Understanding Our Risky Business What does the feared link between autism and vaccines have in common with banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving? According to author David Ropeik, both are examples of miscalculations of risk. Ropeik explains how poor assessment of a risk could put us in far bigger trouble than the original danger.
NPR logo Understanding Our Risky Business

Understanding Our Risky Business

Difficulty in risk assessment, such as some parents' choice not to vaccinate their children due to possible autism risk, puts society in greater danger. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Difficulty in risk assessment, such as some parents' choice not to vaccinate their children due to possible autism risk, puts society in greater danger.


David Ropeik is an instructor at the Harvard Extension School and author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, to be published next month.

The 1998 research paper that started the worldwide fear of a link between autism in kids and the combination measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was just retracted by The Lancet, whose editors now say the methods used for the research were flawed.

Last week, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said that laws banning the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers but permitting hands-free devices don't work. In states that pass such laws, crashes haven't decreased.

What do these things have in common? Both exemplify how the human response to risk is not purely rational and can get us into quite a bit of trouble. Sometimes it's not the risk itself we have to worry about, as much as the risk from getting the risk wrong.

Q&A With The Author

David Ropeik talks to NPR about the fallout from the autism study reversal, and how emotional instincts can sometimes overwhelm logic.

We're not passionless computers. We apply values and experiences and ancient survival instincts to the choices we face about risk. We are sometimes too afraid of lesser risks and not afraid enough of the big ones, not just because of the facts but because of how those facts feel.

Studies have found that one of the subconscious affective cues that impacts risk perception is whether the risk is imposed on us, or whether it's voluntary. Imposed risks feel worse, bigger. Some people worry about vaccines imposed on us by government, but it's the "imposed," not the vaccines, that fuels the fear.

Another cue is trust. Do we trust the public officials running the vaccine campaigns, or do we think they're in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry? And there's a third big cue involved in the vaccines issue. Risks to kids really set off our alarm bells, regardless of the scientific consensus. So Dr. Andrew Wakefield's suggestion of a possible association between government-mandated MMR vaccines and autism resonated with the affective qualities of the risk to some parents of autistic children. They saw, and continue to see, the facts through those very real and valid affective lenses.

As a result, they and all of us are at greater risk. Measles is coming back and has even killed some children. Resistance to all vaccines has increased. The controversy shakes public confidence in science further.

When people started to demand protection from the risk of DWP — Driving While Phoning — we were exorcised by the jerks driving poorly while using their cell phones, not by our own activity. In response, some governments banned hand-held phone use, which is imposed and therefore scary. They allowed hands-free devices, because that seems to give drivers more control — a decidedly less scary move. But the policy disregards evidence that the danger from DWP is the cognitive distraction. Your brain is just as distracted whether your phone is in your hand or in your ear. Drivers using hands-free devices feel they've taken control. So they feel safer. So they take fewer precautions even though they're just as distracted. Their risk is either the same, or it increases. Bad law was born out of our affectively driven perceptions of risk.

We can't undo the affective risk response system. It's deeply wired into us, and often works amazingly well. But it can also make dangerous mistakes. We need to factor an awareness of the dangers of how we react to risk into the choices we make, as individuals, and as a society. Choices must feel right and stand a better chance of doing us the most good.