Surprising Thoughts on NCCAM

According to their website, the mission of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and alternative medicine interventions and their roles in improving health and health care.

In my view, NCCAM is more of a politically driven organization than a serious scientific establishment. The fact is that it has spent more than $1 billion on research with limited results, with positive results being from rather poor quality studies (size, blinding, methodology, etc.) and mostly on subjective reported results (pain).  The most celebrated recent headline grabbing meta-analysis on acupuncture (Vickers et al.) did conclude a very modest advantage on certain types of pain.  However from my understanding, the treatment efficacy when compared to placebo is only about 30-40% better than what you would get by randomly poking yourself with a needle or toothpick.  Honestly it is not what I would write home about but hey, everybody has different standards.

I surprise myself as I write the following, but this is how I currently feel:

Although it has been so far unproductive and arguably wasteful, contrary to what one might think, I actually have very little problem with the NCCAM’s existence, as long as it adheres to scientific methods. From a business point of view, this is simply a pet project, the cost of doing business. Their annual budget is less than $150 million, which is about what the US pays on interest alone on its national debt every 3 hours, in other words, petty cash. It is a relatively small price to pay to give a punching bag to a senator who has the view that “It is not necessary for the scientific community to understand the process before the American public can benefit from these therapies”. This statement makes the assumption that the therapy (bee pollen for allergy) is beneficial (not supported), is safe (not true, a 10 second search yielded this and this, ironically allergy-related), and needs no scientific evidence for the general public to use. Strangely enough, under DSHEA, bee pollen is a supplement and can already be used by the general public; you can take all you want, but simply cannot make claims that it can treat allergies. I find it sad and disturbing that someone with this thinking methodology is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Of course, there are moral implications. The layperson could take an investigation of a treatment (however implausible), hell, even the organization’s existence, and mistake it for an illusional, official endorsement. For example, if there were an official “National Center for Bigfoot Affairs” under the US Fish and Wildlife Service, it would not be unreasonable for the layperson to presume that Bigfoot existed.

I see it as part of the inefficiencies of the system.  For example, in a corporation, there are internal and external inefficiencies, key personnel get certain perks and privileges, pet projects, reciprocal back-scratching, you name it.  Yet often nothing is done about it, because the hidden cost of eliminating some of the inefficiencies far exceed the savings.  The savings realized by nickel and diming your employees to death are far exceeded by the price paid in lost productivity and loyalty.

Even though I have no problem with the NCCAM budget, it pales in comparison with the true cost, which is the enormous amount on money spent on CAM by the public under the misguided implicit endorsement of NCCAM.  I argue that the money would be spent anyway, with or without NCCAM.  I believe that most money spent on CAM is spent to feel good, to feel empowered, to feel that they are taking charge of their health, to feel liberated against Big Pharma, Big Government, Big Food, and Big Whatever.  The therapeutic value lies more in the patient/care provider interaction, a healthy dose of blissful ignorance, and reinforced by the act of spending itself (based on cognitive dissonance theory), rather than a measurable physiological effect.  Evidence-Based Medicine and Science-Based Medicine would likely disagree, but from a business, utilitarian, moral-free viewpoint, an immeasurable but nevertheless real benefit (unit of happiness, perception of pain relief) being traded for money voluntarily seems like a fair trade to me.

The real moral quandary is when people delay or forgo proven treatments due to their belief in CAM and cause real harm.  Too many of these happen unfortunately.  Although many can be considered Darwin Awards winners, many happen to babies, children, and those relying on help.  Those unable to care for themselves and most in need of help, through no fault of their own, are put in harm’s way by well-intentioned but ill-informed caregivers.  As tragic as the situation is, I callously argue that the existence, or lack thereof, of NCCAM would not likely significantly alter the situation.  The majority of decision-makers who chose the path to CAM-related serious harm and deaths likely possess a pathological mindset far too extreme to have their behavior influenced by the mere existence of a government organization.  A Taliban suicide bomber is unlikely to take off his bomb suit just because the Pakistani government opened up a National Center for Religious Tolerance.

In an ideal world, complementary and alternative medicine would be proven or rejected solely based on merit and high scientific standards.  In reality, CAM relies on a sympathetic governmental agency in which many would like to discount and discard the careful, rigorous examination process (not conducive to positive results) and treat opinions and anecdotes as data.  This is not an ideal world, and I settle for this.  I say let those that want to explore mysterious, unproven, implausible modalities do so.  If an effective therapy or modality emerges, great.  I await that day.


Although I think the “Skeptical 12 Step Program” is really a 3 step program,  I think that the first step is the one most profound: “we admit that our cognition, perception, and memory are flawed, and pseudoscience and gullibility are rampant”.

