The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t-and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger by Daniel Gardner does an outstanding job of explaining and supporting the argument that our ability to assess risks is fundamentally flawed.
The basic thesis is that our brains developed in an evolutionary context that selected for heuristics, quick and dirty methods of assessing situations and establishing guidelines for responding to the environment. These heuristics are hardwired into our brains (though Gardner refers to them collectively as Gut), and we tend to use them to rapidly judge how serious a potential risk is. Our higher reasoning abilities (which Gardner labels Head) can moderate these snap judgments by applying relevant facts and analysis, but more often our conscious reasoning merely manufactures rationalizations for what we’ve already decided.
The psychological literature on heuristics is vast, and though he uses shortcut labels such as Gut and Head, Gardner does a good job of defining and illustrating specific heuristics and tracing their discovery and the evidence for them. He then delves into factors that tend to prevent Head from doing a good job of moderating our emotional risk assessments. Inadequate education and familiarity with the relevant facts and with statistics, the influence of others’ opinions on our own, and the manipulation of our judgments through the media by government, industry, and lobbies, all of which use fear as a way to raise money and consciousness regardless of the statistical realities of the dangers they want us to care about.
He does an especially thorough job tracing the history of how unjustified popular fears of toxic chemicals in the environment and terrorism emerged and were promoted by the deliberate effort of those who cared more about influencing people’s behavior than about truth. I routinely have to disabuse people of the notion that their tap water or perfume or commercial dog food contains mysterious but horrible toxins responsible for their pet’s cancer. Gardner provides overwhelming evidence to show that environmental toxins are a negligible source of cancer, and yet we fear them out of proportion to their real danger. This leads us to underestimate the importance of much more significant risk factors such as age and obesity.
Gardner ends with what is for me the most salient chapter, entitled There’s Never Been a Better Time to Be Alive. Humans, and our pets, routinely live longer, healthier lives than at any time in history, and yet we are beset with anxieties about the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the vaccines that protect us from the infectious we used to die of, and so many other sources of danger that we would be better off paying far less attention to. It is sad more than ironic that our ability to enjoy the unprecedented well-being our era provides is handicapped by our innate risk evaluation apparatus, which is still using rules that may have worked well enough on the savannah but which simply cannot cope with the subtleties and complexities of the modern world. Gardner provides some glimpses of hope, showing that while we cannot eliminate the errors in our risk assessments, we can moderate them significantly by virtue of deliberate, and difficult, application of thought and analysis.
From the point of view of scientific medicine, this book provides yet more evidence of the unreliability of our clinical judgments and intuitions compared with well-designed and conducted research. Science-based medicine acknowledges that we must have the courage and intellectual integrity to accept the inadequacy of our own judgments, of how things seem when confronted with clear evidence that they are wrong. CAM, in contrast, relies inherently on anecdote, tradition, and subjective evaluation for validation. And sadly, as unreliable as these clearly are, they are emotionally compelling. A nice companion to this book is Robert Burton’s On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, which looks at the mechanisms of how we come to feel we know the truth of something. This feeling, like our assessment of truth and risk, is established at a level of thought we are not consciously aware of and then rationalized, often through obvious confabulation, by the conscious mind. The feeling of certain gets applied to our gut-level evaluation of the risk or benefit of something, and it then takes more effort than most of us are able or willing to make to discard the heuristic judgment in favor of the rational, and more likely correct one. But a commitment to doing the best for our pets requires that we try to make this effort so that we can provide them with the best care.