Which risks draw our attention?

WNYC’s On the Media ran a very interesting piece on their most recent show, aired this past Friday.  The segment centered on an interview with University of Cambridge professor Martin Rees, of the newly established Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

The primary focus of host Brooke Gladstone’s (sigh…) interview was to discuss the newly established Center, which will see to illuminate the prevalence in media and popular culture of those threats considered “journalistically appealing” despite their actual level of real potential danger, while other far more probable dangers go unnoticed or even dismissed by the media, and to attempt to draw journalists’ attention to the latter as well as other dangers which may not be on their radar screen.

Of course, this assumes that journalists will be universally interested in such assistance (some will, many others will not).  But for my purposes the more interesting questions which the Center could deal with were only briefly glossed over in the early moments of the interview.

Asked to provide an explanation for why such a Center was necessary in the contemporary media environment, Professor Rees made reference to how bad people are, in general, at evaluating risk and why it is necessary for someone to take a careful, dispassionate look at the question of both probability and consequences:

“People fret rather too much about what are actually rather small risks, like carcinogens in food, train crashes and things like that, but they don’t worry enough about these other kinds of risks which are perhaps improbable but which are so serious if they happened that even one occurrence is too many. And just as you still pay for insurance on your house, even if you don’t expect it to be burnt down, so we feel it’s worth a bit of investment in trying to understand and trying to protect against these new kinds of risks.”

It’s reasonable, for example, to insure a house against fire because even though advances in fireproofing and improvements in residential construction have made house fires increasingly rare, the consequences of a fire can be devastating and extremely expensive.  The threat that your XBox, iPad and your toaster will develop sentience with the help of the home wireless router, rise up to kill your family, and further seek to eradicate all of humanity might have much more serious consequences, but is less probable by several orders of magnitude, which is why Allstate, Travelers and Metlife don’t offer “rampaging homicidal toaster” insurance (though it turns out that you can get more general apocalypse insurance and, of course zombie apocalypse insurance).

I think Professor Rees is quite right that (prompted by copious media attention) people focus on and worry about the wrong risks, but it is his next point that I think is really crucial here.  Asked how much worry about the larger existential risks is enough, he replied:

“Well, I think enough is a bit more than they’re doing now because hardly anyone is thinking about them, really. That means they could be taken over by flaky scare mongers who make get them out of proportion, and what we want to do is to try and look at them seriously.

That point about the “flaky scare mongers” is the key, though I am not sure what the real solution is going to be.  We live in a world where the flaky scare mongers are, to a large part, running the show nowadays. Watch the evening news and along with the murders, corruption and traffic accidents, you get a heavy dose of advocacy funded scare media.  “Is the milk in your fridge killing your children?  Tune in at 11!”  Of course the answer is always no, but by the time the piece rolls around (invariably at the end of the newscast so that you’ve tuned in to the whole show), the news consumer has been exposed to a steady meal of bad outcomes without any context to mitigate the free-floating panic stirred up.  And then, as soon as the news is over, we settle down for the latest episode of Homeland or CSI or any number of police procedurals, and while we know on a rational level that such shows are fiction, our brains are less rational than we would like to think.

And so we have the idea that the world is a far more dangerous place than at any point in human history, that murder and crime rates are at an all time high, while thousands of children are abducted off the street by complete strangers every week.  Or that an invisible and undetectable planet is hurtling through space with our little blue marble in its crosshairs.  And because our sense of danger is aroused three times an hour by folks trying to sell us things, we remain stubbornly resistant to any suggestion that, while still permeated with risk of all kinds, our world is as safe as it has ever been.  We refuse to consider rational argument and evidence because our deeper, more primitive brain is convinced (as well it should be, given the constant stimuli) that signs and portents of our imminent doom is all around us.  This, on top of an overactive (though well earned) skepticism about the motives and abilities of experts.

Ultimately, the most important question for such scholars to consider may be the overwhelming “stickiness” of this apocalyptic attentiveness to some risks, despite positive evidence of their improbability.  Evaluating the relative risk of particular phenomena is all well and good, but until we understand why it is that we remain so very attached to particular risks even in the face of their manifest unreality, I’m not sure the Center will have any more luck in convincing people to pay more attention to the real and present danger posed by climate change or nuclear proliferation as opposed to more dramatically intriguing threat from zombies and the impending rise of Skynet.


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