This is a hefty paperback of over 600 pages (and that is not even counting the hundreds of pages of endnotes and sidetracks that are freely available online), well worth reading. The title translates into: ‘Risk Paradox, Why We Fear The Wrong Things’. The main drawback might be that this book is only available in German language, thereby excluding quite a few possible readers. The message is universal, but Renn chooses to explicitly address the German population. A bit of a pity, especially because the book is written very readable and mostly accessible, as soon as you have become accustomed to the sometimes academic German used.

In many aspects there is an overlap with Daniel Gardner’s book “The Science Of Fear”. I read Gardner’s book shortly before and so it is kind of natural for me to compare the two books. Even more because there are also some major differences. Especially the second half of “Das Risikoparadox” is more about sustainability and solutions than about risk perception. Also does he take things a bit further than Gardner. We will get back to that soon.

The structure of the book is such that it is divided in four separate parts, of course connected and related to each other. Each part fleshes out part of the subject of the book (the main objective, by the way, is to make people more able to take good decisions about risk and have a say in cases dealing with risks - personal and societal) and is concluded by a summary/conclusion. Those with little time or patience can just restrict themselves to reading these concluding chapters. If you even don’t have time for that, read the final chapter of the book which gives a perfect summary in Q & A style.

Let’s do a quick overview of what to expect:

Part 1 (page 33 to 144) deals with ‘What threatens us’. Subjects draw on examples like BSE, causes of deaths in Germany and internationally, cancer, chemical substances and brings us through discussions of risk, statistics, acceptable risk and much more. There is an extremely good explanation of epidemiology and toxicology here. Highly recommended.

Part 2 (page 145 to 324) discusses ‘Why we fear the wrong things’. Subjects that pass are among other things risk perception, heuristics, biases and we come to meet some people we have encountered before, including Kahneman, Slovic and Gigerenzer. After these subjects, Renn draws the explanation of why we perceive things the way we do into a more sociological and cultural direction, much more than Gardner did. 

Gardner stuck much more to individual, psychological reasons, Renn stresses the sociological factors (that is his background, after all) and presents post-modernism as an important factor. This makes this book seriously more philosophical and academic than Gardner’s, but Renn is of course an academic, not a journalist. Especially around page 295 things may get tough (the second half of Part 2 may be the hardest part of the book) where Renn draws in a lot of Ulrich Beck. In contrary to Beck, Renn says that we are not living in a Risk Society, but rather in a Risk Perception Society.

Part 3 (page 325 to 490) tells us ‘What are the risks we underappreciate’. Renn fleshes out what systemic risks are, their characteristics and discusses the most important systemic risks for humanity: ecological, financial, and societal. While Gardner hinted at and mentioned some of these, Renn goes much further and deeper into the matter.

Many things in this chapter fit nicely into what Sidney Dekker writes in “Drift Into Failure” with ‘small’ decisions that can have HUGE consequences. One perfect example (see page 411) is how efficiency gains lead to BSE.

Part 4 (page 491 to 604) then tells us ‘What can we do’ to get on a road to sustainability. Renn proposes a three-point program:

• Resilience over efficiency

• Social justice over optimal division of resources

• Quality of life over standard of living.

These points he discusses and explains extensively with several examples and concrete (proposed) measures. Interesting is the criticism of free market as a means to solve our problems (it is definitely not). And once more, from page 585 onwards we get an excellent summary of the entire book with a very accessible Q&A structure.

Fischer Verlag, 2014, ISBN 978-3-596-19811-5



More information about this book (and a sneak preview) on:

(find the endnotes and some diversions as downloads on this page too)