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Thinking and Deciding 20: Risk


Risk regulation and the intuitions that support it

Pretty depressing actually. What we invest in reducing risk is not even close to ideal. Asbestos is unbelievably low risk, and if the money spent removing it were spent elsewhere, hundreds, thousands (millions?) more lives could be saved. Risks we regulate more tend to be involuntary (not like playing sports), from unknown sources, and causing many deaths at once, instead of many spread out (catastrophic).

Other biases in risk judgments

There’s a great list of biases here. Of note is what Steven Novella often labels the “naturalistic fallacy” and a very useful and quick assessment of it.

Synthetic chemicals added to foods are often banned because they cause cancer in tests on animals. Yet, if natural foods are broken up into their constituent chemicals, these too cause cancer in test animals (Ames and Gold, 1990). . .In one study, 94% of synthetic carcinogens were subject to government regulation, but only 41% of a sample of natural carcinogens (Viscusi, 1995). Moreover, the average risk to humans of the synthetic chemicals was lower than that of the natural ones (512-513).

That’s pretty heavy stuff.

People suck at thinking about low probabilities. There is undue value put on reducing risk to zero (not even possible?) even at the expense of larger reductions in risk from other sources. Risk from unnatural things is seen as worse that risk from “natural” things. Risks from commission are seen as worse than risks of ommission, and risk from poisons are based on intuitive and flawed toxicology. The dose makes the poison, but people feel as though any amount of the “toxin” is dangerous.

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