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on 28 December 2012
This book is okay as far as it goes but please keep in mind that risk and uncertainty are specialist subjects that have vexed some of the finest thinkers amongst us. You should not, therefore, be surprised to find that Dan Gardner's track record as a successful journalist, as opposed to a successful risk analyst, has resulted in a book that is both entertaining and persuasive whilst still being technically naive. The problem isn't his grasp of the political and social dimensions of risk - I bought the book in the hope that this aspect of the subject would be expertly covered and, in this respect, the book did not disappoint. The real problem is that the author only has a layman's understanding of risk's conceptual framework. Consequently, he frequently conflates risk with uncertainty, consistently confuses ambiguity aversion with risk aversion, and vacillates between discussing risk and discussing the probability component of risk, in a way that I found decidedly confusing. Furthermore, the author's superficial understanding of the cognitive science behind risk perception comes perilously close to undermining the author's whole thesis.

Central to the argument, the author repeatedly cites cognitive biases which he claims lead people to overestimate risk. However, this is a serious misrepresentation of the true significance of such biases, and the reason why he misrepresents them is because he isn't sufficiently careful at distinguishing between risk and probability. The fact is that the cognitive biases he refers to can lead people to overestimate likelihood. Whether or not this leads to overestimation of risk depends upon whether the individual is focused upon the likelihood of a positive outcome, or a negative outcome. The thesis of the book is that there are social and political factors that ensure we are focused upon the negative; the cognitive biases then do the rest. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the book is full of examples that illustrate the point. No counter-examples are offered until (strangely) the Afterword, in which he provides a superb example of how such cognitive biases can just as easily lead to overconfidence (the author gives no hint as to whether he is aware of the stark ambivalence that this example belatedly introduces into his argument). The reality is that the cognitive biases cited do not indicate that human beings are inherently risk averse. Without wishing to invalidate the author's conclusions regarding the manipulation of fear, one could just as easily cite the same cognitive science in a book entitled `Risk: The science and politics of overconfidence'.

I wasn't expecting or wanting an academic and mathematically sound dissertation, but I think that the analysis offered would have benefited greatly from being presented in terms that, at least, demonstrated a firmer grasp of the subject's basic tenets.

Did I enjoy reading the book? Yes, despite the frustrations. But would I recommend it as a primer in the assessment and evaluation of risk and uncertainty? Certainly not!
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on 2 February 2009
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.
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on 2 May 2008
A really interesting and thought provoking read by the prize winning journalist. On page after page one realises quite how ridiculous some of our fears are. There is no factual basis to the idea that these are uniquely dangerous times. In fact, the evidence points to the opposite.

I remember a while back reading a comment in The Guardian newspaper after a child abduction story broke. The comment contained a fact I often like to repeat to people: In 20 years, the rate of child murder by strangers has remained pretty much the same level. And yet, in the same period, the fear has been ratcheted up to a remarkable degree. Adults are scared to let children play out on their own, even though they possibly went out and played in a time when they were even more at risk. I mean really, when you think about it, how many major child abduction cases do you hear in a year? 1? 2? Not many I suspect. And yet the media creates a vision of a country in which children are abducted on a regular basis.

Gardner comes up with many examples of the exaggeration of risk and the threats that are posed. Take, for example, the 'threat' of Islamic terrorism. There have been many examples of alleged terrorist activity by white, non-Muslims, and yet they have not been reported. Why? Because they do not fit the current narrative. If they were Islamic, every single one would be headline news. They aren't, so it's not.

Another example is the case of children being kidnapped in America. According to the statistics, of the 797,500 children under the age of 18 that go missing every year, only 115 are due to child kidnapping. 115! That means, as Gardener points out, that a child under 18 in America has a 0.00016% chance of being kidnapped. A figure that, according to the insurance industry, is so low it is zero.

One other example to mull over....Despite the rhetoric regarding terrorism, terrorist attacks have actually been declining ever since the end of the Cold War. According to one body that tracks international terrorism, if you take out the Middle East and South Asia, terrorism has continued to decline since 1991. The threat to us in the West has actually declined, despite the attacks of September 11th.

