When Jeff said of On Being Certain that it shook his epistemological world, I knew exactly what he meant. For me that moment came a few chapters into Dan Gardner’s excellent book Risk. While I like to think that my disposition to skepticism is innate, Risk was the book that opened my eyes to the academic underpinnings of that disposition.
Many of you will know Gardner from his regular columns in the Ottawa Citizen. In those, he’s a sometimes-fiery progressive, yet always firmly grounded in the data. He’s been an outspoken critic of government policies based on emotional, rather than empirical, justifications – from the war on drugs, to tough on crime legislation, to the long-form census. He’s also a lawyer by training, and writes perhaps the most lucid commentary on Canadian judicial issues in the mainstream media.
Risk is somewhat of a different beast however – just as empirically based, but largely apolitical. The book’s objective is to answer a very simple question: why, in the safest, healthiest, wealthiest time in human history, do so many people seem to be increasingly afraid of their shadow. Average lifespans have nearly doubled in the past few hundred years, and aside from those who’ve chosen the military as their career, most of us are untouched by war. The most deadly childhood diseases have been eradicated, and infant mortality rates have fallen by more than 95% in the last century alone. On nearly all measures of safety, we couldn’t live in a better time or place.
Yet we’re still afraid. Those vaccines that saved our kids from measles are giving them autism. Wifi gives them headaches and causes them to lose focus. Pasteurized milk is unfit for human consumption. Toxins are everywhere, and science is the problem not the solution. Gardner aims to explain why this should be so, and succeeds the way he always does – with the research. The first half of the book is entirely dedicated to exploring what cognitive psychology and sociology have to say on the subject, and how they interrelate.
The psychological discussion focuses largely on the work done by researchers in the Heuristics and Biases program. This research shows that (a) we have two parallel systems of decision making, one heuristic (System One) and one rational (System Two); (b) we use the heuristic process far more than we think we do; and (c) the extent to which we use one or the other can be externally manipulated. Indeed, this last trait is what researchers use to tease out what’s going on in our cognitive processes. He focuses largely on the two heuristics that seem to have the most impact on our perceptions of risk – Kahneman & Tversky’s availability heuristic, which says that our perceptions of an event’s likelihood are tied to how easy it is to recall an example of (or story about) that event; and Paul Slovic’s affect heuristic, which says that we make emotional, binary decisions (good/bad) that we correlate with risk (good = safe, bad = dangerous).
It’s easy to see how these heuristics can steer us wrong. Lying on a beach may evoke very positive emotions, but it subjects far more people to far more damaging radiation than nuclear power plants. Yet no one protests at Club Med. A similar dynamic is at play in people who fear the MMR vaccine more than they fear measles, mumps or rubella.
The sociological discussion focuses on the cultural factors that more firmly entrench our initial risk assessment, because as social animals, “whether other people are worried makes a huge difference”. Group polarization is the driving force here – we’re all programmed to conform to the herd, and study after study shows that our ideas become stronger when they concur with the group’s.
With the mechanisms for engendering fear identified, Gardner proceeds in the second half of the book to look at why fear is increasing. What factors are unique to our time that might ring those risk bells more frequently than they rung in the past? Admittedly, he’s moving from research into argument at this point, but with such a strong empirical basis, it’s nonetheless highly persuasive.
The first culprit: marketers. They know all about our cognitive manipulability – maybe even better than the psychologists:
“I was given some marketing documents from the tobacco industry going back 20 or 30 years,” says Paul Slovic, who was hired in 2001 as an expert witness in a lawsuit brought by the U.S. government against Big Tobacco. “It was stunning. It was shocking. Consultants for the tobacco companies were doing studies and reporting the results, and basically they were 20 years ahead of many of the cognitive and social psychologists in understanding the importance of affect. They basically had a good understanding of this concept of System One [Gut] thinking and the importance of images to which positive feelings are attached. And that was the basis of all of their advertising.”
Fans of AMC’s Mad Men know all about this, from the scene where Don Draper tells his client, no longer able under new regulations to use doctors as cigarette spokespersons, that their new tagline will be “Lucky Strike…It’s Toasted”. Don intuitively understood the impact of positive associations in reducing risk perception. It was the greatest opportunity in advertising history.
Gardner shows that the tobacco industry isn’t the only one that grokked this. Examples abound from security firms and pharma, not to mention politicians and NGO’s. By the end of the chapter “Fear Inc.”, it’s tempting to reach for the Chomsky, yet in most cases (tobacco perhaps aside), Gardner doesn’t credit a cynical corporate conspiracy bent on manipulating the public. Like Don Draper, marketers are people too – and they’re subject to the same biases as consumers. Simply put, they believe their own message.
The same can be said of the second culprit: the media. While the impact of marketers has increased gradually over time as psychological sophistication has grown, the media has undergone a rapid revolution from black and white daily newspapers to 24/7 video on cable and the internet. This shift matters because it plays into all of fear’s mechanisms at once. We hear about danger more (availability heuristic), the stories are presented in a graphically rich and emotive way (affect heuristic), and media fragmentation has increased the editorial bias of many outlets toward specific political outlooks (group polarization). “In journalism schools today, students are told there is a list of qualities that make a story newsworthy, a list that…always includes novelty, conflict, impact, and that beguiling and amorphous stuff known as human interest,” says Gardner. Like marketers, journalists are largely following their all-too-human instincts in selecting stories that will appeal to other humans. Yet the fact that they’re acting in good faith does not change the fact that the qualities of a newsworthy story are the same ones that cause our risk perception mechanisms to go into overdrive.
With the suspects identified, Gardner then goes deep in successive chapters covering three of the most common fears in the current zeitgeist – crime, toxins, and terrorism – showing how marketers and the media have manufactured the risk society, in some cases intentionally but in most cases simply as a by-product of the same brain design that makes the rest of us respond as well.
I said at the beginning that this book was revelatory for me, and it’s that last point that really captures why. As I’ve argued before, understanding how brain design affects our cognition is the next frontier in the advancement of human thought, and anyone aspiring to think critically needs to verse themselves in it. Only by becoming aware of how we actually think – and by developing our personal metacognitive skills – can we hope to mitigate the impact of the many biases that cause us to make irrational decisions. Risk opened my eyes to that point, and most of my reading since then has been to further my education on this topic. I encourage you all to get a copy today.