Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Scientists from around the world are eagerly awaiting the first experiments this summer at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which will smash subatomic particles together to try to replicate conditions in the universe a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Some say the experiments could create a black hole and destroy the earth. Scientists dismiss those fears as irrational. It's a classic collision of the two ways we humans try to sort out the risks we face.

This just in, from Geneva, Switzerland.
The world has been destroyed, consumed in the infinite gravity of a black hole triggered by an experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. All life on earth was extinguished and the earth itself was crushed down to the size of an atom.
However, scientists running the experiment say that, as predicted by the laws of quantum physics, our former world and all life as it existed were instantly replaced with identical copies. “What's the big deal? Nobody even noticed,” said Dr. I. M. Smart, a leader of the science team conducting the experiment. He added "It's just as we predicted. People have to start trusting scientists and stop worrying when we tell them they're safe."
Scientists say the experiment identified a new condition of matter, which they have named the Significant Major Unknown Gyration, or SMUG. “We’re very excited,” Dr. Smart said. “Discovery of Smugness has taught us important new things about the creation of the universe, even if it did require the fleeting destruction of the world. That’s just how science progresses.”
The experiment survived several lawsuits seeking to avoid the destruction that occurred this morning. The plaintiff in those suits, Walter Whiner, could not be reached for comment on the outcome of the experiment. His wife said he disappeared at 4:13 a.m., precisely the moment the experiment began.
Police report that a number of other people are missing. Officials in Cincinnati, Ohio say the entire staff of The Creationism Museum disappeared during a conference entitled “Darwin was a Communist”. Police in Washington, D.C. are searching for Bette B. Scared, founder of “Vaccines Cause Autism”. Australian police say they are searching for Bea Afraid, author of “The Only Safe Risk is ZERO Risk” and a well-known opponent of genetically modified food.
Dr. Smart denies any connection between the disappearances and the momentary destruction of the Earth caused by his experiment. “Under the laws of super strong theory we predict with a 99.99% confidence interval that they should look for these people in Dimension X,” he said. Smart added "We call it The Irrational Dimension. Which isn't so different from where we think they've been living all along.”

Following the momentary destruction of the world, attorneys rushed to file several class action lawsuits. The first was entered at court just 45 seconds after the destruction event by Attorney Sue Everyone of the law firm of Screwem, Ligh, and Profit, who said “This is the most egregious case of arrogant scientists run amok in the history of mankind. It doesn't matter that we may have unlocked the mystery of how the universe was created. My clients, who include anyone on the planet who was alive at 4:13 this morning, were harmed when a nanosecond of their lives was taken away from them." Everyone is claiming infinite punitive damages.

Officials at the Large Hadron Collider say their work will continue. Critics have already filed legal action to stop an upcoming experiment which they say could set the Earth on fire. Scientists say their work is safe. They call the critics irrational. The critics say the scientists are arrogant and aren't taking the risk seriously.
The court hearing on the upcoming experiment will be held next month on Friday the 13th.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Conflict Between Nuclear Fears and Nuclear Facts

Mark Twain said "I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."

We worry about a lot of things in this threatening world, and as Twain suggested, sometimes our worries are based more on our perception of the facts than on the facts themselves. So what's a government to do when people think they have been harmed by something, and they want the government to compensate them, only the evidence says they're wrong.

Well the Japanese have just answered that question with a resounding "Pay them anyway."

This is about the survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are known in Japan as the HIBAKUSHA, people who lived within about two and a quarter miles of ground zero or visited those areas in the days after the blasts. There are roughly 250,000 of them still alive. Their average age is 64.

