Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Perceptions of Risk - Biased?

In recent weeks we have had a number of wonderfully colourful ‘scare’ stories in the mass media, starting with ‘Ebola victim diagnosed in Canada’, and, at regular intervals, headlines declaring that this or that ‘flu virus is about to become the next Black Death. And then there is ‘nuclear’ - that beloved bogeyman that lurks in every nuclear power station, an H-bomb just waiting to detonate and obliterate the town/city/country it's located in. Now we can add to that the dreaded “carbon” that is - according to the IPCC, Greenpeace and assorted politicians - the sole cause of ‘Global Warming/Climate Change”. But only, apparently, if it is generated by your car, the local power station, or the cattle, pigs and chickens you eat. Volcanos don’t count (even though, having forced everyone to ‘scrub’ Sulphur Dioxide out of our emissions, the same organisations are now claiming that volcanos injecting millions of tons of the stuff into the stratosphere during eruptions is ‘slowing Global Warming’) as their CO2 and SO2 is ‘natural’. 

Part of the trouble here is that our perceptions of risk are highly individual and generally biased by our levels of knowledge on a subject, by our training, our background and even our circumstances. Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy  of Need’ plays an important part in how we assess the risk against the need to achieve something. Two recent articles sent me by friends highlight both aspects. In the first, “Ebola, Organic Food, and Fukushima; three dope slaps about how we get risk wrong”  the author sets out the argument for how ‘fear’ of something we don’t understand, or feel we can’t control or protect ourselves from, slews our perception of the risk it presents. 

Take Ebola. It is a rather nasty virus, which causes perforation of the blood vessels. Victims bleed from every orifice and the virus is extremely contagious, but death isn’t a result of the bleeding, it comes as a result of damage to all the vital organs due to the redistribution of fluids and the inability of the blood to distribute nutrients efficiently. Right, so its a VERY nasty disease, but it is also confined to Central and West Africa, and it effects a few victims each year. In the last 40 years, several hundred people have been infected and died of it. On the other hand, millions have died in the same period, and thousands die each year of Tuberculosis, Hepatitis, HIV/AIDS and other less dramatic diseases. Which one should we be more concerned about? Especially in our crowded cities far from sources of Ebola (actually carried by certain primates many west and central African tribes consume as ‘Bush Meat’ and which some are now trying to bring to Britain) where, on a crowded bus, ’Tube’, train or U-Bahn journey you are far more likely to be exposed to TB being distributed by someone coughing or spitting?

Fukushima induced near global panic among the terminally anti-nuclear and we are still seeing regular Greenpeace incited headlines that ‘new’ radiation hotspots, contaminated water, or ‘airborne particles’ are about to ‘irradiate’ somewhere. Ironic that the UN’s own agencies (and I will admit to being a total sceptic with any UN agency) have been able to find not a single case of cancer or permanent damage among the workers exposed during their attempts to contain and control the problems there, nor among any of the people exposed in the surrounding areas. The much trumpeted ‘radio-active cloud’ that the US media hysterically declared was about to engulf the western US turned out to be almost undetectable against the normal background radiation for those areas. And, I’m sorry, but I don’t believe for a moment Greenpeace’s ‘scientists’ and ‘experts’ who claim to be able to detect ‘enhanced levels of radiation’ in the sea or anywhere else. 

So why does ‘nuclear’ induce such fear? I believe that it is partly due to the ‘ban the bomb’ campaigns of the 1960s and onward. The average ‘man-in-the-street’ has been taught that any and all nuclear reactors are dangerous bombs just waiting to detonate with the characteristic mushroom cloud, blinding flash of light and poisonous fallout. Many don’t have the faintest idea of how a nuclear pile is used in the generation of electricity, and all believe that all ionising radiation causes instant cancer, death, or ghastly mutations and monsters like the Simpsons five eyed fish. The fact is that the ‘detonations’ we saw at Fukushima were not ‘nuclear’ in that it was not the fissile fuel rods exploding, but Hydrogen gas which was generated by the breakdown of the coolant water into its component parts of Hydrogen and Oxygen. Yes, there certainly was radioactive material involved and there certainly was a lot of it thrown around, but, as at Chernobyl, it was not a ‘nuclear’ explosion and did not involve a ‘fission’ reaction to produce the bang. 

Yes, we can and should make use of a different fuel. Replacing the Uranium fuel rods with Thorium would produce less toxic waste for starters, but here again there is resistance from the public who have been fed the story that radioactive waste coolant water, spent fuel rods and so on amounts to millions of tons of highly radioactive waste leaking into our drinking water, percolating into our food, or leaking into our homes. The truth is that there is quite a lot of low level radioactive waste, most of it things like metal tools, overalls and scrap materials. It is ‘low level’ waste because it has very short half-life periods and the radiation it gives off is mainly Alpha and Beta radiation which is easily deflected as long as you don’t inhale or ingest it. This ‘low level’ waste is generally disposed of by packing it into steel containers, compressing it into a sort of ‘pill’ and then stacking these inside a larger container which is filled with boron or simply filled with concrete. It can then be stored underground for as long as necessary.

