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Clearing Up the Concept of Risk Assessment

August 08, 2019

How well do you think you can assess risk? The evidence is clear that humans are innately poor at assessing risk in our personal lives, in part due to how our brains are wired, and that can make it challenging to make informed decisions about everything from vaccines and medicines to diet and children’s safety. Errors in risk perception can be a problem when we worry more than the evidence says we need to, or less than the evidence says we should.

On this week’s episode, Kavin Senapathy speaks with neuroscientist Alison Bernstein and biologist Iida Ruishalme, who teamed up to write a series of articles titled “Risk In Perspective.” The interview takes listeners through key concepts in risk and risk perception, including the difference between hazard and risk, and whether zero risk is ever really possible. How can putting risk into perspective inform regulatory actions? How does environmental justice tie into health and risk perception? How are marketers taking advantage of our inability to accurately assess risk? One thing is clear—you won’t want to risk missing out on this conversation.

You can find Alison on Facebook: Mommy, PhD, and Iida on Facebook: Thoughtscapism.

Read the Risk in Perspective series.

Read Iida’s piece detailing radiation and cancer risk.

Read Alison’s piece on how “Safety” is defined in a regulatory setting.

What was that great music you heard?

“Wahre” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0

“Building the Sled” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0

“Vittoro” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0

Hi, everyone. It’s me, your point of inquiry co-host, Kavin Senapathy. I love talking to this awesome audience of skeptics and critical thinkers every couple of weeks. You all are savvy and you’re so well versed on your logical fallacies. And I, in turn, am excellent at giving compliments as much as we skeptics like to pride ourselves on our critical thinking skills. We’re all only human. And one thing that humans are innately bad at is assessing risk. That’s why I reached out to Dr. Alison Bernstein and Ida Ruth Halmi, who are scientists and science communicators extraordinaire, to take you through a series that they penned together all about risk in perspective.

Our guests are personal friends of mine and two of the most brilliant people I know, neuroscientist Dr. Alison Bernstein and biologist Ida Solmi. They’re both also the brains behind the kind of science communication that all science communicators should aspire to. Thank you both for joining us on Point of Inquiry.

You’re welcome. Thanks for having us. Thanks so much, Kevin.

So today we’re tackling one four letter word that encompasses a whole lot of meaning. And that word is brisk. Alison and Ida wrote an entire series titled Risk in Perspective on Risk and Risk Perception.

The series is hosted both on Sci Moms dot com, a blog that Alison and I co-founded, along with other awesome women from the Science Moms movie.

And it’s also hosted on Eda’s excellent thought escapism blog. Both of both of which. Excuse me. We’ll link to in the show notes.

First, let’s get one thing out of the way.

So we’re talking a point of inquiry. Listeners here and there are pretty savvy bunch.

But you both say in the intro to The Risk in Perspective series that humans on the whole are intuitively terrible at assessing risk in our own lives.

So our difficulty in assigning risks seems to be innate. So, Allison, is that to suggest that even those of us who pride ourselves on critical thinking aren’t immune to being innately bad at assessing risk?

Yes, I think that our cognitive biases and our mental shortcuts and all the heuristics that our brains have evolved to let us get through the day and not be bogged down in, you know, making a rational decision that every return can get in our way. And we all do this all the time. If you had to stop and think critically about every single decision that you make, about every risky thing, you would never do anything. Should I cross the street? Should I? Like, if you took all those from a rational perspective, we would just. Our thoughts would paralyze us. So we’ve evolved these heuristics and shortcuts. And sometimes, especially in the modern world, that works against us. Yeah.

You know, especially as a parent myself, personally, I had postpartum OCD in 2011 when my daughter was born. And that’s kind of what happened.

I wasn’t able to do anything because I was trying to assess, assess kind of every single possible risk in my child’s life. And it was a mobilizing.

So the first part in this first part series, which if you didn’t already notice, I’m I highly recommend that everyone read it. It’s about the difference between hazard and risk. And you write that hazards only become risks when there is exposure. And you provide the example of sharks saying that sharks are a hazard. But if I never go near the ocean, I have no exposure to sharks and I face no risk of a shark attack. Now, that’s pretty straightforward. It makes sense to me as a relatively savvy layperson. But the distinction between hazard and risk can get really messy in our everyday lives. And the confusion is perhaps no more pronounced than when it comes to classification of carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Both of you or I mean Ida, why don’t you start. Could you unpack this for us?

