Risk | Daniel Gardner

Summary of: Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear
By: Daniel Gardner


In the book ‘Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear’, author Daniel Gardner delves deep into humanity’s understanding and perception of risk. From the evolution of our brains to the way our society is constantly bombarded by frightening stories in the media, Gardner examines the many factors that contribute to the culture of fear that engulfs the modern world. In a time when so many aspects of our lives are supposedly under threat, the book demystifies the risk society and challenges our inherent perceptions of danger, urging us to see through the veil of fear-mongering tactics used by the media, politics, and various industries.

The Exaggeration of Risk

In a world where we are inundated with news about looming threats such as climate change, global epidemics and terrorism, Ulrich Beck’s concept of risk society has only grown more relevant. We have become increasingly fearful of technological advancements, with sensationalized stories of cancer, terrorism, obesity, and gluten intolerance dominating our media. However, most of these reports are exaggerated, if not outright false. For instance, a study conducted by the Oxford University found that only 0.7% of women knew that breast cancer is most common among women over the age of 80. Instead of indulging in these scare tactics, we should direct our attention to more actual risks such as the flu, which claims 36,000 American lives annually. In this thought-provoking book, Beck implores us to take a more rational approach to the fear mongering that characterizes modern society.

Our Outdated Brain Hardware

Our brains have remained essentially the same for 100,000 years, despite the dramatic changes in our environment. Our outdated hardware doesn’t necessarily operate effectively when holding software designed to navigate modern risks. This is because our brains evolved in the Stone Age, before agriculture and cities. For instance, we still fear snakes, causing an innate fear that has nothing to do with the actual risks we face today, such as car accidents. This is a result of ancestral survival and genetic evolution. Additionally, the “Law of Similarity” also affects how we perceive our environment, as we think things are similar just because they look alike. Our brains, being ancient, are still adapting to the complexities of modern life, making concepts like risk perception more complicated to manage.

The Two Sides of Our Brain

The human brain operates through two different systems; the intuitive System 1 and the rational System 2. Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, explains how these systems work. System 1 runs unconsciously and is quick to react based on a few simple rules. This system is not highly accurate and doesn’t adapt well to new situations. System 2, on the other hand, runs on conscious thought and is slower. It requires education and careful thinking to work effectively. However, System 2 is not without flaws either. Despite being slower, it’s essential for logical thinking, especially in situations where System 1 fails. The example given is of a math problem where most people tend to provide an intuitive but wrong answer due to the influence of System 1. The book delves into how these two systems work and influence our decision-making abilities. Ultimately, the author sheds light on how one can learn to tame their gut reactions and become more in control of their decision-making process.

Avoiding the Traps of Our Intuition

Our intuition can lead us astray when we rely on cognitive shortcuts called heuristics. Two such laws that govern our gut reactions are the Rule of Typical Things and the Example Rule. The former makes us choose the most “typical” option based on our biases, even if that choice is illogical. For instance, in a famous case study, 85% of students chose the wrong answer when asked which profession Linda, a vocal feminist with a philosophy degree, was more likely to have: that she is a bank teller, or a bank teller and a feminist. The Example Rule makes us believe that the likelihood of an event is entirely dependent on how easily we can recall examples of similar events, even if that is contrary to the evidence presented. For example, people buy earthquake insurance immediately after an earthquake occurs, even though the probability of another earthquake is lowest soon after one occurs. By being aware of these laws of heuristics, we can make more informed decisions.

Unveiling the Power of Anecdotal Evidence

Our belief in anecdotal evidence is unfounded, yet powerful. In 1994, the media perpetuated the cancer-causing myth of silicone breast implants despite a lack of scientific evidence. Dow Corning faced massive lawsuits and ultimately bankruptcy. Anecdotal evidence is potent because we struggle with numbers and probability. Humans’ innate mathematical abilities are limited, and we are easily swayed by stories. While dolphins can do basic addition, we aren’t much better at math than they are. Shockingly, humans trust safety equipment more if they’re told it saves 85% of 150 lives than if it saves just 150 lives. In short, we must be mindful of the influence of anecdotes, especially when evaluating complex scientific claims.

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