JANUARY 26, 2005
I’m hungry. I’m in a hurry. I know that a high-fat diet can lead to heart disease, the number-one killer in America, and I don’t care. I’m going to eat a Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s, along with fries, a Coke and cookies. The meal is delicious. And in one sense at least, it’s healthier than a charbroiled burger I’d gobble at a backyard BBQ. This month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services added chemical compounds found in grilled meat—some of which are also found in cigarette smoke—to its official list of probable cancer-causing agents.11
I finish lunch feeling satisfied—and vaguely queasy. In any given year, one in four Americans suffers from food poi- soning. Although most cases are rela-tively mild, 325,000 result in hospitalization and 5,000 in death. I logged no food poisoning concern in my diary, and my unperturbed reaction is typical. “People are more concerned about risks that are catastrophic and rare than those which involve fewer fatalities but are more frequent,” write Richard Wilson and Edmund Crouch in Risk-Benefit Analysis.
Crossing the street from McDonald’s
I enter the Union Square farmers’ market. There are tables of apples—Empire, Gala, Winesap, Macoun—and vendors selling cider and whole-grain bread. I’m drawn to a booth with an intriguing sign: HAWTHORNE VALLEY FARM—DEMETER-CERTIFIED, BIODYNAMIC. Inside, a bearded man tells me that the farm’s crops are grown without the use of artificial fertilizers or pesticides; even the Hawthorne cows eat organic feed. This eases the impact on the environment, but does it make the food safer than the meal I just scarfed? “I’d say it’s at least 200 times safer,” he says. I plop down $20 for a skimpy T-bone steak.
Afterward, I wonder: Is an artificial-pesticide-free farmers’-market offering—an apple, for instance—significantly safer than a standard grocery-store one? Before my risk education I would have said “yes”; now I’m less certain. The Food and Drug Administration (in 1999) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (in 2000) each tested close to 10,000 food samples from grocery stores around the country. They concluded that fewer than 2 percent of the samples had pesticide residues above allowable limits and that even then, most were well below the amount thought to be unhealthy.
Research in the 1990s by Bruce Ames, a molecular biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, indicated that 99.9 percent of the pesticides eaten by Americans are natural. You can give lab rats cancer with substances found in cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and bananas. “I’m not saying that we should be avoiding broccoli,” Ames says. Consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables lowers your cancer risk. But his work illuminates two common risk-perception errors. First, artificial risks are automatically assumed to be worse than natural ones. People fret about the radiation from their cellphones giving them cancer, then go to the beach without sunscreen. Second, people’s judgments are inappropriately polarized; they fail to recognize that most things in the world present a mix of risks and benefits.
JANUARY 27, 2005
Urban Myths and Menaces
The off-off-Broadway show that I’m watching—The Top Ten People of the Millennium Sing Their Favorite Schubert Lieder—has its moments. In slower stretches, though, I find myself glancing around the cramped theater: at tangles of cable snaking between stage lights; at peeling black paint on the walls; at the nearest exit. Ever since that Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people two years ago, clubs and theaters have made me nervous. After the show, I walk carefully on the sidewalk. Last year, a woman in the East Village was killed after stepping on a metal plate that had become electrified with what the papers disturbingly referred to as “stray voltage.” Waiting for the subway home, I step behind a pillar when the train rushes into the station. Everyone knows how people get pushed onto the tracks by deranged criminals.
I will later place these urban fears midway up my risk list, but statistically speaking, even these rankings are unwarranted. The annual U.S. death rate from fires is a little higher than one person per 100,000. The rates for sidewalk zapping and platform pushing are far lower—in recent New York history, there have been one known electrocution and a handful of pushing incidents in a city of eight million people who walk and ride trains daily. It seems that I’m the victim of several closely related cognitive pranks: availability, which means that familiar, easily imagined risk scenarios are feared more than long-term, abstract threats; dread, the idea that rare but acutely horrible fates (deadly spider, snake and shark attacks) are dwelt upon more than humdrum ones (heart attacks); and disproportionate visibility, which causes people to believe that if something is highly publicized, it must also be highly probable.
Relaxing on the subway, I shift into iPod mode; I continue listening while walking a couple blocks to my apartment. It’s nearly midnight, and I keep an eye out for anyone suspicious. I’ll rank crime as only a moderate danger in my diary—the city is the safest it has been for decades, right? Right. The number of murders, for instance, which hit an all-time high of 2,245 in 1990, plunged 75 percent to 575 in 2004. New York is one of the safest large cities in the country. Plus, as a relatively young man, I must rank pretty low on the potential victim list, right? Wrong. Andrew Karmen, a professor at John Jay College who is one of the city’s most respected criminologists, corrects this faulty assumption. Many women, he tells me, take anti-crime precautions such as traveling in groups; older people generally aren’t out late; and married people usually travel together. Who is most likely to be out at night, alone and distracted, thus presenting himself as an easy target? An overconfident guy like me, strolling down the street at midnight, listening to his iPod.single page
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