Scaring Others for Fun and Profit
I’m sure we all remember that awful day in September 2001 when we watched those airliners, glinting in the morning sunlight, tear into the New York skyline.
For months after that event, Americans shunned air travel. Airlines came perilously close to financial failure, and our first book, The Atomic Corporation, sold a massive 157 copies following its launch in the USA. Of more importance were the Americans who died because they chose to drive rather than to risk a hijack. We can quantify the additional death rate on the roads over the following year and it’s close to 1500, some six times the number who died on the four aircraft downed on 9/11.
This remarkable statistic opens Dan Gardner’s Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, a book which has sharpened the way that I look at the world, and which I can’t recommend highly enough. In this edition of Theopraxis Thinking, I want to build on some of Gardner’s examples to show how all manner of organisations profit from our irrational fears.
The thrust of Gardner’s book is that we are astonishingly bad at making decisions based on risk, because fear gets in the way. This fear is part of our everyday lives: we dread the suicide bomber, we eat contamination-free organic foods, we recoil at the thought of the paedophile lurking round the corner.
Driven by Dread
Fear is good: it confers evolutionary advantage. Amoeba who fought and ran away had a lot greater chance of passing on their timid genes than their braver compatriots, who stayed and got eaten. Since we are the product of a long line of cowards, it should come as no surprise that our initial response to risk is based on instinct.
It turns out that we are very, very bad at assessing the absolute value of risks – how big or small the danger really is – because instinct over-rules rationality. We make decisions based on dread – we fear the terrible outcome and blind ourselves to how likely it is.
We’ve been reacting to risks for two million years but the scientific method is very new. So it is no surprise that we are really bad at assessing evidence and weighing probabilities.
Consider the presence of pesticide residues on food, quite a few of which cause cancer in rats in sufficiently huge doses. Cancer is a Very Bad Thing that has to be avoided at all costs. So if we eat pesticide-free organic food, we won’t get cancer, right? Well, let’s ignore the inconvenient fact that 70% of the chemicals found in your coffee cup also cause cancer in rats and look at the recorded evidence. The incidence of cancer caused by pesticides and fertilisers in our environment is pretty close to zero – the risk is vanishingly smal. GM foods are also seen as ‘ooh scary!’ despite widespread use around the world and a complete lack of evidence of their danger. Yet we happily tolerate the 50% of cancers caused by poor diet, obesity or smoking.
What about the fear of terrorism? While not widespread in the UK and almost absent in Europe, there is a palpable dread of terrorism that seems to have gripped America in recent years. Some five years after the attacks of 9/11, 44% of Americans said that they were ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ worried that they or their families would be victims of terrorism. Again, let’s look at the evidence: if you live in Israel, the chances of your death being caused by an act of terrorism are significant (somewhere between 0.1% and 1%). If you live anywhere else in the world, the probability of dying at the hands of a terrorist is between 0.01% and 0.0001%. Sure, terrorism is a Very Bad Thing and we are right to fight it. But has the “war on terror” really been worth the cost?
I might, if I were feeling particularly generous, credit the “war on terror” with making sure that 9/11 has never been repeated, but at what cost? If there was a 9/11 every two months in an American city, the death toll would be an awful 18,000 per annum. Avoiding that is surely worth the at least $860 billion that the “war on terror” has cost (leaving aside something like a million dead or maimed in the Middle East). But the same number of Americans die every year because they don’t have access to affordable healthcare, and that could be solved for about $60bn a year.
OK, a whole string of 9/11s isn’t the worst that could happen. If a rogue state managed to enrich some Uranium, and if they managed to build a nuclear weapon, and if they gave it to terrorists, and if they smuggled into the US undetected, and if they detonated it in a major American city, it would kill 100,000 people – isn’t that worth stopping? Yes it is, but that was a very long chain of ‘ifs’, and you could be 100% certain of saving the same number of American lives every 12 weeks by banning smoking. In any sane society, possession of cigarettes would be a criminal offence based solely on the harm it causes to others through passive smoking, yet alone to the smoker, but instead we chase the wrong killers.
