The availability heuristic and the perception of risk

It’s taking a lot longer to go through the Risk Management Principles for Nanotechnology article than I expected. But, let’s move onwards. “Availability” is the other main heuristic used when trying to understand how people perceive risk. This one is about how we assess the likelihood of one or more risks.

According to researchers, individuals who can easily recall a memory specific to a given harm are predisposed to overestimating the probability of its recurrence, compared to to other more likely harms to which no memory is attached. p. 49 in Nanoethics, 2008, vol. 2

This memory extends beyond your personal experience (although it remains the most powerful) all the way to reading or hearing about an incident.  The effect can also be exacerbated by imagery and social reinforcement. Probably the most powerful, recent example would be ‘frankenfoods’. We read about the cloning of Dolly the sheep who died soon after her ‘brith’, there was the ‘stem cell debate, and ‘mad cow disease’ which somehow got mixed together in a debate on genetically modified food evolving into a discussion about biotechnology in general. The whole thing was summed as ‘frankenfood’ a term which fused a very popular icon of science gone mad, Frankenstein, with the food we put in our mouths. (Note: It is a little more complicated than that but I’m not in the mood to write a long paper or dissertation where every nuance and development is discussed.) It was propelled by the media and activists had one of their most successful campaigns.

Getting back to ‘availability’ it is a very powerful heuristic to use when trying to understand how people perceive risk.

The thing with ‘frankenfoods’ is that wasn’t planned. Susan Tyler Hitchcock in her book, ‘Frankensein; a cultural history’ (2007), traces the birth of the term in a 1992 letter written by Paul Lewis to the New York Times through to its use as a clarion cry for activists, the media, and a newly worried public. Lewis coined the phrase and one infers from the book that it was done casually. The phrase was picked up by other media outlets and other activists (Lewis is both a professor and an activist). For the full story, check out Tyler’s book pp. 288-294.

I have heard the ETC Group as being credited with the ‘frankenfoods’ debate and pushing the activist agenda. While they may have been active in the debate, I have not been able to find any documentation to support the contention that the ETC Group made it happen. (Please let me know if you have found something.)

The authors (Marchant, Sylvester, and Abbott) of this risk management paper feel that nanotechnology is vulnerable to the same sort of cascading effects that the ‘availability’ heuristic provides a framework for understanding. Coming next, a ‘new’ risk management model.

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