Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ropeik takes on risk

My colleague and friend David Ropeik takes on a risky subject in this op-ed in the Washington Post, and he gets it right. He points out the flaws in an EPA proposal to give more weighting to death from cancer than from other diseases. Here are some excerpts:

Wouldn't it make more sense to be more afraid of what's more likely to kill you?

Yes, but that's not how we perceive risks. Risks have psychological and emotional characteristics that make some feel scarier than others, the probabilities notwithstanding. A long, painful cancer death may not be any worse than a long, painful heart disease death, but we think it would be, and feel we can't control it, and that makes cancer more feared.

That is precisely what a new proposal at the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to acknowledge. When assessing whether a new regulation would be worth the money, the agency projects how many lives it would save vs. the costs of implementing it. But now, the EPA suggests that death by cancer is so frightening to the public, cancer deaths should carry greater weight in its calculations than deaths by other causes.

This is an approach that may have some ethical and emotional appeal, but it carries serious dangers for us all.

. . . Under its "cancer premium," the [value] of lives saved from cancer would be 50 percent more than that of lives saved from other causes of death. So this premium would incorporate our greater fear of cancer into the analysis of whether regulations are worth the cost. That may seem pretty democratic: Cancer is scarier, and shouldn't our government protect us from the things we're more afraid of?

. . . It would give an advantage to regulations to control carcinogenic chemicals in the air, for instance, and disadvantage rules to control particulate air pollution, which contributes to cardiovascular deaths - which are far more common but, we think, less scary. As unpleasant as it may seem to argue against the cancer premium, it could increase the overall environmental death toll in America.

. . . We need to recognize that, just as there are physical risks that we study and try to manage, there are very real risks from the perception gap that also need to be recognized, studied and accounted for in policymaking. Getting risk wrong is risky.

We use tools such as toxicology and epidemiology and economics to identify and analyze how to deal with those physical threats. We should also use neuroscience and psychology and sociology and economics to recognize the dangers posed by our misperceptions and to analyze those threats the same way we analyze and manage any others.

That can help us handle the gap between the facts and our feelings about the facts.

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