Risk perception is always irrational

David Ropeik, an author and risk-perception consultant, writing in the uber-cool Undark, says in 2011, the city leaders of Calgary, Alberta, bowed to public pressure and ended fluoridation of the local drinking water, despite clear evidence that the benefits of fluoridation vastly outweigh its risks. A recent study found that second graders in Calgary now have 3.8 more cavities, on average, than a similar group did back in 2004-05, when the water was still being treated.

mindfulness_poster_UKIn West Virginia, legislators in favor of shrinking government recently passed a law allowing sale of unpasteurized milk, despite convincing evidence that raw milk is a vector for pathogens like Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. To celebrate, the bill’s sponsor shared some raw milk with his colleagues, several of whom got sick. The legislator says it was just coincidence.

Since the 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, fear of radiation has prompted thyroid cancer screening for all children in the prefecture. The levels of radiation to which kids had been exposed were too low to pose significant danger, and the sensitive ultrasound screening technique is well known to find abnormal cells in most people’s thyroids, though in nearly all cases those cells will never cause cancer. As a result of this unprecedented scrutiny for an infinitesimal risk, hundreds of kids have had their thyroids removed unnecessarily, with far-reaching health implications for the rest of their lives.

Our perceptions of risk are products of cognitive processes that operate outside our conscious control — running facts through the filters of our feelings.

A Canadian couple is mourning the death of their 19-month-old son from meningitis. They hadn’t vaccinated him, and treated him with natural remedies like horseradish root and olive leaf extract, refusing medical attention until the boy was unconscious and near death. They are facing criminal charges.

For anyone outside the emotions that produced these choices, it’s hard not to feel frustration at hearing about them. It’s hard not to call them ignorant, selfish, and irrational, or to label such behavior, as some do — often with more than a hint of derision — “science denialism.” It’s hard, but it’s necessary, because treating such decision-making as merely flawed thinking that can be rectified with cold hard reason flies in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.

In fact, the evidence is clear that we sometimes can’t help making such mistakes. Our perceptions, of risk or anything else, are products of cognitive processes that operate outside our conscious control — running facts through the filters of our feelings and producing subjective judgments that disregard the evidence. The behavioral scientists Melissa Finucane and Paul Slovic call this the Affect Heuristic; it gives rise to what I call the risk perception gap, the dangers produced when we worry more than the evidence says we need to, or less than the evidence says we should. This is literally built in to the wiring and chemistry of the brain. Our apparent irrationality is as innate as the functioning of our DNA or our cells.

mad.cows.mothers.milkBill Leiss and I called it a risk communication vacuum in our 1997 book, Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk.

Whatever it’s called, people do irrational things, against the reason of others.

Certainly I do.

And it drives people crazy.

Maybe it’s brain wiring – certainly the fad in addiction, perception and mindfulness research – but it all sounds like a way to make a buck.

And that’s fine, everyone needs a salary.

Facts are never enough, empathy is often lacking, story-telling is key, but these are just observations, the blunt force of armchair critics. Creators create, and get involved in the frontlines.

Put the words into actions.

Walk on.


Revisiting high school: when you dance, I can really love

The Springfield Academy in Calne, U.K., will reopen tomorrow after closing due to an outbreak of sickness and diarrhea among staff and pupils.

The school closed on Friday after 12 pupils living at boarding house for students on the site caught a sickness bug lasting between 24 to 34 hours.

Headteacher Trystan Williams said all the school’s residential houses had been deep cleaned by specialist agencies in order to make sure pupils could return safely.

The Brits have a thing about separating themselves from their teenagers, and suppressing their WASP feelings. I’ve been talking a lot with my older daughters of late and it’s been incredibly gratifying.

To all the Susie Bakers out there (my high school sweetheart, Chapman married his, I’m thrilled with what I have now) this note’s for you. Sue introduced me to Neil. She also introduced me to Harry Chapin and Cat Stevens, which didn’t go over so well.


XL bails, to be managed by JBS after E. coli mess

Food safety ain’t simple, it’s hard.

So over a month after reports of illness and E. coli O157 positive sample started rolling in, weeks of outrage, political incompetence, condescending statements and corporate silence, and barely a mention of the sick people, the owners of the XL plant in Alberta have decided food safety is hard, and agreed to be managed by Brazilian-owned JBS USA.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 president Doug O’Halloran told the Globe and Mail, “I think that, initially, it’s a good thing. I’ve been saying from the beginning that they either need new management or new ownership, because the Nilsson brothers were obviously out of their league in running this company.”

So if they were out of their league, why didn’t those 40 inspectors and six veterinarians notice over the years?

Apparently the Americans noticed.

The Ottawa Citizen reports inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) sent a series of audit reports to the CFIA between 2003 and 2008 detailing deficiencies they had found at Canadian processing plants, including XL Foods facilities.

These audit reports list findings at XL Foods plants that included sloppy record-keeping, equipment held together by duct tape and, in one case, a gruesome scene of animal blood dripping into edible meat products.

One audit in 2003 found non-compliance with food safety procedures serious enough that the company was temporarily delisted as an approved exporter to the U.S.

XL Foods did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Richard Arsenault, the agency’s director of the CFIA’s meat programs division, cautioned against reading too much into findings in the U.S. audits, stating,

“The writing of these reports often lends itself to conclusions that don’t reflect the overall system. Making sure everything is impeccably clean all the time is not the easiest thing to do. Plants are always going to have challenges.”

Makes me look like a joke; Snoop Dogg ain’t no Neil Young, flogs Hot Pockets

I don’t get the whole Snoop Dogg Snoop Lion thing, but I guess everyone’s gotta pay the bills.

The rapper formerly known as Snoop Dogg who has now found Rastafarianism in Jamaica, is flogging Hot Pockets.

I bought these occasionally when I had four school-aged kids, but they tasted like cardboard, were difficult to cook safely, and could easily burn your mouth.

Microwaves are great for reheating things, but lousy at cooking things to a uniform, safe temperature. And use a thermometer.

Oh, and Neil Young wouldn’t do this.

Although the Neil video is preachy for my tastes, and the claims about don’t have no stash are ridiculous, the basic message is still there.


When you dance, I can really love, or keep your swap meet at the proper temperature

In the same way that Chapman owes me for introducing him to Neil Young in the 2000s, I owe it to my high school girlfriend, Sue Baker, for introducing me, in 1978. This was her favorite song.

And if you’re going to a swap meet in Nevada, get the food safety right.

The location is J & J Swap Meet on East Charleston where inspectors found problems with the temperature of just about everything. The violations are at the swap meet snack bar which was shut down with 58 demerits. It’s really important that food is kept hot or cold enough to be safe. Otherwise, bacteria begins to grow and no one wants to eat that.