A risky attitude to risk

Mobile phone

This won't kill you. It might just heat up your head a bit.

We all know that smoking and drinking aren’t the best things for us. But it’s equally clear that a lot of people (myself included) aren’t paying much attention to the advice to cut down or quit. Both of these drugs kill millions every year, yet we turn a blind eye to the risks we’re taking when we use them.

On the other hand, many people spend hours worrying about ‘risks’ that have almost no evidence to support them. A prime example: mobile phones. Money is being spent on research to find out whether mobiles cause brain cancer, and the only reason this work is being done is because the public are concerned. There is no scientific basis for these worries.

So what’s going on here? Why are we so hypocritical when it comes to risk?

Part of this is clearly the rumour mill – every day in the media we hear about vaccines that (don’t) give children autism, and foods that (don’t) cure cancer. But what’s not often mentioned is that people are quite happy to feed this gossip themselves – I’ve been sent several emails telling me that I mustn’t reuse plastic bottles because toxins will leach into the water and give me breast cancer.

The other big ingredient is just peer pressure – it’s not easy to stop smoking or drinking when everyone around you carries on doing it. That’s why the smoking ban in the UK has been such a big success – if no-one can smoke in a pub, you’re a lot less conspicuous and a lot less likely to succumb to temptation when you’re trying to quit.

The bit I don’t understand is the conspiracy theory mentality. Some people seem downright enthusiastic to believe the scare stories, and won’t accept it when there’s no evidence to back them up. MMR is a great example of this – the papers have reported the results showing no link between the vaccine and autism, but the damage has already been done. The idea is out there and there’s no putting it back in the box.

Another slightly less rabid group of people appear to read dubious stories and then promptly start to worry without making any effort to find out the truth. ‘Deodorants give you breast cancer? Sounds plausible. I’ll tell all my friends.’

Last but by no means least is the thorny moral dimension. Why is it unacceptable to point out that using ecstasy is safer than horse-riding? Why is marijuana so terrible? Oh right… silly me. Because using ecstasy or marijuana is wrong. Never mind that far more dangerous drugs like alcohol and nicotine are most definitely legal and will stay that way for years to come. But at least this line of argument doesn’t usually pretend to consider the evidence.

This must all be a bit disheartening if you’re an epidemiologist trying to study health risks. When can you just say, ‘here are the facts, stop worrying’? Perhaps never, in the case of mobile phones. And conversely, running around saying ‘alcohol kills’ just isn’t going to wash during a recession, no matter how true it might be.

Risk is just another example of how science is never just about cold hard facts. These cold hard facts are being discovered, communicated and understood by often irrational, emotional humans – a massive source of error. But one that makes the whole topic a lot more interesting.

I predict that people looking back at us in 50 years time will be appalled at the lack of interest the public showed in the health effects of alcohol. It’s the next elephant in the room after tobacco. One day it won’t be acceptable for companies to pay for booze at a Christmas party – so perhaps we’d better enjoy it while it lasts!

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