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Perceptions may be riskier than reality

"It's all because of the chemicals and additives they put in food these days," he said, lighting up another cigarette. No doubt many of us are familiar with this scene. Whether it's cancer, hyperactive children or the weather, pollution in one form or another is increasingly cited as the culprit. Sometimes it is. But more often it's our distorted perception of risk that poses the greater danger. The smoker's concern about food additives would be considered laughable if it wasn't that it blinds him to the overwhelmingly greater risk of cigarettes. What accounts for this distortion in our perception of risk? Why do many feel safer driving a car than flying in an airplane even though the statistics tell us otherwise? Although there are many reasons, one predominates. Who's in control? If I believe that I am in control _ driving, smoking, playing football _ I tend to discount the risk. If it's "them" _ industry, government, the pilot _ I tend to exaggerate the risk. If we're "in control" we tend to feel that we can beat the odds or that it only happens to the "other guy." However, if it is being done to us, we feel victimized.

Along with feelings of victimization by industry and government, the public is also starting to resent the scare tactics of some consumer and environmental groups. We just don't know who to believe. While some organizations are sounding the alarm about food additives, scientists have demonstrated that many naturally occurring chemicals are far more powerful carcinogens than the residues and additives produced by man. No wonder we are confused.

Part of our confusion results from the ability of science to measure chemicals in infinitesimal doses far exceeds the knowledge of their health effects. Therein lies the problem. Science is comfortable acknowledging the unknown. We're not. Scientists speak in terms of probabilities and statistics. We think in terms of safe or unsafe. So when we're confronted with statistics about risk and hear scientists say that the problem requires more study, we get apprehensive. We also may be suspicious and a bit paranoid, not that we don't have reason. Certainly many of us remember being told that nuclear power was cheap and safe. Well, it certainly didn't turn out to be cheap; and whatever the safety of nuclear power plants, we are still struggling with how to dispose of nuclear wastes in a safe manner. Given this underlying mistrust, many are ready to exploit it: special interest organizations, authors promoting their latest expose and the media seeking a good lead story. Unfortunately, as a result we tend to hear only from the extremists.

In recent years a new discipline has emerged, focused on issues of risk and public policy. Professionals from medicine, science, engineering and the social sciences have sought to pool their expertise to better manage risk. Of course to many, "risk management" is an oxymoron. We don't wish to manage but to eliminate risk. The problem is that there is no such thing as zero risk. By seeking to eliminate risk we increase it elsewhere. By failing to adequately analyze the consequences, we incur needless economic costs and retard development in such fields as biotechnology. But no matter how well we seek to manage risk, the political problem of who benefits and who bears the burden remains.

The "not-in-my-backyard" phenomenon is widespread and threatening economic development in many regions. It was perhaps best illustrated by the garbage barge that traveled the ocean looking for a dumping site. No one wanted it. In the past it was the poor who were dumped on. They bore the significant risks associated with the economic benefits we all enjoyed. Only now have they gained the political clout to make themselves heard. One result is endless litigation, which adds to the cost and causes delays. Litigation is at best a Band-Aid and not a solution.

Politicians have been reluctant to try innovative solutions. One market approach would auction off projects that no one wants. Communities would bid for the projects by making known their demands. This would allow communities to lay down terms to the operators of, for example, an incinerator to minimize the known risks, secure adequate monitoring and gain monetary compensation. This is not an ideal solution. But at least the residents would be given a choice and could use the income for other benefits, such as better schools or lower taxes.

Although no easy solutions exist, better understanding of how we perceive risk as well as the quantification of the various types of risk should make for more informed and, we hope, better decisions. As citizens we should demand thorough and objective analyses. We should be realistic and not expect all uncertainties to be resolved. We should expect that those who benefit compensate those who are bearing the disproportionate share of the risk. Risk is part of our personal and public lives.

We can and must manage both.

Christian van Schayk is an independent consultant specializing in the development and transfer of information-based technologies and their application to industrial productivity improvement. My View columnists, invited to contribute for a year on a regular basis, write their own views on subjects they choose, which are not necessarily the opinions of this newspaper.