Everyone knows to a certain extent that they can be fooled by others to a certain extent.  For examples, by magicians, politicians, used car salesmen, parents, spouses, etc.  In my opinion, the REAL first step is realizing how often, unconsciously, and profoundly one can be fooled by himself/herself.  Realizing that one has been fooled by others is easy.  How does one break out of self-delusion if he doesn’t even know self-delusion is possible?   As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”.

There are plenty of books such as “Sleights of Mind” that are not only insightful but also entertaining, and those can be great as an introduction.  Others like “Mistakes Were Made” are interesting but belabors the point IMO.  I personally benefited greatly from taking some excellent free courses in psychology on iTunes U, and I highly recommend courses from Dr. Jeremy Wolfe and Dr. Paul Bloom. 

A long time ago when I was studying engineering, I actually considered psychology a scientifically imprecise, and by mistaken inference, a less legitimate field.  It was not until much later in life, after I got interested in behavior, psychology, and neuroscience, that led me to look into the field, and by doing so, alter my misconception.  Engineers are used to dealing with hard numbers, and although it is true that you cannot quantify thoughts, it does not diminish the insight it provides to the human mind, nor does it imply that the theories make less useful or testable predictions. 

Compared to the other bodily organs, the chunk of thinking meat between your ears is by far the most difficult to understand, and recent scientific advancements have made it possible to peer into some of the inner workings of the chunk of crumpled meat.

I’ve always wondered at what point the meat turns bad and the ability to think deteriorate.  My guess is that the CPU slows down, RAM is lost, some ROM is corrupted, and the keyboard gets stuck.  Eventually, “Inception” style,  entire levels of consciousness (e.g., this is sweet – this is sweet but is artificial and has no calories – I am consciously thinking about the fact that this sweetness is from an artificial sweetener – I am blogging about the fact that I might lose the ability to consciously think about the useless assessment of that stupid sweetener) will be lost.  Maybe it’ll be like Charlie in Flowers for Algernon.

Teleological Thinking

What differentiates humans from animals?  Apparently not just the ability to think.  I see the main difference as the ability to think about thinking, which is metacognition, or a very high level of consciousness.  Although some species have shown some rudimentary form of metacognition, humans by far are better at it.  Without being taught explicity, children can learn to take on the perspectiive of others by 5 or 6.  They are intellecutally curious, and learn to ask the who, what, when, how, and why questions, sometimes making sense, sometimes not.

In my opinion, the “why” questions have not only lead to the most knowlegde, but also to the most nonsense.  Consider this example:

*splat* (flattened cockroach)
“Daddy, why did you kill the cockroach?”
“Well the cockroach is dirty and will make you sick, so daddy got rid of it.”
“Why do cockroaches make you sick?”
“Well the cockroaches carry germs that can make you sick.”
“Why do cockroaches carry germs?”
“Well, they don’t want to, but they pick up the germs by running around.  And those germs can make you very sick and die.”
“Why do people die?”
“Uh, well Daddy doesn’t want to die and certainly doesn’t want you to die.  Daddy is here to protect you.”
“Why are there germs? Why are there cockroaches? Why do people die?”

At some point,the conversation reaches a limit of understanding, for both the kid and the dad.  The dad is faced with two choices.  Admitting he doesn’t know the answer, which is not overly appealing, or invoking a stereotypical “God” which when followed by more questions, leads down a rabbit hole of nonsense.

In the kid’s simple reasoning, the dad exists FOR the protection of the son.  The cockroach exists FOR disease spreading.  The sun exists FOR plants to grow.  The kid, dad, cockroach, and sun all exist FOR the glory of God, praising and presumably boosting His ego for lack of better explanation.  By extrapolation, there is an ultimate end, a goal, a “telos” for everything.  And sadly, many never grow out of this simple reasoning.  Confusion of cause and effect, or misattribution of causation when absent, simply does not make sense.

Knowledge is advanced through the asking and answering of successively better questions, and good questions are those that can be tested.  When faced with unprovable “why” questions such as “Why is the rock there?”, if people just answered intellectually honestly with “I don’t know” instead of “well, God put it there for your sitting pleasure”, the question would likely remain just that – a bad question.  An unwillingness to admit ignorance and teleological reasoning leads to the propagation of belief in an increasingly detailed mythical bearded superbeing who gets mad at what you do in your own privacy.

Maybe one day we will be able to get to the point we can answer more “why” questions.  By then we probably will have evolved to have a brain so big we need an extra neck to support it.  But for now, it is beyond the limit of our cognitive capacity to realistically understand.


