The overriding message of this book is that our `gut' feelings about risk are often wrong and we should learn to engage our mind to make more informed judgements.
The problem is, according to Gardner, that we as humans were built, in an evolutionary sense, before the stone age and in the information age we now live in, this is not particularly useful. He explores what he (and others) have called our dual systems of reasoning. System One - Gut (Feeling or unconscious thought) and System Two - Head (Reason or conscious thought). Gut, he says has been very useful to us since we lived in caves, and it takes considerable effort for us to make Head over-ride it.
Gardner does a great job of telling us why our perception of risk is often so wrong and arguing that humans are not naturally good at statistics. He goes into great detail about a number of issues (terrorism, chemicals, shark attacks, and cancer to name a few) and explains why the headlines and resulting perception of risks are wrong. However, whilst he presents a mind boggling array of basic statistical errors we make on a regular basis, he rarely tells the reader what the correct answer is.
Gardner does an excellent job of laying out how `figures' quoted in headlines misrepresent data to either catch readers attention or further their own cause. This isn't to say the journalists are deliberately deceiving us (Gardener is after all a journalist by trade) it is, he says, that we are hard wired to listen out for and take notice of risks that a communicated in a certain way. It's what has kept the human species alive.
However, whilst the book tells me about the things that I shouldn't be worrying about, I can't help feeling slightly frustrated that I don't know more about what I should be worrying about. Although he does mention that if we all paid more attention to lifestyle issues (smoking, drinking, diet, obesity & exercise) and worried less about everything else we'd be much better off.
All in all a thoroughly enjoyable, optimistic, Gladwell-esque, read. But I do wish he'd told me a few more answers rather than leaving me to go look up (which he tells us as humans we are ill equipped for) all the `real' risks.