I just love to add to your question before that this. Do we also even if we think rationally about risk, do we still have this heuristics of this these innate mistakes? And I’d say that we’re none of us are like very cold, rational beings. We all work on emotions. And this risk assessment that we make, it’s first and foremost, it’s always the the fast thinking. If you know the book. But until kind of on the fast and thinking fast and slow that it’s the the first part that comes first. It’s the emotional kind of evaluation that we do. So it takes conscious effort to then afterwards go and see. Wait. Is my emotional reaction here warranted or what does the what does the evidence actually say?

Is there support for my fear here about this risk?

And to unpack the the classifications from either A or C, you have this this established institution from the World Health Organization’s, you know, authority sort of has its stamp on it. And then you have this institution and it comes out it tells you that there’s there’s cancer classification already. When you hear the word cancer, you you feel this slight threat, like this word means something bad. And then it says this substance is in the probable risk category for cancer. And you’re already sort of primed to think like, OK, this I should take this seriously. This is really this affects me sort of you make this fast distinction and it takes an enormous amount of work, even for savvy skeptics sort of to to go in there and see what do they actually mean by this, even though it’s sort of like a you think it’s a risk category should get a categorization. It’s not about risk. It’s about can it be a hazard? Is there any possible situation where the substance can be a hazard? And it really doesn’t promote this like that. It doesn’t start with these big letters like this is not a risk that Mr. Live likes to you. Instead, he presents it as a as a way that we can. We immediately interpret it as risky. So that’s why I love what Ed Young at that Atlantic wrote about it, that it’s it’s a categorization that’s confusing genic to people. So it really uses.

Yeah, I’m too it’s perfect.

What I.R.S. does is hazard identification. And that’s the first step of risk assessment, you say.

Is there any situation in which this exposure has the potential to cause harm? But it is not at all a measure of the likelihood of that harm or what dose that harm occurs and or how bad that harm is. Right. So risk is then the measure of the probability of harm from a hazard. And so I.R.S. is just identifying hazards. And then the next step is for regulatory agencies, chickens to do a risk assessment. Something something that’s confusing about that is that they use probabilistic words in those categories. Likely, right. That’s likely to be carcinogenic. And and it’s really a it’s not a problem elastic measure. It’s a measure of strength, of evidence for whether something has the potential to cause harm. So I think. Exactly.

Or is can we talk about something specific that I see categorizes?

Could you give us one of the examples and break down what it really means for the I.R.S. to categorize it as carcinogenic, like, say, Rob?

Yeah, I was actually thinking about red meat because that’s one of the examples we use as well. So, for instance, we have the highest classification that you think that now while this is something really dangerous. Right? Because it’s it’s definitely it’s in the definite cook category. You have red meat or you have. Processed red meat, basically. And you also have smoking. And so now the other is something that you take in in your diet, add to, you know, and maintain your bodily functions and to get nutrients so on.

And the other thing is something you don’t need that only provides, you know, carcinogenic substances directly into your lungs. So it’s already a little bit weird having seeing these in the same category, because then you think that they maybe they are probably as dangerous. And no, it doesn’t mean that at all. So basically red meat and processed meat together, it’s not completely sure how or why.

But there’s a certain correlation that has been observed that in the world, I think it was about 34000 people yearly might die of cancer that maybe would not have if they had not eaten so much of the processed meat. Whereas you have I think it’s on the order of a million or so people who die from tobacco.

You have these couple of couple of orders of magnitude difference in this, something that is in the same high risk category because you think that’s high risk, but it’s actually just high hazard. We are very sure that these both are hazards. That’s what they’re saying. And then the you can have any kind of you can even have a substance that would say cause as, say, you have a certain cancer that has a risk of two percent over your lifetime and then then you increase it to two point two by some kind of, you know, high exposure. And then they say that, OK, that now we can be very sure that there is an increase.

And then they put that in the high category because we know we have very good evidence of that slight increase in risk.

And then something else can make, you know, have an influence on, say, say, 10 different cancers and it can maybe triple, lower or quadruple your risk for those cancers.

And it’s in that same category. So it makes no sense at all, you know, common sense to people. How they should interpret that?

What is somebody to do when they encounter the I.R.S. saying something like, you know, red meat or as process red meat is is probably carcinogenic?

I mean, it’s such a it’s such a fraught landscape to navigate when you really you know, if you really think about it or if you’re actually weren’t sure.