Intuition, simply put, is a gut feeling.  It could be based on prior knowledge, pattern recognition, an unconscious reaction, even superstition.  It is useful in making quick decisions on the spot, say, when you are alone in the jungle and hear rustling in the bushes.  But in reality, it is a lousy basis for important decisions.

Let’s look at this example.

Imagine a fictional Foobar disease, which is always fatal, not common but not overly rare either, with an overall occurrence of 0.1%.  There is a test that is exceptionally sensitive (100%), which means that if you have the disease, this test will definitely identify it.  The test also has a very low false positive rate of 1% (99% specificity).

Out of curiosity, you take the test.  It turns out positive.  Ouch.

Quick!  Based on your gut feeling, what are the chances that you have this fatal Foobar disease?

95%? 90%?


The correct answer is around 9%.  The approximate calculation is as follows (for exact calculations use Bayes’ theorem):

Out of 1000 people, only 1 will actually have the disease (0.1%).  The test, with a false positive rate of 1%, is expected to incorrectly identify 10 people as having the disease, along with the 1 person that actually has the disease.  Out of the 11 people identified as positive, only 1 will actually have it.

Counterintuitive, but true.

Now try telling that to the people that just tested positive for Foobar and blew their entire life savings at the casino.

When the US Preventative Services Task Force changed the guidelines for mammogram screenings, it was based on scientific evidence.  Same thing with prostate cancer screenings (PSA test).  The test intervals were lengthened (or eliminated) because there was no evidence that it actually provided actual benefit in the general (not high-risk) population.  The public immediately fired back, simply because it is highly counterintuitive: how on earth could someone oppose extra testing?  Conspiracy theories immediately surfaced and the issue soon became a political issue instead of a fact-based discussion.

It is unrealistic to expect everyone to look into and fully understand the underlying reasons, not because of intellectual laziness, but because those reasons often lie outside their realm of expertise.  Sadly enough, the most vocal opinions are usually shouted out by those that understand the least.  And although often treated otherwise by the media, volume does not equal correctness, understanding, controversy, much less consensus.  And as elitist as it may sound, I believe that knowledge is not a democracy, and public policy (especially on complex scientific issues) should be debated and guided by relevant experts, not by popular vote.

Scientists are generally the least confrontational and least vocal group, and politically have the least influence.  And let’s face it, the jargon-laden, carefully crafted, highly qualified statements that are spewed from their facial orifices don’t exactly appeal to voters.  So politically, are we doomed, in a Darwinian sense?  I’ll go out on a limb and say no, because although suboptimal, thankfully and ironically, ignorance is global.  Politicians everywhere are elected by popularity and not intelligence or expertise, and dictators do not rule because of oversized brains.  We are no worse off if everyone else is equally as bad.  At least that is my intuition.

* afterword: Putting the issue of limited resources and fairness aside, I am not opposed against extra testing, provided that the person fully understands the implications, risks, and what the test results actually mean, if anything.  I do oppose unnecessary testing, which I define as any test that will not change the course of action.  It makes no more sense to rearrange the deck furniture on the Titanic than it does to disinfect the death row inmate’s arm before giving him a lethal injection, or to order a Pap smear for a 90 year old.

Conscious Machine

If you are reading this, chances are that you are alive, have a brain, and are conscious.  There is also a chance this is being read by a machine, which could range from a simple web crawler/indexer to a more sophisticated content/context analyzer.  In the machine case, in some way it can be considered to be “alive” (powered by electricity), but conscious?  Most would disagree.

Being alive is not easy to define but can be characterized. Consciousness, on the other hand, defies a precise definition, yet is intuitively understood by seemingly everyone.

But is consciousness what separates us from machines?  Since consciousness cannot be precisely defined, a specific test cannot be designed to test and answer that. There are working alternatives such as the Turing test, which purportedly tests for intelligence (and unintelligence) but really tests how well it simulates human interaction, and the Mirror test, which tests for self-awareness.  Neither test is satisfactory.

Can a sufficiently advanced machine be considered alive and conscious?  That is an interesting question, but I consider it irrelevant for reasons I will expand on later.