I’m honestly not trying to score political points here, I’m just showing that we do not assess risks rationally. If I were trying to score political points I would remind you that H.L. Mencken said “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”, but since I’m not trying to score points, I’m not going to. Instead, I’m just trying to show that our actions are driven by instinctive dread of Very Bad Things, and our rational, evaluative brains never get a look in.
If anything, we are even worse at assessing relative dangers than we are at assessing absolute dangers. We dread the paedophile and so we won’t let our children walk to school. Every year in America, about 90 children (out of 70m) die at the hands of a stranger, but 2,400 children die in car accidents. Even faulty Christmas tree lights kill more kids than paedophiles, but we don’t fear the festive season the way we should.
Or take the controversy over the MMR jab: newspapers in the UK picked up on one poor-quality study and reported again and again that this vaccine caused autism in children, which is indeed a Very Bad Thing. A moment’s rational thought would have shown that the risk had to be tiny, or the USA (which had been using MMR for years) would be awash with autistic children. It took years to get the message across that there was no evidence – let me repeat that – no evidence that the MMR vaccine increases the risk of autism. When doctors rightly reported that no vaccination is 100% safe and that there is always a tiny risk, many people made the leap from ‘could conceivably happen’ to ‘certain to happen’. Vaccination rates dropped below safe levels and now there nearly two hundred times as many cases of Measles in Europe as there are in the United States: Measles had almost been eliminated through vaccination in the developing world, but is now on the increase in the West. So we’ve chosen to avoid a miniscule risk of a Very Bad Thing in favour of incurring a large risk of another Very Bad Thing.
Profiting from Fear
I now want to provide some simple ways that your organisation can profit from exploiting the fear of others.
Firstly, sell the consequences: we’ve seen how Very Bad Things like terrorism, autism, and cancer lead us to react instinctively against whatever the proponent chooses to link them to, regardless of how improbable the consequence is. So if you want to sell a product, say it prevents a Very Bad Thing. It doesn’t matter that the Very Bad Thing is vanishingly unlikely, as punters are famously bad at assessing risks.
Always quote an authoritative-sounding source: we’ve seen the effect on vaccination rates of persistent reporting of a single, inaccurate study, so we can be sure that statistically-invalid surveys and dodgy research are sure-fire winners. Most people won’t (or won’t know how to) investigate whether the research is trustworthy, or even the paper said what you claim it did. Promoting dodgy studies also works well when you are trying to undermine genuine evidence, as the tobacco industry well knows.
And if you can’t find any evidence that works for you, find an ‘expert’. The food supplements industry, worth $50bn a year, is particularly good at this. Nutritionists claim that “most overweight people are deficient in major nutrients” and that taking nutrient pills will cause you to lose weight. Now, one of the best known ‘nutritionists’ got a PhD from a mail-order university in America, has never published a peer-reviewed paper, and had to agree to stop using the ‘Doctorate’ after an investigation by the British Advertising Standards Authority. Let’s also overlook that fact that there is no evidence that diet supplements, with the exception of the stimulants caffeine and ephedrine, cause weight loss. And let’s ignore the demographic model that suggests that using food supplements instead of antiretroviral drugs on the advice of ‘nutritionist’ Peter Duesberg caused 343,000 deaths from AIDS in South Africa alone. We shouldn’t let ineffectiveness and unnecessary death get in the way of $50bn industry, should we?
Use scary numbers: Gardner cites a manufacturer of ‘parental control’ software who advertised that their product would protect against the 50,000 paedophiles prowling the ‘net, and said that one in five children had been solicited for sex. He traced the 50,000 figure back to its source, an expert who admitted he had plucked the figure out of thin air, and then showed that the proportion of the truly scary thing - sexual solicitations of young children by much older men - was really pretty close to zero.
