The Risk-Monger

The Logic of Risks

The Risk-Monger follows many social media feeds from what he refers to as “Naturalist Nutters”, whom through years of confirmation bias and commonality are certain of claims like: how Monsanto is committing acts of genocidal bioterrorism (It’s true, they are!); how the world needs to urgently and massively depopulate (preferably in developing countries) to save the planet; and how most scientists are mad, evil, corrupted by industry or just plain liars. (See the Risk-Monger Facebook page for regular doses of the most magnificent claims.) But at the same time, a majority of the Naturalist Nutters (except for the truly hardcore) have recently been critical of those who do not vaccinate their children for measles. Do they not see the inconsistency in their reasoning or failure in their logic?

No they do not, and this is perfectly justifiable since, in reality, there is no logic to risks. To be more precise, the logic of risk-taking (what is in one’s thought processes when faced with a perceived risk – real or contrived) is different and allows for, what would appear to a scientific mind as gaping inconsistencies and irrationalities. That is what attracted this philosopher and student of Kant’s pure and practical reason to the field of risk over two decades ago, and why he comes down hard on second generation scholars (usually silly sociologists) who think they can articulate a logic and methodology. In this sense, risk is beguiling, and that is its beauty – something emotional that carries with it a justifiable illogic. I have given up trying to persuade people that a risk implies an opportunity (but that is also part of the logic of risks)

Some examples:

  • Justifiable relative risk aversion: During the Belgian dioxin food crisis in the late 1990s, I was astonished by how so many people who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day were terrified about the minute levels of dioxins they might ingest from eating chicken. When confronting them with data comparisons, they legitimately justified their decision by arguing that when they smoke, they are consciously making the decision to expose themselves.
  • Justifiable non-risk aversion: Fifteen years ago, I felt that I had developed an expertise in health effects from exposure to electro-magnetic fields from power lines. Outside of an errant Swedish study (typical!), most studies rejected the health risks as well as the claims of electro-sensitive individuals. At that time I was looking for a house, and had found the perfect one at a great price (except that it was near significant overhead power lines). I did not make an offer on that house and to this day do not regret it.
  • Justifiable but illogical risk acceptance: Every year in the United States, the number one non-surgical cosmetic intervention, by far, is Botox®. With over 12 million “facial rejuvenations” per year, Americans do not seem too terribly alarmed about injecting Botulinum toxin (a known neurotoxin) directly into their faces. They do it at parties. But they worry about insignificant pesticide residues on their strawberries.

The Risk-Monger regularly studies the justified illogic of certain risk-taking or risk aversion, so there is nothing surprising when the Naturalist Nutters criticise their own who do not vaccinate. They are following a risk logic that implies that all decisions around risk perceptions are justifiable (at the time). The risk logic has the wonderful corollary that you are never wrong (just, often, not very right).

A scientific logic (what we are told we should base our decision-making on) implies that something is either right or wrong (if you are not right, then you are wrong). A risk logic is built on the foundation that not being right is not necesarily the same as being wrong. Precaution (as an emotional mechanism to deal with risks and uncertainties) is built on this justified illogic. I have often written and spoken on my umbrella example to illustrate this.

Assume it is a sunny day and I have an umbrella in my briefcase (a precautionary measure to deal with the risk of getting wet). Was I right to bring my umbrella? No. Was I wrong to bring my umbrella? No, and I will bring it tomorrow even if the weather forecast is for another sunny day. This logic is justifiable even if it implies that not being right is not the same as being wrong.

The Risk-Monger in full Mary Poppins mode

People can be “not right” about GMOs, Botox®, DDT, power lines or vaccines and feel justified in not at all accepting that they are wrong. This infuriates scientists who do not share this logic. The scientific logic, once again, implies that you are either right or wrong, and that in being right (on a technology, process or product), you then have the right (to use or market it).The scientific community feels it is right on GMOs (and thus have the right in the EU to benefit from the seed technologies). The anti-GMO campaigners are confident in the belief that they are not wrong in continuing to reject this technology (even if they are not right).

Scientists embrace uncertainty and address risks with rational thought and well-tested hypotheses. Non-scientists fear uncertainty and address perceptions of risk with emotions.We want to think that our decisions should be evidence-based (ie, scientific) – a dream since the Enlightenment. But a quick look at some of our environmental-health policy decisions today shows how far we have to go:

  • We continue to ban the safer neonicotinoid pesticides in the EU despite the bogus and ill-intentioned activism behind the decision and the significant crop losses suffered by farmers from the first year of the ban.
  • We still subsidise farmers to grow biofuels even though it is universally recognised that we were “really, really, really not right” on that one.
  • We subsidise solar panels in cloudy countries like Belgium or Germany so the wealthy can have free electricity, while putting up energy costs for the poor.

So how then do you manage risks if there is no logic to risk-taking and where scientific logic is largely impotent? Most policy-makers are cowards so the precautionary principle is their favoured tool, but that throws the baby out with the risk-water. Rather, a risk manager (legislator) needs to focus on the benefits and then find a way to manipulate (sorry: “communicate”) public fear-tendencies in the right direction (loss of benefits have their own fear roots but fewer advocates … and usually from industry rather than activists). They can be largely successful with no-brainer benefit communications like measles vaccines, partially successful with no-brainer benefit communications like Golden Rice but rather hopeless with no-brainer benefit communications like crop protection products. One of the challenges is when a vocal population convinces itself that either there are no benefits, or that they do not matter (the “We don’t need GMOs!” crowd).

Telling the right story matters since people do not generally make decisions along rational or logical lines, but rather, from within a narrative structure that feeds them their perceptions (emotionally). A story-teller needs to be trusted (or else it becomes a horror story) – for many, this is the hard part. The best story-tellers today are activist campaigners who focus on emotional fear elements spread widely and liberally on social media … anecdotal, lacking in scientific evidence, but rich in “risk buttons” that are carefully pressed (often for donations).

So a good risk manager also has to be a good story-teller, well trusted and consistent. Forget about trying to tell people that they are wrong in their risk perceptions (the Naturalist Nutters have many stories to counter such attacks and will just generate further stories about your motivation) – but rather frame your benefits communications within stories that fit within the narratives people can understand and accept. Social media makes it easy for campaigners to denigrate stories that conflict with their objectives (Have you ever read the comments sections on activist social media pages like Greenpeace?) so this process may take time and should involve a multitude of story-tellers. The anti-vaccine campaigners did not shut up when the health authorities tried to use science on them, but rather when their friends and family turned against them, fully aware of the benefits of vaccines versus the risks.

Forget about facts, science or reason – the Naturalist Nutters have stories to deal with those. But when the narrative shifts (eg, when they acknowledge that vaccines may have a value), risk analysts need to study how to develop such opportunities of logical thinking. This window of logic may not last long.


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