Although I don't agree with everything in the book, Gardner makes a very convincing case. I would seriously recommend this to anyone interested in how governments and corporations play (and profit) on our fears to an alarming degree. A fascinating read. Just remember: there is nothing to fear but fear itself.
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on 18 April 2009
After 9/11, millions of Americans chose their gut over their head, and abandoned planes for cars. That mistake sadly cost the lives of more than 1,500 people. Risk is a book that reveals the often unfortunate triumph of gut over head, of unconscious feeling over conscious reason - and how that succeeds in distorting our fundamental understanding of the risks we face in our daily lives, from cancer to paedophiles, terrorism to asteroids.

Gardner writes with great clarity and perceptiveness, covering quite a broad canvas that touches on politics, the media and the corporate world, as well as devoting a fair bit of attention to the cognitive errors that regularly impinge our judgment. In particular, if you enjoyed Flat Earth News,Bad Science or Irrationality, you will probably enjoy this, as it brings together strands from all three, along with a few others like Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. A genuinely good - and reassuring - read.
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on 6 October 2012
Two themes run through this excellent book: the tendency of 'Gut' to influence decisions we think we take with our 'Head', and how vested interests use fear for commercial and political ends. Gardner combines narrative with in-depth research to firmly put the worries of C21st living in context, and shows how the world presented to us (what the FT's Gillian Tett calls "the cognitive map") is a topsy-turvy version of reality. A first class read, and highly recommended.
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on 21 June 2008
This being Dan Gardner's first book, I am thoroughly impressed. From the language he uses, you can detect in many instances his journalistic background. He starts of perfectly by introducing to us System One (intuitive, quick and emotional) and System Two (calculating, slow and rational). He progresses and simply refers to System One as 'Gut' (gut instinct) and System Two as 'Head'.

Without getting into too much detail, the overall conclusion of the book is that the System One side of our brain (gut instinct) is damaging to our rational thought processes. By following our ancestors' mindset and preferring to listen to stories rather than statistics, we become irrationally fearful of the wrong things and force the media to tell us irrelevant, albeit entertaining stories that subsequently induce fear into our minds. He outlines the dangers of becoming irrationally fearful from the very beginning, such as how 1,500 extra people were killed on the roads as a result of the fear of planes following 9/11 in America.

Some cases in the book seem ambiguous. For instance, it became somewhat confusing as he, within the space of 15 pages, contradicts himself very clearly. On page 83 he talks about how the human mind responds to the presentation of statistics. He mentions how humans do not respond emotionally to `percentages' the same way they respond to absolute figures. "Whats a `per cent'? Can I see a `per cent'? Can I touch it? No. But '20 out of every 100 patients' is very concrete and real" he mentions on page 83. On page 98 he then writes "Even saving `85 per cent of 150 lives' garnered more support than saving 150 lives. The explanation lies in the lack of feeling we have for the number 150. It's vaguely good, because it represents people's lives, but it's abstract. We can't picture 150 lives and so we don't feel 150 lives. We can feel proportions however." It's these few lines that I find contradicting in the book.

Overall though, the book is very insightful, if not a bit verbose, and witty. Gardner reminds the reader of the incentives to invoke fear in every area of society. He covers a wide range of areas, from psychology, sociology and biology which make the book even more unique and a thoroughly enjoyable read. It leaves you slightly more incredulous and forces you to question any news story, or politician that even slightly plays to your fears; Rudy `9/11' Giuliani....I'm looking at you.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 November 2009
Very nicely put and succinct summary of the psychological mechanisms behind the proliferation of fear as an instrument of marketing and politics.

While at least 50 pages could be shaved from the book, and the author would be much less shocked at some examples, had he actually worked in or for some of the industries / institutions outlined, it is overall fairly accurate. I would have truly relished some examples at how to avoid it but I suppose those will be hard to come by, being practically impossible. Even fairly strict censoring is probably a fairly ineffective way of curbing the destructive cycle of fearmongering so deeply pervading modern society.

