Worrying About All the Wrong Things

The average consumer is 15 times more likely to drown in the bathtub than to die of pesticide-related causes, and they are 1,500 times more likely to die in a car wreck than die of pesticide-related causes. But people still get in their car and drive.
--Jayson Lusk

It's interesting to think through examples where we as humans are both risk-blind and probability-blind. We fear flying and would rather drive, despite overwhelming evidence that the risk of the latter vastly exceeds the risk of the former. In my case, even though I know the relative risks of flying versus driving, I'd still rather drive.

Our minds evolved to their modern form perhaps half a million to a million years ago, long before statistics and probability were conceived as a way of looking at reality, and long before our day-to-day reality became as complex as it currently is. And once you have any familiarity with domains of behavioral finance or the psychology of human decision-making, you quickly absorb the disturbing truth that the decision making process of our own brains is obscure and opaque to us. We don't even understand ourselves.

Back to flying for a second. When you think about what flying really entails--basically waiting in a line to use a kiosk, followed by waiting in another line to get into another line to line up for a shoeless, beltless and semi-dehumanizing kabuki theater of body scans, luggage x-rays, and getting yelled at, followed by another long wait, followed by another line, followed by multiple hours in a cramped seat inside an aluminum tube breathing in other peoples' germs--all of a sudden a long drive doesn't seem so bad. Even when we know all the statistics. Thus it's completely understandable that our brains tell us to avoid the entire experience of flying.

I enjoyed writing that last paragraph, but it pretty much ruined flying for me for a while.

Now, on to pesticides. One thing that's extremely compelling to our hindbrains about PESTICIDE RISK!!1!! is its vividness. It brings to mind rhetorically powerful books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, spunky activists like Erin Brockovich, and infamous pollution disasters like the 1970s-era Love Canal. All you have to do is juxtapose these stories with a few reports of babies with birth defects, or young women with cancer (even better if you have photos), and you can easily hack readers' amygdalae.

And of course not only do we fear multi-syllabic chemicals and pesticides, and we fear even more so the idea that we might actually be eating them.

But then again: How sedentary or active are you? Do you make sure to sleep properly? Do you use seat belts? How many (surprisingly toxic) acetominophen or ibuprofen pills do you take in a given week? How much sugar do you consume in a given week? How much alcohol? And to go "meta" for a moment: How much time do you spend worrying about things that seem worrisome... but aren't?

These would all be questions worth considering long before worrying about pesticides.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not telling you to go out and drink a glass of Roundup. I'm certainly not saying pesticides aren't bad. I'm just asking readers with critical thinking skills to think through what's worth worrying about.

Further Reading:
1) Jayson Lusk is the author of The Food Police, a book well worth reading and discussed here at Casual Kitchen in multiple posts.
2) Risk Savvy by Gerd Giggerenzer
3) For better risk awareness in the healthcare industry, see H. Gilbert Welch's excellent book Less Medicine, More Health.
4) Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman


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