I mean, actually, I think the I.R.S. sort of provides a service that’s not and that’s not even meant for the public.

I mean, it’s use very much for the public, but it’s more a starting point for regulatory agencies, for industries and for when they’re looking at look at that, maybe they are going to use a certain substance in their process and to know to start looking like can it be a risk of some kind. OK, here we can see that there’s some studies that you can be.

And then let’s look at whether it is so really you shouldn’t be going to I.R.S. for health advice. It doesn’t give you the health advice. You should go to your your, say, national or international like doctor’s recommendations or official nutrition recommendations and these kind of places that have actually done the work, putting the minds to do the risk assessment.

And there are groups within W8 show and then each country has their own regulatory agencies that actually do the risk assessment of the hazards. Right.

So that’s where people can hopefully get better information, although that information is not always very transparent. So it can be very confused.

Unfortunately, there aren’t really clear answers for all of this. It’s more about figuring out how to navigate this information. Right. You know, back to the series. In part two, in the Risks Risk in Perspective series, you talk about how all hazards aren’t created equal. And in it, you talk about how we can map risks onto for sort of rough categories based on how many people are harmed and the severity of the harm. So what are these four categories that we can map risks on to and how are they useful to us in understanding hazard and risk?

So I think this builds really well on what I was just saying about the hazard classifications from I.R.S., like how things in the same category have very different risks and very different harms and all of that. So this this is this builds on that. So once you’ve identified a hazard, the next step is to assess the risk. So how we decide either as individuals or at a societal level about what to do about a certain hazard depends both on the probability of harm occurring. And that’s represented on our graph as the number of people harmed. And also the severity of that harm. I don’t know if you think about like a lotion with some with a fragrance in it and some people get a rash from it that goes away and it’s annoying, but there’s no lasting damage. Right. That’s not really something that we do much about from a regulatory perspective. And individual says, oh, well, I’m not going to use that product again because it may be edgy. And then the other extreme is things that affect a lot of people but do serious harm. And that would be like smoking. And so the goal both as an individual and from a regulatory perspective, is to move things so that fewer exposures and to mitigate the harm. So I think I like this categories because it gives us a framework for what do we do about things that affect different numbers of people and have different types of harm. And how do we reduce those? How do we mitigate those risks?

Thus far, categories are here. As a graphic and it is really helpful to look at that.

So I hope people will when we start looking at how can we manage risks and we look at that sort of quadrant and we start with something that say like the communicable diseases that used to we used to have these hundred thousands strong epidemics every year, every few years. And then we start we started creating vaccines for them and then we mitigated. How many people were affected. Right. You could have very severe consequences from those diseases. You could die or you could be crippled or get death or something like this. And we got the vaccine that basically made the made the diseases only a problem for the few who still caught them or who weren’t vaccinated. And then in some cases, the vaccine even mitigates the severity, like the flu vaccine, that you won’t even if it’s not perfectly effective so that you don’t get the flu, you will still be very likely to get a milder version of it that you won’t end up in the ICU or something like this. So sort of move it along the quadrants towards the the origo, the from the from high. Up on the right. Right. Head on up.

And this also ties into this. How we assess risks, because in a way we get into trouble when we assess risks, when we mitigate risk so much that something that used to affect lots of people. Now only affects a few people because the way we feel most, you know, threatened by risks if we is if we have experienced it ourselves so we know somebody around us who is affected. So it will always make a bigger emotional impact if we know somebody with this disease and have seen it and realize the suffering. And then we sort of we we have this in our head that, OK. This is a big thing that I really don’t want to have for my kids or myself. So then we work to to mitigate that personally. But now that we’ve managed with vaccine so well to push that down close to a Riggo, then some of that emotional weight has disappeared.

In the series, you write that the rise of vaccine denial and the use of alternative schedules highlights our tendency to view all hazards as equal. And you give the example and there’s a graphic from the Mad Virologist, which is also a blog that I follow about which is riskier pertussis, which is whooping cough or the DETAT vaccine, and it lists the risks of pertussis itself and then the risks for the vaccine.

And then kind of boils it all down that the most severe risk of pertussis, which is death, is 10000 times riskier than the most severe risk of the vaccine, which is an allergic reaction. So it seems to me that the most nuanced evaluation of any of these issues always comes down to just weight weighing these.

