Thursday, 12 February 2009

A House Made of Asbestos

I have been reading a book called Risk, The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner. It is a fascinating explanation of how we assess risk and build risk avoidance into our lives, customs and laws. His thesis is that the way we do this has been built into us from Naked Ape level up and so our 'Gut' deals with risk assessment in the same way that our primitive ancestors learned to survive. For instance, listening to stories about narrow escapes (I saw a tiger on the way back from the river!) prints the information in the forefront of the mind and causes the listener to adopt behaviours that will avoid the risk. Supposedly rational educated modern humans react to dramatic stories in the media in the same way and obsess, for instance, over SARS or shark attacks, instances of which are vanishingly likely to affect the listener.
Most of us, even those of us who paid attention in maths class, are not what Gardner calls 'numerate' in our normal processing of information. We read stories about child abduction and subsequently see a near and immediate threat to our precious children. The numbers, as Gardner lays them out, tell a very different story. He gives the percentage risk of an under 14 year old American child being abducted by a stranger in 1998 as 0.00015 (1 in 655,555) or 90 children. Of those 90 children, 60% were retrieved and returned home within two days. In the same period, 285 children drowned in swimming pools. But our 'Gut' screams at us that our own child could be one of the 90 and we decide that we had better walk that child to and from school. The behaviour that kept our ancestors alive and breeding (stay away from there; there might be a tiger), hard-wired into us, does not take account of the size of the sample.
It's a most interesting read. There's a lot of analysis of how the media and modern speed of communication play with this, of how politics in a democracy riffs off it, how psychology and sociology differ in approach and analysis of the way risk affects our lives, our communities and our societies. I'm only part way through, but I'm talking about it here because it correlates in my mind with two recent things I have read.
The first was an article in the paper discussing peanut allergies. The writer made the point that the chances of an anaphylactic incident from peanuts served on airlines or a classmate's peanut butter sticky fingers are vanishingly small. The article has provoked a spate of earnest letters to the editor in which the writers urge people to stick with stringent methods of avoiding even the slightest chance of contact. The other is an internet forwarded goody that a friend sent me yesterday. When I read it it struck me as funny and in some parts quite pertinent to how we deal with raising our children. I'm going to quote some of it here; North Americans bear in mind that it seems to have been written by a Brit.

CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL MY FRIENDS WHO WERE BORN IN THE 1930's 1940's, 50's, 60's and early 70's !
First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they carried us and lived in houses made of asbestos. They took aspirin, ate blue cheese, raw egg products, loads of bacon and processed meat, tuna from a can, and didn't get tested for diabetes or cervical cancer. Then after that trauma, our baby cots were covered with bright coloured lead-based paints.
We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had no helmets or shoes, not to mention, the risks we took hitchhiking. As children, we would ride in cars with no seat belts or air bags. We drank water from the garden hose and NOT from a bottle. Take away food was limited to fish and chips, no pizza shops, McDonald's, KFC, Subway or Nandos. Even though all the shops closed at 6.00pm and didn't open on the weekends, somehow we didn't starve to death!
We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and NO ONE actually died from this. We could collect old drink bottles and cash them in at the corner store and buy Toffees, Gobstoppers, Bubble Gum and some bangers to blow up frogs with. We ate cupcakes, white bread and real butter and drank soft drinks with sugar in it, but we weren't overweight because......
We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on. No one was able to reach us all day. And we were O.K. We would spend hours building our go-carts out of old prams and then ride down the hill, only to find out we forgot the brakes. We built tree houses and dens and played in river beds with matchbox cars. We did not have Playstations, Nintendo Wii, X-boxes, no video games at all, no 999 channels on SKY, no video/dvd films, no mobile phones, no personal computers, no Internet or Internet chat rooms...........WE HAD FRIENDS and we went outside and found them!
[cut more of the same here]
You might want to share this with others who have had the luck to grow up as kids, before the lawyers and the government regulated our lives for our own good. And while you are at it, forward it to your kids so they will know how brave their parents were.

This might be the height of old fogydom. 'Things were better in the golden age of our childhood'. And it certainly has some glaring logical flaws. But it makes a point, I think.

What do you think?


  1. Hah. One of my favorite professors in grad. school (who taught me statistics and behavioral assessment) talked a lot about estimation of risk. We humans are SO bad at it. There's something called the availability heuristic (Kahneman & Tversky), an automatized rule (that often results in cognitive bias) by which one bases one's prediction of the frequency of an event or the proportion within a population based on how easily an example of the event can be brought to mind. And the mainstream media influences what's brought to mind.


