Why Are You Scared?

Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers

by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky
University of California Press, 221 pp., $14.95

Acceptable Risk

by Baruch Fischhoff and Sarah Lichtenstein and Paul Slovic and Steven L. Derby and Ralph L. Keeney
Cambridge University Press, 185 pp., $19.95

What is risk? Not risk of this disease or that accident, but Pure Risk? It is a sign of the times. The Society for Risk Analysis was founded last year. There is a new magazine for the trade: Risk Analysis, an International Journal. Risk has become a profession. Social risks have long been familiar to surgeons, engineers, admirals, and entrepreneurs. Today everyone can go to a new kind of expert, the risk assessor, who offers an impartial evaluation of risks of any kind. The new expert uses lots of older lore, but history records an official beginning to “modern risk-benefit thinking.” The year was 1969.1

Risk analysis can cater to any sort of hazard, but their profession owes its existence to a relatively narrow band of possible dangers. The social risks that worry us are not a random bundle of frights. You can arrange them in an orderly way to form a triangle. At the top is the unthinkable war. Then come the two demons, cancer and nuclear meltdown. Below these are threats to the environment: foul rivers, increased radiation, acid rain, toxic waste, assaults on threatened species. At the base of the triangle is a motley collection many of which are old standbys: mining coal, smoking, drinking, getting pregnant, climbing mountains, lead, asbestos, saccharine. It is not these at the bottom nor nuclear war at the top that created the new profession of risk analysis. It was the public demons and popular causes. (Only in the past year, after the books under review were written, has total war again become both an American demon and a popular cause.)

What selects a demon or a cause out of all the risks we know? That question prompts the remarkable Risk and Culture, the joint work of Mary Douglas, the social anthropologist, and Aaron Wildavsky, an imaginative political scientist. They tell of a people in Zaire afflicted by the tropical horrors of fever, leprosy, ulcers, and parasites. Only three of their dangers are singled out by this people for worry and intervention, namely, barrenness, bronchitis, and bolts of lightning. Is that trio more curious than our own variable list of demons and popular causes? Our causes are not in general the greatest risks to which we ourselves are subject. Is our choice of a “risk portfolio” also irrational?

A social anthropologist like Mary Douglas is not one to say that stupid people rank fears wrongly. She will look at our society in the way she studies an entirely foreign culture. This book says that popular causes are created by the groups that campaign for them. But to understand which causes will be chosen, we must ask what a group needs in order to stay together long enough to be effective. The chosen cause must be of a sort that helps to maintain the group. Groups of different internal structures will fall apart in different ways, and so will perceive different kinds of risk. So Douglas and Wildavsky conclude that we…

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