This book by Canadian journalist Dan Gardner is a good read if you want to have an accessible introduction to the subject of risk perception, because that is what the book is mostly about: what risks do most people perceive as high, and are afraid of; and the opposite, what are major risks that are actually under-appreciated by most people. Many people fear things like crime, terrorism and chemical contamination, while the most significant threats we face are actually the mundane risks to which we pay little attention like wrong nutrition and little exercise.

Gardner draws heavily on the work of Paul Slovic, Daniel Kahneman and Gerd Gigerenzer (especially Slovic and Kahneman) and explains this in a very accessible and easy to understand way (he even draws in some Ulrich Beck!). Those who have read the work of these scholars will recognise many of the examples (e.g. the Linda problem, increased number of car accidents on highways after 9/11), but Gardner does a fine job explaining fear, biases, the working of memory and the like.

What I find one of the main drawbacks of the book is that Gardner finds it necessary to invent new terms for several of the subjects. The renaming of System 1 and System 2 to Gut and Head is fine, and maybe much more intuitive, but for example the ‘Example Rule’ instead of ‘Availability Bias’ doesn’t work at all (and has me turning back some pages to see what again he talks about).

It struck me that “The Science Of Fear”, sometimes can be compared to Ben Goldacre’s books, but with a greater focus for crime and terrorism instead of medical claims. The decomposing of incorrect claims is much the same.

Let’s do a quick run-through:

Chapter 1 sets the scene, among others by answering (and partly explaining) why we are living in what seems to be a ‘culture of fear’.

Chapter 2 is mostly an explanation of Kahneman’s two brain systems.

Chapter 3 has the fabulous title ‘The Death of Homo Economicus’ and brings us exactly that through bounded rationality and heuristics along with some witty wariness of nice-round numbers.

Chapter 4 draws heavily on Slovic’s work, a.o. discussing factors that influence risk perception.

Chapter 5 discusses numbers versus stories. Humans are best in dealing with the latter.

Chapter 6 is about groups and herd dynamics. We are social animals and therefore we are affected by others.

Chapter 7 tells us that Fear sells, and also how to do this. Most interesting is the part on page 151 that shows the dilemma of ‘success’ against (scientific) ethics.

Chapter 8 deals among other things how risks to present in order to create certain fears, sometimes with the consequence that people do the right things for the wrong reasons (like for example donate money for cancer research because of a picture of a young child, even though this is a very unlikely group to get cancer).

Chapter 9 is about crime and perception. A lot about the influence of media here. Another interesting observation is the discussion of how media affect our thinking and how in turn we affect the media, more or less creating a vicious cycle. Also how government agencies use perception to get funds. Another interesting insight we find on page 212, where we learn one reason why politicians are eager to jump on ‘scares’ (risks that should not be worth the attention). If they do not, their opponents will be quick to accuse them of not caring. Therefore, it is a perfectly reasonable defence for politicians to push for action even though rational assessment of the risk would say otherwise and the long-term effects may be adverse. Since the horizons of politicians in general is really short, this pattern of action makes perfect sense for them.

Chapter 10 takes on our fear of chemicals and the (culturally/socially created) illusion that chemical is bad and natural is good. There is a reprise of the right things for the wrong reasons and the final pages of the chapter deal with the precautionary principle and the problems of applying it (see page 239 onwards).

Chapter 11 about terrorism includes some very interesting observations about why things are how they are. Great lesson (but little understood and practiced) on page 283: “…we have to recognize that terrorism is a psychological tactic. Terrorists seek to terrify. Controlling fear should play as large a role in the struggle against terrorists as do the prevention of attacks and the arrest of the plotters. We must, as Brian Michael Jenkins put it, ‘attack the terror, not just the terrorists’. Attacking the terror means, first, avoiding statements that paint the threat as something greater than it is”. And: “Attacking the terror also means putting the risk of terrorism in perspective by supplying the statistics that politicians and the media have ignored”. The message: we should not ignore the possibility of terror, but neither should we ignore the probabilities involved.

Chapter 12 concludes the book with the positive message from its title ‘There has never been a better time to be alive’, meaning that we are actually safer than ever before in history, yet we fear certain things unnecessarily and we are threatened by some other things that we should take more seriously (Ortwin Renn’s book with a similar message spends much more space on those). We also get some discussion of the fundamental attribution error and hindsight bias which “drains the uncertainty out of history”.

All in all, entertaining and much more worthwhile than I at first expected!

Dutton, 2008, ISBN 978-0-525-95062-2 (hardcover)



If you want to see Dan Gardner talking about his book, try this one-hour talk from Google