Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner

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Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A book crammed with complex details, facts, proofs and opinions, all dressed very lightly and readably. It might not sound like a thriller, but it's very accessible and covers a topic one should definitely open one's mind to more.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Virgin Publishing
ISBN: 978-0753515532

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Picture a world terrorised by just two words. A civilised, healthy, wealthy world no less, in thrall to and under threat from two words. Not what those two words represent even, just the actual small phrase. It sounds ridiculous, but when I say those two words – bird flu – and you've stopped laughing, you may well remember how the panic started, the non-existent worry was the biggest concern of the western media for some time, and then it went away again.

Before picking up this book which looks at such phenomena, and explains them with great ease, I was thinking the reasons would have been bad science, the general ignorance of mathematic probabilities, and so on. It seems the media frenzy that can arise from some supposition somewhere, some false statistic getting disseminated with aplomb, or dodgy opinion forming an alleged fact, is partly down to human evolution and our mental wiring.

Humans have two parts of their cognition, that we might call the gut instinct and the head's reasoning. Unfortunately the imbalance in them can be traced back to when it made much more sense in our origins, but now means that however much we might teach the head, the gut instinct gets in the way, and we panic. We fear. We see such idiotically miniscule risk as something to make headlines of, make a profit from, and so on.

Even way before the 9/11 attacks which this book starts off with, people were much more in tune with threat than common sense, and were much more likely to insure their flying against terrorism than against every kind of problem – including terrorism. Such seems nonsense, but even with a higher mind logic goes out the door, with trained forensic psychiatrists responding very differently to something presented as 20%, than something as twenty out of a hundred.

The book is not all looking at such results, but does use many such to prove the causes behind modern, public hysterias. Internet paedophiles, mobile phone health risks, skin cancer occurrence – whatever you might think of as some slight danger, there will be someone somewhere trying to make you think it is more risky, and hence worth paying out to prevent. Sunblock as a defence against melanoma? Probably no good, if the truth be told – which it seldom is.

Do you remember the halcyon days when bananas were OK to sit next to other fruit? Now of course they're too much of a risk, and emit something to ripen their neighbours too quickly, so you need something separate to stick them in. Allegedly. That's a facile instance, but it only leads to the ridiculous sums of money spent on disease mongering, where we are nearly force-fed medical advice along the lines of 'buy this', when the problem may not be a worry at all, and more than likely can be reduced by some completely free option.

This is a science book crammed with results, opinion, example and proof, all more than easily readable. It doesn't waste time with a self-regarding authorial voice ('I'll show you this because…', 'we'll see this – when I get round to mentioning it later…'). Instead it goes about its business very efficiently, and eases the layman right into what is genuinely a global phenomenon and of no small import, in very good journalistic terms. Without knowing it, you are immersed in a sociology, psychology, maths, statistics, economics, criminology, even biology, book.

Having said that, it might possibly be a subject on its way out. Only recently we in the UK suffered some chap blethering on about ecstasy drugs being much safer than horse riding, when you count the fatalities the two pastimes cause. This example might tell you something about my confirmation bias – one of the many concepts introduced fluently by Dan Gardner here – but at least the comment was widely received with not an oo-er! but a d'oh!. Were other, similar proclamations so easily forgotten.

All in all, although you might not have woken up this morning expecting to share the concerns of the book (and as the odds of an asteroid falling on your bed are so high – far higher than the National Lottery, you should count your blessings you woke up at all), I have to recommend this rather highly. I don't claim to be an academic but the index might have let me down if I were one, and there are some tiny repetitions. But if nothing else it will indicate the likelihood of published psychiatrists having remarkably exotic names. Both my gut instinct and my head declare this book a hit.

We at the Bookbag must thank the publishers for chancing sending us a review copy. We did scan the package very carefully for dubious chemicals, but seem to have survived the obvious threat Jiffy bags may carry.

We can also recommend a book on the same subject from a scientist this one namechecks – Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer. For more on the misuse of statistics, have a look at The Tiger that Isn't by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot. For more on our attitudes to risk we think you'll appreciate Panicology by Simon Briscoe and Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Bad Science by Ben Goldacre and Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectation by Frank Furedi.

Booklists.jpg Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner is in the Top Ten Books For The Defenders Of Reason.
Buy Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner at Amazon.com.


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