Fear and Clothing: How Our Sense of Risk Endangers Us
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Risk perception is irrational and does not respond well to data. Can we make the leap from science to persuasion without leaving the facts behind? Is our fear of nuclear power misplaced? Maybe polka-dotted pj's are a more realistic... What are you wearing? As an example, what is that you're wearing? What evil lurks in the fibers of flame-retardant pajamas? And what counts as a realistic sense of risk in our daily lives? A coworker casually mentioned the other day that we may unwittingly be buying clothing treated with the same chemicals the green building community has been trying to get out of carpets and upholstery for years--flame retardants, stain repellents, and antimicrobials. I could not confirm the details, but clothing manufacturers are not required to supply an ingredient list--and I have noticed that some clothing labels actually market these chemicals as though they were a good thing. I'm not sure why anyone would want pesticides in their pants, but I shudder to think what happens to these chemicals after they come out in the wash. And while I try not to think too much about everything that is slowly killing my family, I'm much more concerned that my child's insides will be bathed in toxic substances than I am that she will spontaneously combust and take her jammies with her. But that's just me, apparently. A lot of people seem willing to accept the ignorable, long-term risks caused by constant chemical immersion in order to feel safe from an easily imaginable but highly improbable horror like burning to death. I can't blame them for that (although manufacturers who trade on people's phobias don't get a free pass). Like everyone else, I have my own quirky sense of danger that probably makes no sense to anyone else. If spring ever comes to Vermont, I'll be blithely risking my life twice a day by riding my bike to and from work--but don't get me started on my terror that I will get into a minor fender-bender someday and have my neck broken by my own air bag. The bizarre psychology of risk Apparently, the bizarre psychology of risk is a well known phenomenon; our perception of risk is visceral and is affected intensely by minute-to-minute conditions (which is probably why people in hot rooms are more likely to express concern about global warming than people in cold rooms ). This is problematic, to say the least, when it comes to long-term planning on a large scale, in part because it has a huge effect on our political discourse. People's irrational, erratic perception of risk makes it very difficult for us to process data about "inconvenient truths" like climate change. I don't think anyone has figured out quite what to do about it. It's something we really need to face, though, especially given our reluctance to address remote and long-term risks. One thing that bothers a lot of us who loooove charts is that statistics don't tend to persuade people who don't already agree with us. You can fill the ear of a global warming denier with data for hours, and in most cases your numbers will come out the other ear unprocessed, because of optimism bias --our tendency to believe that things will come right in the end. This does not happen because the person is stupid; it happens because the person is human. The same phenomenon keeps me happy-go-lucky on my bike despite the dangers (and has also kept me, so far, from having my car's air bags disabled). In a very real way, we believe exactly what we want to believe, regardless of what the charts say. As we look to our energy future in the wake of a nuclear crisis in Japan , two major oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, water pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing methods used to extract natural gas , and many other energy-related travesties, we need to find responsible but rhetorically compelling ways to help people get a more immediate sense of the risks involved. Numbers don't lie, but they also don't usually convince. How might we appeal to people's visceral understanding of danger while ensuring we remain true to the facts? Preferably before the next disaster happens? UPDATE: In the comments, Eric links to a brilliant chart by XKCD that puts radiation exposure in perspective. Humans seem to be particularly bad at understanding orders of magnitude, and this demonstrates it pretty well. However, I'm posting it not only because I like it but also because my liking it does absolutely nothing to convince anyone of anything. I suspect a lot of people who do not love charts would look at this image and feel their eyes glazing over pretty quickly. It is enlightening, but aside from the banana joke is not rhetorically compelling. This is not a criticism; the chart is not meant to do that job. But it is something for people who care about sustainability to think about: you can't change the world with charts alone.