  2. I LOVED that book. And that example.

    I let my kids play outside now without me, because he made sense.

    (Okay, I do lurk out on the porch, watching from afar. I'm still their Mom....)

  3. This is also relevant to the recent peanut recall. I think a person is more likely to catch a cold virus from the store than to get salmonella from eating a food in that store -- and yet. Everyone freaked on the peanuts.

    I wonder if there isn't an element of 'local control' involved as well. I mean, I can lower the risk of my child drowning in a pool by putting on a life jacket, taking swimming lessons, etc. etc. But there's very little I can do about an abduction. So when my child's 10 or so I will likely stop worrying about drowning, whereas I will never stop worrying about abduction. Does he mention that in the book?

    Regarding your friend's email & the current generation of over-protective parents: I suspect that children are more precious these days because no one has any. I mean, hardly anyone has more than 2. It also means that no parents know what the hell they're doing; we daren't behave cavalierly because what if we BREAK our child? We don't have the experience to know where the real dangers lie. Grandparents & older siblings can't help us because they don't live nearby. (What I wouldn't give to have my mom close! And for my stupid sister to stop her objections and just get knocked up already.)

  4. very interesting. I try to remind myself that as I nervously let MQ play out in the front yard with her friends (NEVER alone... and I still peek out at them every few minutes)

    The chances are slim, but the consequences horrifying. I try to walk that tightrope, and I have been very, very careful to not instill that fear in her. The whole "stranger danger" movement has gone too far, and is harmful to many (like my friend's son, who refuses to be alone in his own house because someone might come and take him away!) but I'm getting off the subject

  5. Your email sounds like my childhood--I knawed on a lead painted crib rail and I'm fairly certain I'm OK. I remember saddling the horses, taking the sleeping bags and all the kids in our little town would head for the hills for a little camping trip. I'm sure our parents were aware of where we were, but they never seemed to hover. Raising my kids "in town" and watching way to many news broadcasts made me somewhat overprotective and I did keep a close eye on them. But they were allowed to play outside with all the friends they could find, go on sleepovers, walk to the local malt shop etc. Now with my grandkids, living in the same place--I feel like a wreck. I've got to know where they are all the time! I think the media does it's best to keep us frightened. Great post with lots to think about.

  6. Well yeah. I agree with all of this in a way. I certainly wouldn't let my kids ride in any cars bouncing around in the backseat seatbeltless and fancy free the way I did as a small child and it's certainly true I don't let them run wild outside without supervision from sunrise to sunset. I'm not sure how much of this is scared monkey evolutionary reaction and how much of it is good mothering, but it's how I roll and roll on I will. :)

    Fun post - thought provoking and entertaining, both.

  7. I'm 49, so I fall into the category of kids raised in the "old days", I guess. I never rode in a carseat, never had a "playdate", never even got the "stranger talk." My kids are now in their twenties. I think it's important to have a good mix--kids need to be independent so that they aren't fearful and can still function on their own. As a teacher (highschool), my classes are full of kids who can't initiate ANYTHING. They can't start a project without help, they can't THINK. They're too used to helicopter parents hovering over them and "helping" them with EVERYTHING. None of them can even take the risk of a possible wrong answer. Discussion in class is at a standstill: no one wants to venture an opinion because they might be wrong. I maintain that it's a product of this "bubble-wrap" parenting.

  8. This is fascinating! I've added it to my reading list.

    I'm trying very consciously to strike a balance between the 2 extremes, but it's not always easy. Am I focusing on the right things, ignoring the wrong ones? That kind of thing...

    I'm looking forward to reading this book now!

  9. I think I must read this book. It sounds exactly like my thoughts on parenting, and getting outside. I don't remember many organized activities in my youth, and yet I always found something to do. I believe my creativity comes from that freedom.

  10. The book sounds wonderful. As a public health scientist, I know risk and have the skills to put it in perspective... yet, I have a variety of quirks that I can't shake. Not drinking tap water (one of my epid profs was on the safe water commission and we read way too many crazy studies), avoiding green onions that aren't hand washed by me (caused Hep A outbreak in PA), and an intense fear of falling off a bridge while driving when the kids are in the car (just crazy, this one).

    Something about media plays into exactly whatever fears we can't shake... but what is the answer to beat it? Knowledge doesn't do it (if it did, I wouldn't be such a nut-ball.)