomide). But if we’re too absolute with this approach and ban everything suspected of being hazardous, we could lose the benefits of products and processes that may turn out to be safe, or whose benefits outweigh the harm (like genetically modified food).
The risk-based/’don’t ban it until it’s proven dangerous’ approach has pros and cons too. Government effort to protect us from things that aren’t really risky diverts time and money away from where they could do us more good, and gives us a false sense of safety. But waiting until we have all the facts about some product or ingredient or behavior means that later research might show that the early hints of hazard were right, and we’ve been exposing ourselves to harm, some of which may be irreversible, while we were waiting for all the ‘sound science’ to come in.
There are lots of arguments about which risk management approach is better, wiser, safer. But even when the science is well-established and the Hazard X Exposure formula clearly tells us what the risk is (or isn’t), public opinion often forces government to do something that conflicts with that evidence, something that makes us feel safer even if it doesn’t make us much safer. In other words, it doesn’t matter how thoughtful our policy makers try to be about risk management. Emotions often push the science aside anyway. Here’s one current example;
The FDA has not banned Bisphenol A (BPA) in general because it says a full Hazard X Exposure risk-based analysis finds that BPA isn’t dangerous, at the doses to which we’re exposed. But environmental scientists, focusing on the hazard side of the equation, say it is, and their alarms have certainly stirred strong public fear. So the FDA has banned it from baby bottles and sippy cups. (This was done first in the marketplace, and then BPA manufacturers – who continue to say that BPA is safe - asked the FDA to make it official.) But this response, to our fears rather than any actual risk (according to the FDA), may make us feel safer but doesn’t even protect us from what the lab evidence says is the greatest possible risk of BPA…birth defects in infants who were exposed during fetal development in utero via the mother. Moms don’t drink from baby bottles or sippy cups.
This is more than some wonky discussion about preferred government approaches to risk management. This is about your health, and mine. When the subjective nature of our risk perceptions lead many of us to worry too much or not enough about the same things, together we push the government to protect us. We look to the experts who are supposed to make smart decisions on our behalf, to keep us safe. But given the emotional nature of risk, sometimes what the government does makes us feel safe more than it actually protects us. The Risk Perception Gap is dangerous when we get risk wrong as individuals, but it’s immensely dangerous when government makes such mistakes.
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Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
Saudi Arabia Plans Futuristic City, "Neom" (Full Promotional Video)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c646d528d230c1bf66c75422bc4ccf6f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/N53DzL3_BHA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?
- From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
- "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
- Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.
A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.
- The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
- The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
- Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.
Brain images of a patient with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.
COVID-19 and the brain<p>A growing body of research reveals alarming neurological complications among COVID-19 patients. On Wednesday, for example, researchers from University College London published a <a href="https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/doi/10.1093/brain/awaa240/5868408" target="_blank">study</a> in the journal Brain that describes how some patients have suffered temporary brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage, and other neurological problems concurrent with COVID-19.</p><p>Some patients suffered brain inflammation as a result of a rare disease called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, which can cause numbness, seizures, and confusion. One patient in the study even hallucinated monkeys and lions in her home.</p>
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images<p>A separate study published in the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7198407/" target="_blank">Journal of Clinical Neuroscience</a> notes that some COVID-19 patients have also suffered neurological complications like impaired consciousness and acute cerebrovascular disease. The study notes that past viruses like MERS and SARS also seemed to cause neurological problems.</p><p>A troubling finding among this growing body of research is that some patients seem to suffer neurological damage even when respiratory symptoms aren't obvious. Additionally, scientists aren't sure whether damage from the disease will be permanent.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Given that the disease has only been around for a matter of months, we might not yet know what long-term damage COVID-19 can cause," Dr. Ross Paterson, joint first author of the University College London study, said in a <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-07/ucl-iid070620.php" target="_blank">press release</a>. "Doctors needs to be aware of possible neurological effects, as early diagnosis can improve patient outcomes."</p><p>If you've been diagnosed with COVID-19 and want to enroll in the study, visit <a href="https://www.cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study" target="_blank">cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study</a>.</p>
Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.