This issue of vaccines specifically ties. Back to your first question about are we bad at assessing risk? Right. And this is a perfect example where because our generation, we have never seen anybody with any of these does. Yes. Right. So we’re not afraid of those diseases. It’s not immediate to us. So even even for people who know that vaccines are safe and effective, it’s hard to.

It’s hard to feel that fear of those diseases. It’s hard to really understand what that risk means. But if you talk to like our grandparents, if they’re still with you.

And they knew every people who had polio and measles and all of these diseases. And so their perspective on these risks and the risks of vaccines were very, very different because those risks were so immediate. So I think that highlights just a very clear example of how our mental shortcuts and all of these cognitive biases affect a truly rational risk assessment.

Right. It, again now ties into part three of the series, which seems to state, perhaps to me the most unsettling truth when it comes to risk. And this is that zero risk is an impossible dream.

And that’s for anything.

I guess you say that removing risks and exposures doesn’t always reduce total risk and that it’s perhaps most apparent in the widespread fear of trace amounts of chemicals. And before I hand this one over to both of you, IRA and Alison, I got to give a quick shout out to our own sci moms Lego comic series. In Episode six, our characters meet one of our most tricky advertising adversaries. Excuse me. His name is Mr. Mount and his full name is Trace Amounts. So you’ll want to check that out at Sci. Moms dot com at our Lego Comics section. But one chemical you talk about when it comes to the idea of zero risk being impossible is BPA, which has been used in making plastics since the 1960s. So again, when I was a new mom in 2011, I knew that I was supposed to look for BPA free items for my kids.

So what’s the problem then with the BPA free label that’s so common today? And what can this tell us more broadly about risk perception?

So I think our kids are similar age. I guess my daughter’s a little older because I was pregnant. Two thousand eight. And everything was about BPA. BPA. BPA in the news. Mommy blogs. And I spent a lot of money on very expensive bottles and. Everything was BP conscious? Yeah. The sippy cups. We had glass bottles, which, let me tell you, they’re a pain in the neck. They are heavy.

Yeah. So the problem with the BPA free label is that it was adopted by the companies outside of any regulatory framework.

So what they were able to do is remove BPA, slap on this label that made moms like me spend a lot more money on these other products.

And basically, all they did was replace BPA with BPA analogs that most very similar risks. So this was completely a marketing ploy.

And actually, there was just a quote of mine from a few years ago. Re shared on the science moms movie age about motivating parents with misinformation as manipulation, not empowerment. And I think this is a really great example of that. So I felt like, oh, I am doing this great thing for my kids. They’re not getting BPA. I’m reducing their exposures. This. This is awesome. I am making a good decision. And I was totally manipulated. I was not empowered because actually the risk was actually it was a marketing tactic. It was 100 percent the same because all of those things and BP s and there was really no difference to health. And then I think if we get a little bit more into, like the toxicology piece of this, like who is at risk from BPA exposures? Not everybody, not every population and every group of people is at risk for BPA. We know for epidemiological studies that people who are at risk for other things, so vulnerable populations who don’t have good access to fruits and vegetables, who don’t have a great diet, who don’t exercise, who don’t have an enriched environment. People who are at risk for all sorts of things are the people most at risk for BPA exposure exposures in a whole range of other exposure. So this really becomes to me an issue of environmental justice and addressing health disparities so that people like me who can afford to buy very expensive glass bottles, we can afford the time and the money to buy those products. But we’re not the ones at risk for those exposures. So it might make people feel better. But to me, it’s not actually helping people who are at risk.

And so. So are you saying that.

Are you saying that people in a vulnerable or vulnerable communities, excuse me, who are exposed to all other sorts of hazards in their living environments?

Are you saying that the risk of BPA exposure is then compounded? Or are you saying that it’s just added together with some of these other things?

The association is that when you have a poor diet and there’s obesity and there’s other exposures, the association with BP, a exposure and adverse effects is higher. So we can’t say much about causality. Right. We can just say what’s associated. So in those pop, in those vulnerable populations, the association is stronger. So that’s the first part of it. OK. And then so it’s hard to disentangle. Part of it is do those people have a higher exposure because their dose higher and thus they are at greater risk? Or is it. And these aren’t mutually exclusive. Or is it because their protective exposures, the things that we know are good for us are lower because they don’t have access to grocery stores or fresh produce or produce of any kind? Right. So there’s two pieces. There’s reducing exposure and there’s increasing access to. Protective factors to mitigating effects.

