"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Afraid Of Your Shadow–Overestimating Risk

Americans are a worried bunch.  There’s bad air outside and bad air inside. There’re bacteria on cutting boards and counter tops, polymer toxins in wall-to-wall carpets, airborne poisons from air conditioning and refrigerators, dioxins and BPA in toys and computers, chlorine and pesticides in the water….The list goes on and on, and if life were not stressful enough with the threat of terrorism, nuclear winter, and another financial crisis, our very homes have been invaded by unseen but equally dangerous forces.

Life is no better on the outside. Playgrounds are no longer safe, and even after the slides, swings, and monkey-bars have been removed; uneven surfaces can trip a toddler; the West Nile virus lurks under ever oak leaf and in every clogged drain.  Aggressive drivers and rogue 18-wheelers make the Beltway perilous.  Fiery crashes occur every day, steel behemoths flip into the air and crush innocent families and patient commuters on the way down.

Of course the chances of anything happening to any one person are miniscule – the risks are very, very low.

In a recent study (2009) the EPA  found that approximately 1 out of every 27,000 Americans would develop cancer because of breathing polluted air -- if those individuals were exposed to 2002 emissions levels 24 hours a day for 70 years.

Now for most of us born well before 2002, our exposure to pollutants has been far less, and our individual risk is more like 1 in 54,000.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported that the rate of salmonella infection in the past decade was 0.7 percent; but for white, middle class families who had not travelled abroad, the risk was miniscule.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission extensively studied playground injuries in the late 1990s and found that the risks of any one child getting hurt was only .07 percent.

The National Safety Council estimates that anyone’s chances of dying in a car accident are less than 1 percent.

In other words, the facts do not justify the concern.  So why are there Handiwipes and Purell dispensers everywhere?  Why do patrons of sports clubs wipe down the equipment before getting on?  Why are we opening doors with our elbows and taking our shoes off before entering the kitchen?  Why are we shampooing the cat twice a week?

As in all human behavior there is a range of aversion to risk.  On one end there is the man who will eat the hotdog that he dropped in the street, never wash his hands before eating, and let his kids lick, chew, and suck anything they can find around the house.  On the other end, there is the woman who will never leave her house which she has retrofitted with state-of-the-art air purification systems, and installed triple-layer charcoal water filters.  She wears tight-fitting, disposal gloves, organic sisal recyclable booties, sprays the mail with disinfectant before opening, has all voice-activated phones and appliances, has expunged every last bit of plastic from the house and chucked offending sofas, divans, and carpets.  She has fitted every small motor with a deflecting, ionized interceptor, double-paned and tinted all windows, and sealed every crack, ding, and pinhole with beeswax.

Most of us fall somewhere in between and take reasonable care.  Yet I see the Purell dispensers everywhere.  A million random hands have been on the subway poles, ten million have handled every one dollar bill.  Airplane cabins are filled with sneezes, coughs, and slime. I watched one woman as she got off the Metro at Dupont Circle.  She squeezed a few drops of Purell into her hands and rubbed them like a madwoman. They were already red, raw, and chapped.  She held her arms up like a doctor who had just scrubbed and was careful not to touch the doors or railings of the escalator.

Risk has replaced children as the primary topic of dinner table conversations – rabid raccoons in the alley, dengue marching its way up from the Louisiana swamps, flashers on the schoolyard, bullies on the playground, potato chips in the lunchroom, car wrecks on the Beltway.

I have never really understood why Americans are so timorous. What ever happened to rugged individualism, the Wild West, and Manifest Destiny?  Americans went westward and hacked their way through pestilential, snake-infested swamps to get to the Mississippi Delta and the riches of cotton.  We crossed uncharted plains and treacherous mountains to get to sunny California.  We tamed the wilderness, braved dangerous oceans to hunt whales, and charged out of the trenches with valor to meet certain death.

What happened?  We are afraid of our shadows. Why? Most importantly is the notion that the more you can cheat death, the more you feel you can always cheat it.  The greater the advances in science and medicine, the more miraculous cures, and the increasingly safer environment, the more we feel that anything is possible. We all can live to 100; and if 100, then why not 150?  The sky’s the limit.

The average lifespan of an early American settler in the 1600s was 35.  If you made it out of childhood, you knew that sooner rather than later you would cut yourself and die from a virulent infection; or die from snakebite, a falling tree, or an Indian’s arrow.  Death was not a possibility, it was an immediate, visible, inescapable certainty.  There was no such thing as risk assessment because everything was risky and the risks were overwhelming.  Men charged into battle at 28 because they could die gloriously on the battlefield and avoid the disgusting death of cholera or fulminating fever only a few years later. Death was no big deal.  Life was short, death came quickly, and that was that.

Today, there is no balance between the two. Life is all there is. Death is to be ignored, avoided, and repulsed.

If it was very American to push the frontier and challenge all comers in the early days of the Republic, it is equally American to conquer risk.  Ours is a can-do, put-your-mind-to-it nation.  We are forward-looking, optimistic, and endlessly hopeful.  We are exceptional, remarkable, and death-defying.  We laugh at Europeans who shrug their shoulders with a C’est la vie or a Que sera, sera. They are too burdened with the past.  Understanding history to avoid repeating it is defeatist, French intellectualism at its worst.  We Americans know that regardless of history, we can mold the future to our liking.  Death is no obstacle.

In any case, I am all for the Purell generation because they keep American cash registers ringing.  Think of all the disinfectants, purifiers, overpriced organic food, indestructible cars, and renovated houses and reconfigured playgrounds.  There is a lot of money to be made catering to – or rather pandering to – Americans’ fear of dying and tireless optimism about cheating death.

I figure that after a certain age, even the most addled worrier will relax. After all, if you have reached 70 despite all the environmental hazards surrounding you for decades, you should be home free.  My mother died at 100 simply because her body wore out.  She had run the gantlet of 1918 Influenza, polio, a world without antibiotics, with poor sanitation, and bad eggs for a century and still made it through.  Near the end of her life nothing at all fazed her.  She had come through safe and sound and died in her sleep.

So, I am cool about risk; but still am pestered by my older friends who should have learned my mother’s lesson.  They hector me about not wearing my seatbelt, picking up dropped food, touching everything and washing nothing.  I am cavalier, they say, and immorally indifferent to environmental threat.  Not only do I shake hands and then eat M&M’s, I assume that the risks of global warming will either wane or increase, but given the perspective of permanent, inevitable change, will amount to nothing.

I am a committed believer in Voltaire. “We must cultivate our garden”, said Candide to Pangloss.

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