It does lead one to ponder on what reinforcing circles could be broken and how, or alternatively what other counterbalancing mechanisms one could introduce into the system to create more balance. COntrary to many of the journalist written summaries on a topic, this one actually possesses some depth and keeps you thinking.
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on 20 July 2008
First of all let me say that the content of the book is thought provoking, and contains lots of information which might change your mind when weighing up the risks of everyday life. BUT it is devoid of maps, graphs or figures which seems mad considering the topic (so for instance trends are described in text rather than by a simple graph), it doesn't have proper references (just some notes with the preceding comment suggesting the reader uses Google with the key words provided...lazy and perverse considering the use of unsubstantiated claims is one of Gardner's bugbears!) and it could do with a good editorial prune to make the key points punch home with more effect (the BBC TV series "Power of Nightmares" covers some of the same ground as the chapters considering the risk of terrorism, and is a masterclass in hammering home its points in comparison). So this book is good but a wasted opportunity to be great.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 10 December 2011
This is an excellent, entertaining book on how we understand - or rather misunderstand - the nature of risk.

The book's thesis is simple enough, how our heads and our hearts make conflicting assessments of the perception of risk, and how gut instincts are not reliable guides in assessing risk. In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans took their cars in droves, fearful of flying, and 1,500 extra deaths were recorded on the roads in the year after 9/11. This is a classic example of heart overriding head, and heart overrides head because it doesn't understand the statistics and the nature of risk. Even if terrorists were hijacking and crashing one passenger jet a week in the United States, Americans would still only have annually a 1 in 350,000 chance of dying in such a highjack, as opposed to a 1 in 6,000 chance annually of dying in a car crash (It's telling that we are fascinated by the story of the Titanic, but know nothing of the names of thousands of vessels that crossed the Atlantic in perfect safety).

But this book is also describes how the media, politicians, corporations and campaign groups all manipulate this discrepancy to peddle their own agendas. In case this makes things sound too conspiratorial, Gardner notes that vested interests adapt their messages to time-tested ways of presenting information effectively. Vested interests consist of human beings, whose brains measure and misunderstand risk the way the rest of us do. The media sells us bad news stories because that is what we will read. The odd plane crash is big news but thousands of planes land safely every day but the papers aren't filled with stories such as `Boeing 747 with 400 passengers makes smooth landing'. It is not just the media and corporations but NGOs and campaign groups as well. No one gets donations by claiming the world is getting better.

Then should we trust anything politicians and the media say? It's an overreaction to say we shouldn't. It's important to bear in mind for instance that the threats of terrorism and crime are real ones but the representation of the scale of the risk is subject to manipulation and we need to be alert to that. This book will help you see through some of the distortions that creep into the discussion regarding risk. The next time for instance you hear that murder rates in your sleepy neighbourhood have jumped 100 per cent, ask what the baseline rate is. If say it's 1 in 10,000 inhabitants, then the rise is less dramatic than it actually sounds. The rate has climbed to a mere 2 in 10,000.

Misunderstanding the nature of risk has pernicious consequences. We are aware for instance that fewer kids walk to school nowadays, for fear of being snatched by strangers. They are driven instead, which is of course is riskier than allowing them to walk. But the scattering of car smashes that result will not make the news but you can guarantee that any occurrence of a child snatched by a stranger certainly will, and this will affect we way we assess risk accordingly. More broadly, the fear of terrorism has led to us fighting two wars in foreign countries supposedly to keep our streets safe. Money and resources spent fighting the war on terror is money that isn't spent on priorities elsewhere.

One only hopes that this book will get the broadest possible readership that it deserves.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 September 2009
In short anxiety in all its precursory incarnations (murders, abductions, fanatical lunatics with plans for world dominance etc.) sells newspapers, and keeps the tv & internet news interesting. In this post-televisual age of democratised information, danger has been unmasked and exposed - laid bare like never before. But it's not that there is more danger; rather there is more reporting of dangerous events.

The book's subject is a fascinating one, and still its author, Dan Gardner, is to be commended for producing a work of excellence - teeming with interesting facts, statistics and the most pertinent research. The misreporting of danger is to be blamed for creating a culture of paranoiac anxiety which is ultimately lacking all but the most statistically insignificant basis in reality.

The author makes his argument clear, time and again that when statistics are skewed, news is made which is far more interesting than it is factually significant.

Buy this book and learn to see the news for what it is: a biased attempt to skew facts in the name of driving profit growth for media corporations. And while you're at it - relax! Get out. Enjoy modern life. There is really little to worry about, out there. Or at least, let's hope there isn't ;-)
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