Or you could use misleading examples: I saw an article in a national newspaper a few weeks ago that focused on the incidence and tragic consequences of breast cancer in young mothers. This is fairly common – a study of press reporting of breast cancer found that coverage focused on the under-fifties, with more than half of articles concentrating on women under 40. I wasn’t surprised to find a 2007 study by the University of Oxford which showed that more than 99% of women surveyed did not know that breast cancer is predominantly a disease associated with old age. Only 3% of women who contract breast cancer do so when they are under 40 years of age, but you’d never guess that from the newspapers.
Finally, quote trends, not values: another lovely example from Gardner is the often-reported ‘epidemic’ in childhood cancer. Shout it from the rooftops - the incidence of cancer in children rose by 25% between 1975 and 1990! Be sure to omit the actual incidence figures, which are around 0.015%, and that the survival rates doubled in the same period – just quote the 25% figure if you want to get people agitated. Another really nice example, from an organisation that really ought to know better, is a claim by the World Health Organisation that “global cancer rates could increase by 50% by 2020” …but buried in the report is the admission is that the principal cause is steadily ageing populations in both developed and developing countries – in other words, people are more likely to die from cancer because they aren’t dying from other things first.
You might think that I need to switch to de-caf, but it really annoys me that politicians, newspapers and commercial interests are so ready to play on our irrational fears. But there we are: fear-mongering works, and it pays. Whether it continues to work, and continues to pay, is entirely up to us.
A Note on Sources
Much of the statistical material in this newsletter was taken from Dan Gardner’s book, which is an excellent introduction to social risk assessment. Where possible, I’ve checked back to his original sources and included them below.
Figures on additional road deaths from "Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire: Behavioral Reactions to Terrorists Attacks” G Gigenrenzer, Risk Analysis, April 2006
Gardner’s book: Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. Gardner, D. Published in the UK by Virgin Books (2008).
Pesticide risks and environmental cancer figures from Ames, B. and Gold, L. “Misconceptions about Pollution, Pesticides, and the Prevention of Cancer” The Standard Handbook of Environmental Science, Health and Technology, J. Lehr, ed. (2000)
‘Fear of terrorism’ figures from a Gallup poll quoted in Gardner, p298.
Mortality rates from terrorism from Bogen, K and Jones, E. “Risks of Mortality and Morbidity from Worldwide Terrorism: 1968-2004” Risk Analysis, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 45-59, February 2006
Cost of ‘WoT’ from The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11. Report to Congress October 2008
Deaths from lack of healthcare from The Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, November 2004. Coss of fixing lack of healthcare frrom Gardner, p345, quoting the US Institute of Medicine
Smoking causes 438,000 deaths every year in the USA; source American Heart Association
Child deaths from paedophiles and RTAs are for American children under 14, quoted in Gardner, p222.
A good summary of the evidence on autism and MMR can be found in NHS Choices 5th September 2008. See http://www.nhs.uk/news/2008/09September/Pages/ResearchshowsnoMMRautismlink.aspx.
The US Center for Disease Control reports an average of 64 cases of measles a year in the USA, mostly in immigrants. The European Commission reported that there were more than 12,130 cases in Europe last year and said “most of those children were unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated”)
“Between 1999 and 2005, there was a 60% reduction in annual measles deaths worldwide, from 873,000 to 345,000, according to United Nations figures reported in the Lancet” – quote from the Guardian, 19 January 2007
Effects (of lack of) of supplerments on dieting from Saper, R; Eisenberg D and Phillips, R. “Common Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss”, Journal of the American Association of Family Physicians (2004) 70:1731-38
Demographic model of deaths from AIDS due to vitamin use from AIDS and the Scientific Governance of Medicine in Post-Apartheid South Africa Nattrass, N. Afr Aff (Lond).2008
Analysis of news coverage of cancer from Burke W; Olsen, A; Pinsky, L; Reynolds, S; Press, N. “Misleading Presentation of Breast Cancer in Popular Magazines”, Effective Clinical Practice, March/April 2001
Study on misperceptions of breast cancer rates from http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/po/news/2006-07/may/03a.shtml
WHO figures on incidence of cancer from the World Cancer Report By Bernard W. Stewart, Paul Kleihues, World Health Organization (2003)