Friday, May 22, 2009

The Science of Fear, and some data on media overhyping of crime risks   posted by agnostic @ 5/22/2009 02:10:00 AM

Since the world started falling apart, books on how crazy we are have never been more popular. Most focus on findings from behavior economics that show how human beings deviate from homo economicus in making decisions, and The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner is no different. Unlike the others in this newly sexy genre, though, he doesn't look at economic decisions very much, but instead on how we assess risk -- sometimes to our own harm. Consider those who, in the panic after 9/11, switched from riding airplanes to the more dangerous mode of cars and died in car crashes.

I won't review the book at length since it's an easy read and well written -- worth adding to your "crazy fucking humans" summer reading list. For a taste, though, here's the author speaking on The Leonard Lopate Show.

Gardner spends some time discussing how outta-whack the media coverage of a problem is with the underlying risk, as when silicone breast implants for awhile appeared to be the next cigarette or trans fat. Over at my personal blog, I put up two entries that have graphs showing, from 1981 to 2007, the per capita rates of homicide and forcible rape (risk), the fraction of all NYT articles that mentioned "murder" or "rape" (coverage), and the coverage-to-risk ratio (overhyping). Here's the homicide post and the rape post. In both cases, sometime in the early-mid 1990s, in the wake of a generalized hysteria -- identity politics, L.A. riots, Third Wave feminism, blaming AIDS on Regan, etc. -- the overhyping starts to take off and has remained high up through recent years. We've never been safer, yet we've only grown more paranoid.

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