Radiophobia had the Fukushima region by the throat, so it was decided that all 360,000 or so children and teens would be offered screening for thyroid irregularities.
We over-worry about terrorism when the latest attack makes news, and grow complacent when the headlines fade, and both our excessive and insufficient fears create risks all by themselves.
We are far more worried about the problem of parents not vaccinating their kids than low general vaccination rates for flu, which will sicken and kill way more of us, including WAY more kids.
Yet another analysis of the dangers of mercury feeds fears that aren't supported by solid evidence. Fanning false fears hurts people.
Advocates masquerading as scientists to try and establish credibility for biased claims do the public, and science, serious harm. And journalists who fail to call them out and report biased studies as fact compound the damage.
Which team you support tells others about your background and where your history lies. And the superstitions we obey in support of our team are a classic example of tribal loyalty.
An unfamiliar new threat that harms babies, that we can't protect ourselves from, that experts don't fully understand, and about which the media is blaring loud alarms; Zika virus has several powerful emotional characteristics that make any potential danger feel much more dangerous than it might actually be.
The Campbell Soup Company says it will go ahead and label foods that contain GMO ingredients, breaking industry ranks on the issue holding up wider adoption of agricultural biotechnology.
Insufficient commitments to carbon cuts, and a process to encourage deeper cuts that is only voluntary, are bad news for our future.
The Second Amendment is “... not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
When we fear, we band together, and more readily treat people in other tribes as the enemy.
Why are we ready to hold big corporations legally liable for lying, but not all the other advocates whose manipulation of the truth does society real harm!?
Climate change doesn't have the emotional characteristics that make it truly deep-in-your-heart scary. Leaders will have to act anyway.
Now that It Causes Cancer, Are You Going to Give Up Your Bacon? How About Your Cellphone? Or Your Pesticides?
Cancer is the scariest disease, but not all causes of cancer frighten us equally.
Research finds that some early screening for breast cancer may do more harm than good. But that’s what the numbers say. How will women feel?
Most Americans want reasonable gun safety laws, and in a democracy, the majority is supposed to win. Why isn't it working that way with gun control?
Personal attacks on a speaker, especially about their funding, are a sign that the attacker can't dispute the facts the speaker is presenting. Beware the attacker too.
Does Living Near a Nuclear Plant Increase Cancer Risk? The NRC Was Right to Cancel a Study to Find Out.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has dropped a study on whether living near a nuclear plant increases the risk of cancer. Criticism of this decision is predictable, but unwarranted. The study would only have found what other research has shown. There is no link
Twenty-one strangers with different values and views, thrown together on a Grand Canyon rafting trip, managed to set aside those differences and build community.
The shooting of two charismatic animals stirred international outrage. But a more important event to the developing world concern with animal welfare was publication of Carl Safina's Beyond Words, What Animals Think and Feel.
"30 years after, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are bustling cities. 30 years after Chernobyl, abandoned city. What's the difference?"
Nuclear weapons do horrific widespread damage. Nuclear radiation, even at high doses, does not. But fear of radiation does. We have the survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to thank for these lessons. We should honor their suffering by remembering both.
There are fair quarrels with the details of the Obama Administration plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. But beyond the details, the fact that such a major step is being taken in the first place is a hopeful sign that our leaders can lead with reason and wisdom, and not just follow public opinion and emotion, as we try to find a more sustainable path to the future.
A decision requiring cellphone retailers to warn customers of possible radiation risk typifies the emotion-based way that democracy can supersede intelligent government risk policy-making.
'The New Yorker' Earthquake Warning. Another Alarm About 'The Big One' That Doesn't Explain Why We Aren't Alarmed.
A terrific story about the physical threat of a major earthquake in the Pacific Northwest fails to explain why people don't seem alarmed. That lack of alarm puts the public at risk as much as the shaking Earth itself, and should be part of the story.
Public apprehension about the health effects of mercury FAR exceeds the actual danger. Why, and what are the health impacts of that fear!?
There is no clearer teaching example of the emotional nature of the way we perceive risk than the annual Summer of the Shark feeding frenzy of fear in the media when a few shark attacks grab the headlines.
With angry tribal polarizing language, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia challenges the very right of the Supreme Court to judge cases that require interpretation of Constitutional Law.
The pope laments the state of the environment, but he also decries the naive central environmentalist belief that humans are separate from nature and the villain in a simple myth of US (humans) against True Nature.