I see, so protective factors are sort of a big deal then when it comes to reducing crime.

Yes, I think they’re a huge deal when you talk about health disparities and environmental justice. And it’s not to say that. It doesn’t mean we do both things. We got rid of BPA exposure.

It wouldn’t solve the abolition say, yeah, of health disparities because there’s more air pollution and there’s more other exposures. Yeah, we have to address all of those. But these protective exposures would help to mitigate the effects of all of a.

And there’s another graphic also from Hungary. Brain design on on this series about the risk, a landscape that kind of lays this out pretty clearly. You know, you are going to add something.

Yeah, well, actually, it has to do also with info graphic, which is the landscape of risk or quite literally the risk forest that came from. When we discussed with Allison a long time ago when we realized that, you know, there is so many parts of science communication where there are misconceptions and misunderstandings, it has to do with risk assessment and the failures in their systems assessment.

And that often we ignore the big the really big factors.

And then we focus on those really small potential associations that we’re starting to sort of elucidate whether they could also be tiny risk factors.

And here you can see that the we have drawn the trees, so to say, so that you you you should you should pay attention to the trees, because they are the big things, things like smoking and air pollution and a lack of exercise and then lack of fruit and vegetables. These are the kind of things where we know there’s a huge impact. So both from I mean, it makes sense, both from regulatory point of view and for the individual to to realize that, you know, you can actually do something really important for your health.

You have a huge influence to positively be empowered that you can. But just doing a couple of these things a little bit better, you have already won yourself a lot better health. So that to sort of give this encouragement, that we have great tools at our disposal because we often are so afraid of these these very little things that are not in our control. But many of the big things are really in our control.

Right. It’s it’s kind of seeing the forest situation. And I’m looking at this graphic right now. And so the little shrubs are the smaller plants are are some of the things that we hear the most about. You know, the risk of ingredients and beauty products or the red meat that we were discussing earlier. But the big trees, as you mentioned, are smoking and sedentary lifestyle and not eating fruits and veggies. And I can’t help but again, think of something that Allison brought up earlier, and that’s the issue of justice and health disparities. I mean, for example, sedentary lifestyle and intake of fruits and vegetables is something that is really easy to control. You know, if you have the resources to access fruits and vegetables and to be able to socialize and be active. Yeah. And so I think that it’s it’s great that you you both in this in the series, which I think is, again, really important, and I hope that people read it, acknowledge all of this nuance around, you know, around how we can do this on an individual level. But what we have to do to kind of equalize the playing field for all people. Right.

Yeah, exactly. I mean, if you have if you worked several jobs at the same time and you don’t have access to good, you know, fresh or any kind of produce in your area and you don’t have the time to exercise and you barely have the time to sleep, you’re already under a huge strain. And it’s not that you can just drop your you drop something and start eating vegetables and go out for walks. And so it’s it’s you have to be able to have the the possibility, the opportunity to do those things and to go out for a walk.

You need to live in a safe neighborhood and yet not live in an area with massive air pollution.

So I think there’s no just right and pound on each other. And I think that’s a huge, huge piece of environmental health and health disparities. Mm hmm.

Yeah. Living in a little a little village in Switzerland. The idea that you can just go outside your door and go start walking is so foreign. So it’s I’m so privileged, you know, I just have this nice clean forests and lakes. So, of course, I can just go out and enjoy fresh air.

And part four of the series, you talk about population risk versus individual risk. And you write that we as consumers assume the reports of population risk translates to the same amount of risk for individuals. But it is not that simple.

And this part of risk assessment is not intuitive at all. So what’s not intuitive about it?

Could you unpack this risk is a population measure. It has no meaning in the context of an individual, because when we mathematically calculate risk, we say this is an exposed population. This is an unexposed population. What’s the ratio of people in the exposed group versus the unexposed group who get some outcome? You get cancer, you get whatever your outcome measures. And so within that population, we can say that more people in the exposed group get whatever the outcome is. But you can’t predict which specific people within either of those groups will or will not. Get that disease or have that outcome. And you also can’t figure out which of the people in those groups won’t get it. So, you know, a really striking example is for smoking. I mean, some of the epidemiological studies for smoking showed a 40 fold increase risk for cancer. But we all know people who smoked and never got cancer. So you don’t know from the outset which individual smoker will get cancer and will not. And this is kind of the goal of things like personalized medicine is that we will eventually get to a point between genetics and exposure assessment for individuals, be able to predict with greater accuracy someone’s health outcomes. But we’re not there yet.

