A La Jolla Couple Had a Close Call Yesterday as an Asteroid Passed Within 50,000,000 Miles Of Earth

OK, I’ve been thinking about this post for several weeks, and recent events have pushed me to write this:

It’s time to stop listening to fearmongerers and get better at assessing risk.

As much as I can, I avoid watching local news as it seems to be the worst offender, but yesterday I couldn’t. I was at a nursing home writing up my note on one of my patients and the local news was on in the background. It seems that the night before, somebody (or somebodies) set fire to the teacher’s lounge at an elementary school in Carlsbad. You can read about it here.

It’s a fairly simple story, and as it plays out it will probably be some neighborhood kids who wanted a day off from school (which didn’t happen, by the way). But the local news played it like it was 9/11 all over again. They sent a camera crew who set up base on a hill near the school (higher ground is always a good visual) to report this case of terrorist arson. They talked about how it could have been worse (the fire alarm alerted the authorities who extinguished it in 10 minutes): Imagine if there was no fire alarm? Imagine if the fire spread to somewhere where there was flammable liquids? Imagine if it happened when there were students in the school. Imagine if … You get the picture.

This story goes against the backdrop of the whole Toyota scare. I have a 2006 Prius so I have some interest in this. A few months ago we heard there was a possibility that the floor mats could slide under the gas pedal and cause it to stick and make the car hard to stop. It was the cause of a fatal accident here in San Diego. On my next tune up I asked and they put something under the mat to make sure it didn’t slide. That may or may not have solved the problem for some Toyotas (though not mine). Toyota is trying figure out what’s causing the problem; that makes sense. Yesterday Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said that anyone driving one of these cars should immediately stop driving them until they get them fixed.

The reality is that the risk of a bad outcome is pretty remote. Nevertheless all sorts of news organizations are sending out crews to stake out minivans, asking suburban moms if they are afraid for their children. Nobody wants to sound like they don’t care about their kids so there are miles of film of suburban moms talking about how scared they are. The reality is that there are much greater risks than this.

We are not good at understanding risk.

We are also very susceptible to voices that tell us to be afraid of something we can’t control. A large percentage of us are afraid to fly when in reality the drive to the airport is much riskier. We worry about being robbed when identity theft is much greater (and we are fairly cavalier about giving out personal information).

We obsess over the Dow Jones stock average when most of us don’t contribute enough to our 401(k).

There are many other examples, but the point is clear: news organizations make money by telling us about things we can’t control but can harm us. We are more than willing to hear these stories and make bad decisions based on them. Catastrophic events can do great harm to us, but the chances of them actually happening are remote.

Let’s all understand that there is risk in most of what we do, but ignore those people and organizations who profit from making us afraid.

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