HIBAKUSHA rightly get all sorts of special government benefits. Those who suffer from five diseases connected with radiation are also eligible for special medical benefits. In 2001 the government established science-based standards to determine who qualifies, since many HIBAKUSHA, who lived further from the center of the explosions, received practically no radiation dose at all. That science-based approach basically said that the further away from ground zero you lived, the less radiation you were exposed to, and the less likely it is that radiation caused your illness. (Remember, lots of elderly people get cancer, like skin cancer or prostate cancer, and radiation has nothing to do with it.) Under that standard 99 out of every hundred atomic bomb survivors who applied for special medical benefits were turned down.

300 of them sued the Japanese government, and those lawsuits got a lot of attention in the press. Political pressure built on the government. Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was already in political trouble, so he promised a new system.

That new system was just announced and, basically, it says the faqcts don't matter as much as people's concerns. Now any HIBAKUSHA who is sick gets paid, no matter how far they lived from ground zero, no matter if they received any radiation at all. As one member of the government panel that wrote the new rules said "Fear is particularly high about radiation. It's more important to support the HIBAKUSHA regardless of the lack of scientific evidence."

That FEELS good, FEELS fair. But think about it. By that standard governments should be paying people who are worried about electric power lines, or artificial sweeteners, or silicone in their breast implants, or autism from vaccines, or brain tumors from cell phones…or any number of other risks which many of us fear, fears not supported by the facts.

Worrying too much can cause stress, and stress hurts our health. So unlike many of the things we fear, the risk from fear itself is real, and needs to be respected in government policy. But the Japanese policy goes so much further than that. They've basically said that emotions trump science, and in a world in which so many of us are worried about so many things, a policy like that could turn out to be a truly troubling thing.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

This is Your Brain on Fear

So I was walking my dogs in the woods the other day and it happened again. There was this long skinny curving line on the ground, and my rational brain said “That’s a root” and my animal brain screamed “SNAKE! SNAKE!”, and the animal brain won. I froze.

This happens to me all the time, which is dumb for three reasons. First, I KNOW it’s not a snake. Second, this is what I study and teach…the way we human animals perceive risk and how to communicate about risk better, so I should be able to overcome this apparent irrationality. And third, every time it happens I tell myself not to let it happen again…but it does. By the way, this DOESN’T happen to my dogs.

The good news is we understand pretty well how this works…how whenever we encounter something that could be hazardous, that information goes first to the part of the brain that sets off a fight or flight response just in case, and THEN it goes to the parts of the brain that can give it a little thought, and send back the message “You did it again you idiot.” By which time, I’ve already frozen.

It doesn’t matter what the potential threat is. It doesn’t matter whether we see it, smell it, hear it, touch it, taste it, or even if it’s just information assembled in our brain…a thought…or a memory. The same thing happens. The information goes to where we fear first, and to where we think, second.

And then, in the ensuing battle between rationality and gut instinct…guess what? Instinct usually wins, or at least it has the upper hand, again because of wiring in the brain.

So there I am on the trail. My dogs look at me to try to figure out why we’re stopping. I ignore this innocent interrogation and move on. And I am reminded once again that talking to people about risk a messy affair. Most risk communication just tries to find really clear ways to explain the facts, to educate. But if just learning the facts was enough, I wouldn’t be freezing when I saw a root on the ground in the woods. If just the facts were enough, we probably wouldn’t be as afraid as we all are about a lot of things…like terrorism (the fear of which helped launch a war) or nuclear power, or industrial chemicals…and we’d probably be more afraid of the things that are much more likely to kill us, like heart disease (it kills 2200 Americans every day), and stroke, and motor vehicle crashes and other accidents.

I find that if I want to help my friends make informed, healthy choices about the risks they face…well, yes, it might help to offer what few facts I can…but I also have to respect their fears, and not just say ”Here are the Facts. Calm Down”. I have to respectfully help them know that risk perception is a combination of facts AND feelings, and though both are valid, sometimes the feelings can lead to behaviors that actually increase the risk. Just knowing that challenges me to think about risks more thoroughly.

Unless, of course, it’s another root in the shadows at my feet. Maybe I should just let my dogs walk ahead of me.