But it’s very it’s one of I do like to act like where there was I and there are certain there are certain examples where we are you know, there are certain genetic factors where.

Genes caused by one gene that’s more energetically inherited and a dominant right?

Like those Raccah one and Raccah two mutations are.

But even that No one out and that one’s a risk. That’s a risk, gene. So that’s not even a yes or no. Yeah. So even that it’s a population measure that doesn’t tell you individually whether or not this specific thing will get cancer. Right. Right. Right. So that makes it really, really difficult to understand what to do as an individual. And that’s where that risk landscape, like as an individual, all that I can do is do all the things that I can possibly do to mitigate as many risks.

Right now, we shouldn’t believe over-the-counter sort of tests that promise to tell us risk based stuff. It can it kind of sounds as if, you know, take this test and you’ll find out whether or not you’re going to get A, B or C. So you don’t think any of those are worthwhile?

I think they’re important for research because I think things like that are how we will eventually get to that point. But for very few things, we are at that point yet.

Yeah, I was I was usually thinking, well, one thing that that was a good example for me about how we always intuitively think individual, even though we should be thinking population and it’s not not easy and that’s a radiation risk. So we all know that radiation can be a cancer risk. Right.

And for instance, for nuclear workers in the U.S., you have this yearly limit of 50 millisieverts per year. And basically, we we can see from the best possible research from the whole last 50 years or so that around 200 millisieverts a year, you might be ordered to 100 millisieverts, probably in a bit shorter time than a year. But any way that you can start seeing an increase in cancer risk. So say if you go to somewhere where there’s there’s your exposure to radiation and they try to protect you so that you don’t get exposed to more than 50, and let’s say that you get exposed to something fails and you get exposed to 200.

The immediate thought is that, okay. So now I’m in danger because now I’ve I’ve passed the threshold, so to say. And then I go back and I realize that, well, yes, at around 200 is where we can start seeing an effect if we have, say, about a million people, explo exposed. We can see that there’s maybe a percent extra or two percent extra on top of your lifetime cancer risk. In general, it’s about 40 percent. So then we can say that this million who were exposed may have 40, 41 or 42 percent.

So it’s also like you always think intuitively that now, since I went over a risk threshold, I’m this going to happen to me? You can’t you might be very unlikely that it happens to at all. But it’s the way we want to sort of apply it.

It sounds like everybody deep down wants certainty about these things. And it’s just it’s just not doable.

Absolutely. And that is a great point that we want. I mean, we feel good about certainty. It feels easy.

It’s that emotionally, you know, it’s it’s the safe place. We can be certain about this.

And science, actually, and skepticism and rational thinking actually demands that we allow uncertainties, that we realize that, OK, we can’t actually be completely certain that we have the whole world, Pigtown. And from there, in every topic, you start looking at you, you will get a better knowledge if you acknowledge that there’s uncertainties here. But for us emotionally, it doesn’t feel easy. It does. It takes cognitive energy.

Yeah. It doesn’t feel good. I mean, speaking of energy, I spent some time in cognitive behavioral therapy specifically for my OCD. But one of the biggest things we worked on is just being sitting with uncertainty with it. And there’s I mean, that’s something that I’m still working on. But it’s it’s I’ve realized how important it is in order to just be able to, you know, live your best life in some ways. But speaking of uncertainty as well, since we’re getting a little low on time, I wanted to ask about something that the both of you bring up in the in the series and that I’ve heard Alison talk about a few times, because it does seem that worth talking about and that is that stress about risks pose a health risk. So that seems kind of annoying. So what do we do about that?

You read you read our risks first and you reduce your risk. Yes, that’s a big story.

I feel so sorry when it when I feel like saying to people like, yeah, you shouldn’t stress it, that comes to me and says, it relaxes me. What do you feed your kids? Because I’m worried about this and this and this. And I tried to say that, you know, this is probably not going to be such an issue. And this is not because. Because so and so. And then I say that and you shouldn’t worry like boys. It’s because worry itself is a risk. But I don’t want them to worry about worrying. Yeah, it’s there’s no simple answer, but it is both.

I think giving out positive messages and not trying to stress out people with warnings would be a great start.

Allison, you always you say that especially when it comes to the parenting issues, right. That stress about risks pose health risks. I can I can sort of feel it in my chest like these recipes are stress hormones can’t be good for me.