Pope Francis' message on the environment is actually a radical call for humans to accept a more modest material lifestyle, and for a major redistribution of the world's wealth and power. That's great stuff for a sermon, but not so helpful as a practical guide for achievable change.
Pope Francis's moving plea to save life on Earth from a dystopian future calls on people to sacrifice some material comfort, live more modestly, and recognize that we share a common home and have a responsibility to the future. Given the nature of the human instinct to survive and prioritize ourselves over others and the immediate over the future ... good luck with that, your Holiness.
The hope that humans can use wisdom and technology to prevent a bleak future for life on Earth is overly optimistic. It falsely presumes that we can use wisdom to overcome instincts.
The number of new cases of cancer worldwide is rising. The death rate from cancer worldwide is dropping. What do these conflicting numbers tell us about the challenge of making sense of just how risky it is out there?
Journalists often hype the most alarming aspects of the news. In the process, they sometimes create and reinforce common fears that far exceed the actual danger.
Common assumptions about the dangers of radiation are excessive. Journalism plays a huge role in creating and feeding these fears.
GMO opponents hope labels will scare customers away and kill the technology. New evidence suggests that labels are more likely to encourage sales than reduce them.
Harsh criticism of Chipotle's marketing ploy to eliminate some genetically modified ingredients is part of a growing movement to stand up to advocates on many issues who promote fear that flies in the face of the evidence.
News coverage of risk that plays up how scary things sound and plays down or leaves out anything that moderates the fear does real and serious harm.
How a liberal community recently voted for reason over emotion and values-based decision-making on two hot-button environmental issues.
Recent reports about radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in ocean water off Canada reported the risk responsibly. At low doses, the risk is infinitesimal. More news coverage of radiation needs to say so.
We instinctively feel safer about anything natural and more worried by anything human-made, but instincts may not lead to choices that do human or environmental health the most good.
Two recent examples from The New York Times, one from a columnist and one in an editorial, illustrate the danger of news media coverage of risk that is alarmist, incomplete, and inaccurate.
Proposals to completely eliminate parental choice over whether their kids will be vaccinated can backfire and drive more parents into the anti-vaccination camp.
The massive damage humans have done to the natural world has provoked a backlash that could be just as dangerous, or more. There is a growing global rejection of technology and almost anything human-made in favor of whatever is more 'natural'. But a simplistic rejection of modern technologies eliminates many of our best options for solving the problems we've created.
The massive damage humans have done to the natural world has provoked a backlash that could be just as dangerous, or more. There is a growing global rejection of technology and almost anything human-made in favor of whatever is more "natural." But a simplistic rejection of modern technologies eliminates many of our best options for solving the problems we've created.
The massive damage humans have done to the natural world has provoked a backlash that could be just as dangerous, or more. There is a growing global rejection of technology and almost anything human-made in favor of whatever is more 'natural.' But a simplistic rejection of modern technologies eliminates many of our best options for solving the problems we've created.
A newly released series of anti-nuclear videos demonstrates just how blind to the evidence our underlying values can make us... and how that blindness can make it harder to solve the huge and complex problems facing modern society.
On a wide range of contentious issues, academics and researchers publish work that pretends to offer objective evidence, but which on closer inspection turns out to be advocacy masquerading behind intellectualisms, scientific methodology, footnotes and citations, and erudite language. A recent example is a paper by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and colleagues arguing that genetically modified foods pose such a risk to life on Earth that agricultural biotechnology should be banned under a strict application of the Precautionary Principle.
Designers of the new federal system for sending emergency alerts to our cellphones devoted a lot attention to setting up the technical aspects, but not enough to figuring out what the messages should say. Research suggests those messages don't say enough to keep us safe.
A new survey confirms that the lay public trusts science and scientists, but that scientists and the public have different views on specific issues. Unfortunately, the survey tells us how people feel, but not why, which we have to understand if we're going to try and narrow the perception gap between what the public believes and what the bulk of the scientific evidence indicates, a gap that cause all kinds of harm.
Public opinion surveys are often cited as evidence of how people feel. What they really demonstrate is how human cognition is more a matter of emotion than reason.
Saying All Muslims are Responsible for Islamic Extremism Ignores the Non-Ideological Reasons for That Violence
Blaming all members of any group for the extreme actions of a few ignores one of the underlying reasons for those actions, which is not the ideology or belifs of the group, but just the sense of empowerment that comes from belonging to something more powerful than those individuals feel.
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.
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.