Risk Aversion and Cancer

The latest news from International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) says that there might be a slight risk of developing cancer from the use of cell phones. Everyone has heard it by now, and it will provide fuel for those people who are already convinced that the radiation from phones is going to give all of us brain cancer.  Orac has a post entitled The bride of the son of the revenge of cell phones and cancer rises from the grave…again where he explains why it just ain’t so. Again, that won’t change the minds of those who are already convinced.

I’ve been reading the science for quite a while, and I’m not worried in the least, but what is interest to me is what David Ropeik at Scientific American has to say about our perception of risk.

What you do – what people facing risk of any kind at any time do – is rely on the affective/instinctive/subconscious system of risk perception that has gotten us this far through evolution’s gauntlet. We take the hints and clues and headlines we have at any given moment and apply a set of heuristics and biases – mental shortcuts – that help us make sense of that partial information. We apply psychological filters that help us judge how scary or not those hints feel. And, oh yeah, we also try to think carefully about the facts.

In other words, our perception will be a tangled subjective blend of facts and feelings. This messy combination of intellect and instinct shapes our decisions about any risk. Which, of course, sometimes leads to mistakes, which can be risky all by themselves, when we do what feels safe, but isn’t.

He goes on to use this current concern over cell phones to bring up some points on this perception.

1. The bias of ‘Loss Aversion” means that in a trade off between gain (using the phone) and loss (brain cancer), the loss usually carries more weight.

2. The “Availability Heuristic” means that the more aware of something we are, the more worried about it we are.

3. “Representativeness bias” means we make sense of partial information by comparing it to what we already know that seems similar. “Radiation” rings a lot of familiar bells. Scary ones.

4. We’re more afraid of human-made risks (radiation from cell phones) than natural ones (radiation from the sun), and we’re more afraid of things that cause high pain and suffering – like brain cancer – than risks which cause less painful outcomes.

5. We worry more about risks produced by sources we don’t trust, like companies which, in service to their profits rather than our health and well being, will undoubtedly say the IARC report does not prove there is any risk.

He goes on with two points on when our intuitive risk measurements have the opposite effect.

1. The more benefit we get from a choice or behavior the more we play DOWN the risk. So you may check who’s calling before deciding whether to risk brain cancer by answering.

2. The more familiar a risk is, and the more everybody’s doing the same thing, and has been for a while, the more we think it’s safe for us to do it, too.

We try to base our sense of risk on facts, and make decisions accordingly. However, we are faced with several different obstacles to that approach. First of all is the overwhelming amount of information that is available to us. We can easily become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of conflicting reports and not be able to sort out the ‘truth’. Second, many of the issues are very complex. Cancer is not a single disease, and the risk factors for each type can be very different. Along with this, comes the increasing understanding of various branches of science. Most of us hear the word ‘radiation’ and immediately assume we will start glowing. It takes some education in physics to understand the various types and their effects at varying doses. The same goes for much of our current understanding of many other health issues. Without a good basis in biology, almost anything can sound reasonable.

Since change is constant, especially in scientific endeavours, advice on diet and other lifestyle choices is constantly changes. This leaves many with the impression that the ‘experts’ don’t know anything because  they are constantly changing their minds. Of course, the media is culpable as scare stories and the ‘latest breakthrough’ that will ‘stand current thinking on it’s head’ are what sells. That and sex. Most science stories involve complexity and nuances that are not possibly to explain in a few paragraphs in a newspaper or a web site.

Precaution is a reasonable approach. However, we must be wary of becoming victims of the Paralyzing Precautionary Principle:

Because if they were as worried as …. is, they’d be paralyzed. They wouldn’t drive a car, get on a bus, eat a meal at a restaurant, or turn on any electrical device. They wouldn’t stand near a granite mountain because it might give off cancer-causing electromagnetic radiation. They wouldn’t go swimming in the ocean for fear of being eaten by a shark or killed by a jellyfish. They wouldn’t even read his memo out of fear that their computer monitors might be poisoning them with radiation. They wouldn’t open their mail for fear of being killed by anthrax or a mail bomb.

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