I don’t usually think much of people who pass stuff on to me (through whatever medium) having simply added the word “This” to it, in order, I presume, to indicate their fervent support for the article or point in question.
However, I’m packed full of viruses at the moment and a one syllable post title suddenly seems highly appropriate to my stuffed up and slowed down brain.
The outbreak of foodborne disease in Europe offers an interesting lesson in the psychology of risk perception. To be sure, the danger from this outbreak is real. It has killed 18 people so far and infected more than 2,000, hundreds of whom may suffer lifelong kidney damage. Cases have been recorded in 10 countries, but all were infected in northern Germany. In addition, this appears to be a new and more dangerous strain, a reminder of the constant battle medicine and public health must wage against the phenomenal ability of germs to mutate to resist our controls.
But the actual danger for any vegetable-eating European, even in Hamburg or other places where the cases have been concentrated, is low. Statistically. Scientifically. But then, we don’t just use scientific evidence or statistical probabilities to figure out what’s dangerous. Risk perception is a mix of facts and feelings, intellect and instinct, reason and gut reaction. And in many cases, the feelings/instinct/gut have the greater influence.
And this stretches further than just a few cases of nasty E.coli in Germany. How about nuclear power – not actually that risky, but feared by millions? How about crime in South Africa – actually directly affecting very few, but affecting the perceptions of the entire nation?
And that’s wrong:
The problem is, as good a job as this instinctive system has done during human evolution, it can make mistakes. Dangerous mistakes. We can fear too much (vaccines), or too little (particulate pollution from coal-burning power plants), despite the available evidence, and our perceptions can create risks all by themselves. Excessive fear of vaccines is allowing diseases that had almost been eradicated to spread once more. Conversely, inadequate concern about coal-burning power stations has meant coal has been favoured over scarier nuclear power, risking sickness and death for thousands of people from particulate air pollution. Fukushima is now playing a powerful part in this retreat from nuclear power.
It’s an effect which is exacerbated these days by loose talk on social media and email; by the instant and ill-researched pieces in the media, where the motto now seems to be “get the story out first, make sure it’s factually correct later”. This plays into people’s fears and pushes individuals into making irrational, emotional decisions.
So, as Ropeik states in his concluding paragraph, it’s not your fault.:
I am not criticising people for being irrational about risk. Science has taught us just how inescapably instinctive and emotional the system is. But it is valuable to observe that the way we perceive and respond to risk can itself put us at risk. Understanding that, and understanding the specific elements that make a given risk more or less frightening than the facts alone suggest, is the first step toward avoiding the dangers of the “perception gap”, and making healthier choices for ourselves and for society.
So it’s actually ok to be irrational, as long as you know you’re being irrational. Something that, as a lifelong Sheffield United fan, I’ve known for a long while.
It’s nice to find a voice of reason in the midst of the silly season antics of the news up North.
Whenever there is an outbreak of something – anything – I always look forward to seeing the media response with a mixture of amusement, disappointment and – fairly regularly – disbelief. Having a little insider knowledge on the bugs in question (I did my Honours project on E.coli O157:H7) and the health systems in the UK means that I can look at the reports and weed out the good from the bad, from the unbelievably sensational and the associated bandwagon-jumping that comes with these things.
Sadly, there seems to be very little good and an awful lot of the other three categories, all passed off as pertinent, accurate and relevant by the reporters. Thus, whenever I see stories about microbiology: E.coli, Foot and Mouth, Bird Flu etc etc, I’m further reminded of the shoddy nonsense that we’re being fed by the world’s media. And, rationally or not, I find myself more worried by digesting that than I would be devouring a German cucumber.