But I’ve at least learned to sort of not stress about the stuff that as as we talked about earlier, may not matter as much. So if I’m going to stress about, say, what my kids are eating, I’m stressing about whether, you know, they eat all their fruits and veggies for the day. And I’m I’m a real stickler for that.

But outside of that, I’ve again, given that I’m privileged enough that there are environments in their lives. I have so many beneficial protective aspects that I don’t know that there is enough to worry about.

Yeah. Do you think, Alison, I would agree, I. Your comment about Uncertainty’s and CBT really resonated with me because I also have done quite a lot of CBT for anxiety disorders. And one of the things that we work on there besides uncertainty is sort of like consciously deciding. Am I going to expend the emotional energy to worry about this? It’s it’s a little bit like I can’t do anything about that. I can’t change something, everything. So I can control the things I can control. And that’s I can offer my kids plenty of fruits and vegetables and then really, really just hope that they eat them. Maybe just a bite. Please just try it.

Like, can I buy a sheet on it? Everything bagel seasoning from Trader Joe’s makes everything taste better.

So we do that licking. It does not count as a bite. It has to be a bite to shoot and swallow.

Yes. No money if I put Mayo on it. Or a brand strength.

Magical, magical potion that makes my children eat vegetables. Those are the big picture things that I want I have control over.

And two, that will help them in everything, right? For me. You know, I do research on pesticide exposure and I have a lot of strong opinions about what should happen from a regulatory perspective. So I can do some things about those other issues than most people that we don’t have control over in our daily lives. So for me, I do have a way to kind of manage that. But I like with that I would say like supporting research and government funding for research is if you are concerned about these things.

That’s what we need. We need research. We need strong regulations. That’s how you get these things dealt with.

Yeah. Voting for the people that support that.

I think also really want people to know that we are how safe we are nowadays, that people have never been as safe as people in high income countries today. It’s it’s we have so much better environment, so much better food, so much better situations in the societies than than a few hundred years ago. It’s it should be a relief and comfort to know that actually we are getting better and better with health all over the globe.

And I would I would build on that because I’ve heard that argument and then say, you will say, oh, so now we don’t need regulations and no longer to do anything, because I know it’s a constant. We constantly get better.

We constantly can deal with smaller and smaller risks as we progress and youth and we can move forward.

Exactly. Because just within just within the last. So. So people who were or adults or older now during their lifetime, there’s been such a big development towards better. So it’s because we’ve done these things because we actually have regulation outdates. We didn’t have regulations so long, actually. When you start looking at it started in the 70s, 80s. So it’s it’s it’s new and it’s changed a lot of things for the better.

People like us who have the time again.

And we’ve talked about this, but I, I just really want to stress at the time, those of us who have the luxury of the time and the energy to worry about mitigating the risks to ourselves and our families are probably the ones who have to worry the least. Because as far as we’ve come, I think one of the most important things is to help create this this low worry environment that we enjoy for all people.

And I know that both of you agree. And I wish we could talk for so much longer on this, but of course, we are leaving you with this this wonderful series that I hope you all will check out, both at Sci Moms and the Thought Escapism blog. And I love it because it’s an excellent tool not only to educate yourself about these concepts when it comes to risk and risk perception, but it’s also a nice thing to share with a friend or an aunt or someone on Facebook who might who might just not quite get how how risk works. And I’m so glad that I got to speak with both of you today. So thanks again for joining me, Alison and Ida. You’re welcome. Thanks so much.

This has been your host Kavin Senapathy. I hope you enjoyed the word of the day today, although we won’t make everyone scream when someone says risk point of Inquiry is a production of the Center for Inquiry. CFI is a five oh one C three charitable nonprofit organization whose vision is a world in which evidence, science and compassion guide public policy. You can visit us at point of inquiry dot org. There you can listen to all of piecewise archived episodes, support the show and CFI is nonprofit advocacy work. Please remember to subscribe, share and leave a review where available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and your favorite podcast app. Thanks again, everyone. And I’ll talk to you again in two weeks.

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin is an author and public speaker covering science, health, food, parenting and their intersection. Her work appears regularly at various outlets including Forbes, SELF Magazine, Slate, her "Woo Watch" column for Skeptical Inquirer online, and more. When she’s not writing and tweeting, she’s busy being a “Science Mom”—also the name of a recent documentary film in which she’s featured. Follow her on Twitter @ksenapathy and Facebook.