The high level waste is more problematic, since it takes around a hundred years to cool down enough to be put through the final process of disposal, but even that is manageable - in part because there isn’t as much of it as some believe. Again, the perception is well adrift and doesn’t align with reality, partly because the photos that circulate on the internet and surface every time anyone suggests building a new nuclear plant, are of the rather haphazard and careless storage uncovered when the Iron Curtain fell and we had access to how the Eastern Bloc had just dumped a lot of this material. All of those sites have now been cleaned up and the problems addressed, but in the minds of the anti-nuclear lobby, nothing has changed. Once again, the alignment of risk and the perception of it is coloured by the inculcated ‘beliefs’ founded on hype and misinformation. Sadly, here as with many other such areas, one also encounters the mindset that says ‘if the government/big business says it - it must be a lie’.

The third example given in the article I referred to above is an even more sensitive one. Food. Those who demand ‘bio-food’ only insist that this is because they want ‘healthier’ food devoid of insecticide or ‘artificial’ chemicals. There is usually a second agenda in that they refuse to eat anything ‘genetically modified’ and argue that this is ‘unsafe because we don’t know what the longterm effects are’. The sub-plot there is actually much simpler - they don’t like the fact that these foods have to be bought from the companies that created the seeds - because the modified plants can’t naturally reproduce. They hate the fact that someone might make a profit from the sale of the seeds or the creation of a food which is drought resistant, insect resistant or contains vitamins which may actually be healthier.

So they insist on eating food grown with ‘natural’ fertiliser, ignorant of the fact that they have a much better chance of contracting E-Coli from a tomato grown in pig or cow dung than one of Monsanto’s modified plants for growing in a greenhouse. ‘Golden Rice’ must be banned, because it is ‘genetically modified’ despite the fact it could cut malnutrition and eye disease in populations dependent on rice as their staple food. The fear of what the Media have labelled ‘Frankenfood’ and the hatred of anyone actually making any money from their research overrides everything else. Once again the perception of risk is coloured by factors having nothing to do with the actual risk perceived. Presumably the deficient diet, as perceived by western anti-commercial, anti-progress campaigners, is the lesser of the two evils and therefore must be tolerated for the ‘greater good’ of eradicating profit and progress. Unfortunately it is also likely to eradicate a large slice of humanity - but that is presumably also for the ‘greater good’. Whose, is a moot point.

A large part of the problem of risk perception is explained in a second article I have recently read, entitled “5 Cognitive Biases That Affect Our Work Performance.”  Put very simply, the way we see things or respond to things can be slewed by one or more natural biases we have built into our genes. The first is ‘Confirmation Bias’ which predisposes us to look only for the information that confirms an already held opinion or view. The second  is termed ‘The BandWagon Effect’ and is perhaps most simply explained as the desire to be ‘onside’ and to be part of the ‘team’. Dissenters are outsiders, often reviled, so we ‘go with the flow’ rather than try to form our own opinion. Third is ‘Negative Bias’.  If we are only exposed to negative stories about something we will, eventually, come to think of that as ‘truth’ and reject everything positive we hear. This is a problem we have with Mass Media - bad news sells, good news doesn’t so there is a built in bias in the reporting of events. If we add in a tendency to distrust certain sources - then the negativity is further reinforced. (OK, I’ll admit that if I am told the sun is shining by a politician, civil servant or Greenpeace and a few other advocacy organisations - I go and check for myself that it is).

Fourth comes what is termed ‘Functional Fixedness’, where we put on the blinders and stick to our preferred sources, or our preferred methods of doing things and refuse to acknowledge any others. This often leads to failure and a worse situation, but the experience frequently is rejected as ‘it worked the last time’ so it can’t be me that is wrong. The fifth is perhaps the most pernicious pitfall. Called ‘Projection Bias’ it leads us to think everyone else sees and thinks of things as we do. This is what leads us to think something must be so self-evident to everyone else present, we don’t need to explain it at all.

When we put all of this into the matrix as we wonder why some folk are scared witless at the mere mention of Ebola, or of a nuclear power plant, or even of GM crops, the picture that emerges is a complex one. Better communication is not the only answer, after all the internet is supposed to give everyone access to all the information on everything - isn’t it? 

Oh. Yes, back to point number one on the cognitive biases list - we only search and accept the information that confirms …

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