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 WERE ALWAYS OUTSIDE PLAYING!!
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?