Should I worry about…

by Suw on October 14, 2004

We're crap at judging risks. People are terrified of flying despite the fact that we're far more likely to get hit by a car than involved in an air crash. More people die each week of cancer than were killed in September 11, yet still the fear of terrorism pervades our society.
From salmon scares to mobile phones to child abduction to terrorism, the media manage to scare the living crap out of most people most of the time for no good reason (other than that it sells papers).
Humans are, perversely, rather attracted to risk. In Canada, there was a serious issue with cars being hit by trains on level-crossings which, in the wilds of the open north, don't have barriers. The authorities thought, rather logically, that the problem was the trees. When the railway crossing was obscured by trees the drivers couldn't see if there was a train coming and so couldn't stop in time. Seems reasonable.
The solution? Cut down the trees in a Y shape so that the drivers can see the trains. The result? Drivers spotted the trains sooner, decided to 'race' them, and the number of fatalities increased.
See. We are built for risk. We're just very bad at judging what is a risk (smoking) and what isn't a risk (eating salmon).
The putting of risk into perspective has been something rather close to my heart for a while, so I was delighted that the BBC had commissioned a series called Should I Worry About…? which explores the facts behind tabloid scare stories.
In Should I Worry About…?, Richard Hammond, the face of the great Brainiac: Science Abuse on Sky One, takes a deeper look at common scare stories and debunks the headlines. I'm not a huge fan of investigative journalism because usually it delves into issues that, awful though they are, don't affect the majority of people. This series, however, looks at stories that affect all of us and takes a balanced look at the evidence (or, frequently, complete lack of).
Richard Hammond is a really good presenter, discussing the issues in a way that is understandable without being patronising. I'm hyper-sensitive to patronising wankers in TV, primarily because I have a science degree myself and I hate people talking down to either me or anyone else. Science isn't, er, rocket science. It just requires a clarity of communication in order to get the points across, something that many TV companies just don't realise.
We need more programmes like Should I Worry About…?, and more presenters like Richard Hammond. We also need to hold the tabloids accountable for the crap they print, although I can't see that happening any time soon.

Anonymous October 14, 2004 at 8:24 pm

On the point about terrorism….
Yes. The chances of being killed by a terrorist in, say the mainland United States is absolutely tiny. Look at very recent history.
There are 294,515,980* people in the USA as I write this. How many were killed in 1999 by terrorists in the US? Zero; 2000? Zero; 2002 to date? Zero
In 2001 3,500 people lost their lives in a horrible, inhuman attack, but in measuring the likelihood of you dying at the hands of terrorists the odds are still pretty small
However the Western World is still fed daily doses of paranoia by the press and governments who basically want to stay in power, enrich themselves, push through their agendas, keep the population scared.
Am I saying there are no terrorists out to get us?? Of course not… we should be hunting these people down, but the risk isn't as big as people want us to think.
The boogeyman isn't hiding in your closet.


Anonymous October 15, 2004 at 8:11 am

I work in the “safety” industry, and its amazing how many extreme sports are participated in by people in this sector! When you're working with these safety numbers you realise that the dangerous things aren't all that dangerous

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