Risk perception and reality

This is an excerpt, selected by Moi, from the article Risk perception, a recent post that appeared on the Soapbox Science Blog, Nature Publishing Group.

Symbol of radiation hazard

Universal symbol of radiation and fear. Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes, no matter how right our perceptions feel, we get risk wrong. We worry about some things more than the evidence warrants (vaccines, nuclear radiation, genetically modified food), and less about some threats than the evidence warns (climate change, obesity, using mobile phones when we drive). That produces a Perception Gap, the gap between our fears and the facts.

The Perception Gap produces dangerous personal choices that hurt us and those around us (declining vaccination rates are fueling the resurgence of nearly eradicated diseases). It causes the harm to health of chronic stress (for those who worry more than necessary). And it produces social policies that protect us more from what we’re afraid of than from what in fact threatens us the most (we spend more to protect ourselves from terrorism than heart disease)… which in effect raises our overall risk.

We do have to fear fear itself…too much or too little. So we need to understand how our subjective risk perception works, in order to recognize and avoid its pitfalls.

Here was the take-away for me: Societal risk management has to recognize the risk of risk misperception–  recognizing the risk that arises when our fears don’t match the evidence. This is truly the risk of The Perception Gap. It has always been relevant, and becomes so once again in light of the recent E-coli outbreak in northern Europe. The Guardian UK used that as a starting point for a well-written and up-to-date article about the hazards of risk misperception and the consequences of irrational behavior.

Kahneman and Tversky did extensive research on this topic. I am not concerned whether articles like the one referenced above are derivative, in the sense of revisiting past work. Possibly it is an application in the context of current events. Or it may be entirely original new work. My concern is solely that there is an awareness of the reality, and that it be acted upon.

Transitory nature of information technology

Are we losing the means to preserve an enduring research trail? The premise is that due to the multiple forms of communication between academics and developers, and a lack of digital preservation standards, the steps leading to past scientific discovery and technological innovation will be lost.

Why is this re-creation, even documentation, so important?  First, for history of science and secondly, for innovators to be, coming through the pipeline. Not-yet-arrived scientists will want to study the development process. Sometimes what appears to be a flash of inspiration is preceded by months, or years, of reading, analysis or experiments. Documentation is important for understanding creative research design. Relatively easy access to successful examples from the past is a necessity.

The pace of innovation is wonderfully fast!

Representations like Alan Warburton‘s video, Format: A Brief History of Data Storage always makes me feel a frisson of delight, shiver of awe. It has great music too, Short Like Me by Beni (Kitsuné Maison).

More than information overload

Data deluge swamps science historians is an eyebrow-raising news story about the collected research materials of the world’s leading evolutionary biologist, William Hamilton, following his demise. This is more than a problem of information overload. When the British Library received Hamilton’s working papers, they were faced with assembling the contents of

  • 200 crates of handwritten letters, draft typescripts and lab notes,
  • 26 cartons of vintage floppy disks, reels of 9-track magnetic tape, and 80-column punch cards, but no devices that could read these archaic storage media

It was enough to convince me that we need better digital preservation and archival standards.