From Pandemics to Nuclear Power: Why People Why People Take the Risks They Do
Vaclav Smil on the Strange Choices We Make
In his pioneering 1969 analysis of risks, Chauncey Starr—at that time the dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of California in Los Angeles—stressed the major difference in risk tolerance between voluntary and involuntary activities. When people think that they are in control (a perception that may be incorrect but that is based on previous experiences and hence on the belief that they can assess the likely outcome), they engage in activities—climbing vertical rock faces without ropes, skydiving, bullfighting—whose risks of serious injury or fatality may be a thousand-fold higher than the risk associated with such dreaded involuntary exposure as a terrorist attack in a large Western city.
And most people have no problem engaging daily and repeatedly in activities that temporarily increase their risk by significant margins: hundreds of millions of people drive every day (and many apparently like to do so), and an even higher risk is tolerated by an even larger number of smokers—in affluent countries, decades of education has reduced their ranks, but worldwide there are still more than 1 billion of them.
In some cases this disparity between tolerating voluntary risks and trying to avoid wrongly perceived risks of involuntary exposures becomes truly bizarre, as people refuse to have their children inoculated (voluntarily exposing them to multiple risks of preventable diseases) because they consider government requirements to protect their children (an involuntary imposition) as unacceptably risky—and have been doing so on the basis of repeatedly discredited “evidence” (most notably linking vaccination to a higher incidence of autism) or rumored perils (the implanting of microchips!).
And the SARSCoV-2 pandemic elevated these irrational fears to a new level. Humanity’s best hope to end the pandemic was mass-scale vaccination, but long before the first vaccines were approved for distribution, large shares of the population were telling pollsters that they would not get inoculated.Feelings of dread play an outsized role in risk perception.
Widespread fear of nuclear electricity generation is yet another excellent example of risk misperception. Many people smoke and drive and eat excessively but have reservations about living next to a nuclear power plant, and polling has shown lasting and pervasive distrust of this form of electricity generation despite the fact that it has prevented a large number of air pollution– related deaths that would have been associated with burning fossil fuels (by 2020, nearly three-fifths of the world’s electricity came from fossil fuels, and just 10 percent from nuclear fission).
And the comparison between overall risks of nuclear and fossil-fueled electricity generation does not flip even when the best estimates of all latent fatalities from the two major accidents (Chornobyl in 1985 and Fukushima in 2011) are included.
Perhaps the most stunning contrast of nuclear-related risk perceptions is seen when comparing France and Germany. France has been deriving more than 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear fission since the 1980s and nearly 60 reactors dot the country’s landscape, cooled by water from many French rivers, including the Seine, Rhine, Garonne, and Loire. Yet the longevity of the French population (second only to Spain within the EU) is the best testimony to the fact that these nuclear power plants have not been a discernible source of ill health or premature deaths—but across the Rhine it is not only the German Greens who believe that nuclear power is an infernal invention that must be eliminated as fast as possible, but much larger portions of society too.
This is why many researchers have argued that there is no “objective risk” waiting to be measured because our risk perceptions are inherently subjective, dependent on our understanding of specific dangers (familiar vs. new risks) and on cultural circumstances. Their psychometric studies showed that specific hazards have their unique patterns of highly correlated qualities: involuntary risks are often associated with the dread of new, uncontrollable, and unknown hazards; voluntary hazards are more likely to be perceived as controllable and known to science. Nuclear electricity generation is widely perceived as unsafe, X-rays as tolerably risky.Fatalistic people underestimate risks in order to avoid the effort required to analyze them and draw practical conclusions.
Feelings of dread play an outsized role in risk perception. Terrorist attacks are perhaps the best example of this differentiated tolerance, as fear takes over and drives out rational assessment readily made on the basis of incontrovertible evidence. Because of their unpredictable timing, location, and scale, terrorist attacks rank high on the psychometric scale of dread, and these fears have been intensively exploited by vastly exaggerated pseudo-analyses offered by talking heads on 24/7 news channels: during the past two decades they have speculated on everything from suitcase-sized nuclear bombs detonated in mid-Manhattan to the poisoning of reservoirs used to supply drinking water to large cities and the spraying of deadly engineered viruses.
Compared to such dreaded attacks, driving presents largely voluntary, highly recurrent, and very familiar risks, and accidental deaths involve overwhelmingly (more than 90 percent of cases) only one person per fatal collision. As a result, societies tolerate the global toll exceeding 1.2 million deaths a year, something they would never assent to if it were to take the form of recurrent accidents in industrial plants or collapsed structures (bridges, buildings) in or near large cities, even if the combined annual death toll of such disasters was an order of magnitude smaller—“just” in the hundreds of thousands of fatalities.
Large differences in individual tolerance of risk are best illustrated by the fact that many individuals engage—voluntarily and repeatedly—in activities that others might consider not just too risky but belonging all too clearly to the category of death wish. Base (fixed object) jumping is an excellent example of such an activity, as the slightest delay in opening the parachute may cost a life—a free-falling body reaches fatal velocity in a matter of seconds. And then there is risk tolerance justified by fatalistic beliefs: diseases or accidents are predestined and inevitable, and hence it makes no sense to try enhancing one’s health or preventing mishaps by appropriate personal action.
Fatalistic people also underestimate risks in order to avoid the effort required to analyze them and draw practical conclusions, and because they feel totally unable to cope with them. Traffic fatalism has been particularly well studied. Fatalistic drivers underestimate dangerous driving situations, are less likely to practice defensive driving (no distractions, keeping safe trailing distance, no speeding), and are less likely to restrain their children with seat belts or to report involvement in road accidents. Worryingly, studies in some countries found traffic fatalism prevalent among taxi drivers, and pervasive among minibus drivers.
There is little we can do to convert base jumpers into paragons of risk-averse behavior or to convince many taxi drivers that their accidents are not predetermined. But we can use the best available understanding of risks, both of those in everyday life and those that are exceedingly uncommon but potentially deadly, to quantify their consequences and hence to compare their impacts. This is not an easy task, because we have to deal with such a variety of events and processes. Moreover, there is no perfect metric to do so, and there can be no universal yardstick to compare the ubiquitous risks faced daily by billions of individuals with the extraordinarily rare events that may take place just once in a hundred, a thousand, or even ten thousand years, but with catastrophic global consequences.
Excerpted from How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going by Vaclav Smil, published by Viking.