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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and accurate, but rather pointless, 16 Aug. 2011
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This review is from: Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear (Paperback)
The thesis of the book is:
1) We don't make accurate assessments of the risks we face, relying instead on our gut instincts.
2) Unfortunately, our gut instincts are distorted by recent experiences, a herd mentality and visceral fears.
3) Corporations, politicians, pressure groups and the media compound this by playing to our fears in order to advance their own agendas.
4) Our views on the likelihood of various bad things happening to us are therefore wildly inaccurate. It is extremely unlikely that children will get cancer or that middle aged people will suffer from violent crime. Becoming a victim of paedophilia, terrorism or man-made carcinogens is vanishingly improbable compared to mundane risks like drowning, electrocution or traffic accidents.

The author is rather too fond of flakey evolutionary psychology. "As natural selection hasn't weeded out this flawed thinking, it must have provided an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors, so let's invent a plausible story about how these gut instincts could have benefitted a caveman and say that we have proved our case." This is circular reasoning, unverifiable and unscientific.

Apart from that, he makes a powerful case, with a wealth of statistics and well chosen illustrations from the USA, Canada and the UK. His summaries of the behavioural experiments done to demonstrate our irrationality are particularly good. (Although they could have been made even more powerful by allowing readers to try the exercises for themselves, rather than just presenting the results.)

Apart from an overlong and overwrought chapter on terrorism, this is a well written and accessible book. In the end though, my overriding feeling from the book was "so what?". The author argues that by focusing on dramatic but rare risks we neglect far more significant ones. But he acknowledges that this is not true of cancer, and given all the attention they receive these days I'd argue it's not true of risks like obesity and binge drinking any longer either. He also suggests that our obsession with man-made risks has prevented us from investing in early warning systems for rare natural risks like asteroid strikes, tsunamis and earthquakes. But such early warning systems are worse than useless unless there are cost effective actions we can take in response to them, and he provides no evidence to suggest this is the case.

In the end then, the message of the book seems to be that the things we worry most about are almost certainly not going to happen, so stop worrying and enjoy life. That's sound advice, but it felt like a slight return after 360 pages.
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