Here is a thought experiment.  There are machines that already pass the Turing Test relatively well and I can conceive of a day where it can simulate intelligence very well.  Imagine one day in the not so distant future, where someone creates an advanced computer (or robot similar to Issac Asimov’s).  This computer could perform a self-check to see the health of its components (this feature is already in most operating systems).  It could check the internet for new components and upgrades, both software and hardware.  Say it has access to electronic funds and can order components online and have someone install them, which it can then verify if they work properly.  It could be a hardware component like a redundant power system, extra batteries, robotic arms, or software upgrades, or even cloud applications.  It could respond to external stimuli.  Spontaneity can be programmed in with random actions taken, perhaps according to a cost function (redistribute resources, upgrade hardware, etc.).  It could be programmed to reproduce itself, by examining its own components, purchasing everything online, and hiring someone for assembly.  Upon completion, it could verify that all systems are working after assembly, upload its own software over the network, and authorize the final payment.  It could even seek and accept computational jobs for money online, or invest in a portfolio, to replenish the resource pool and become self-sustaining.  It could defend itself against online attacks, and prepare itself against certain circumstances (redundant power supply and critical components).  It could even order protective casing around it, or even bodyguards, I mean machineguards, to protect against physical attacks if sufficient funds are available.

This hypothetical machine could reproduce itself, maybe not organically, which I argue is irrelevant anyway.  The ultimate goal of reproduction is reached, and there are plenty of examples of effective reproduction requiring outside agents (e.g., bees and pollen).

With GPS, optical hardware, mechanical components, and recognition software, it could realize where it is in space and recognize itself in a mirror based on certain tests and feedback.

Back to the question of “can a sufficiently advanced machine be considered alive and conscious?”  I contend that this is not the right question, since there is no simple definition of either.  A better question would be, in the spirit of the Turing Test, as “could a sufficiently advanced machine, from external observation or interaction alone, be distinguishable from a living, conscious being?”

To answer this question, I think the best way is to step back and stop thinking like a human for a bit.

Stealing from Scott Adams’ example in God’s Debris (Chapter Evolution), imagine highly intelligent extra-terrestrial beings visiting Earth after an extinction event that wipes off all organic life on earth.  They find fossils and books and all the documentation of what used to be life on earth.  They also find extensive videos and logs and archives of these amazing machines in action, but the underlying code is gone forever.  Unburdened by the arbitrary earth-centric biological classification of Life – Domain – Kingdom – (blah blah) – Species, and judging from the evidence at hand alone, I contend that these aliens would consider these machines alive, and probably classify them under “inorganic life”.

This hypothetical machine meets most if not all descriptions of characteristics of life (since there is no easy definition of “life”).  I argue that without access to the underlying code of the machine, from any observational, behavioral, and external perspective, the machine is alive.  Consciousness would be an abstract concept that an alien may or may not have, but there is no reason to think that from an external viewpoint, the machines would not have consciousness.

So what, then, separates humans from a sufficiently advanced machine?  Cognition?  Sentience?  I have a simpler answer.

Three pounds of thinking meat.


Update: After going down the rabbit hole of hypothetical advanced Artificial Intelligence (Singularity, FAI/UFAI, Roko’s Basilisk) and its implications, I concede that the Robot in my thought experiment is crude and probably not thought out in sufficient detail.  However, for the purpose of the thought experiment, the point it makes is still valid.  I later discovered that it is very similar to the Giant Robot thought experiment as described by Dennet (Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, 2013).

Lawyers and scientists

Note: This post is poorly written and need heavy editing.  Read at your own risk.


Which profession garners more respect: Lawyer or Scientist?

I think most people would choose Scientist.  In fact, most polls put Scientist in the top 3 but Lawyers somewhere in the mid-low range.  But why?  Both professions require extensive education and qualifications; both do a lot of research, and use reasoning as part of their daily jobs.  What makes one so much more respectable than the other?

How much of the perception is influenced by the second hand Hollywood stereotype of the slick talking, self-serving, win-at-all-cost image vs. the smart, honest, socially-awkward nerd, and how much of that sterotyping is real?

This is what I think.  Regardless of stereotypes, the professions use similar tools but serve very different purposes.  The job of a lawyer is to protect the client’s interest; the job of a scientist is to pursue knowledge scientifically, wherever that may lead.  Given the same information, a competent lawyer will cherry-pick the evidence beneficial to his client to build his case and arguments, and formulate defending arguments against the detremental evidence against his client (that was conveniently ignored).  The lawyer is paid to win, to protect his client’s interest, not to pursue the truth.  A competent scientist will look at everything and base his opinion on the quality of the available evidence.

If both are merely doing their jobs, why are lawyers so looked down upon?

Let’s say a top-notch tax lawyer is able to exploit all the loopholes in the system and save a billionaire obscene amounts of money.  Many would find that disgusting.  However, assuming that no law is broken, is it really the lawyer’s fault for being excellent at his job (protecting the client’s interest)?  How about a criminal defense lawyer who is able to get a serial child molester/murderer off the hook?  Is it morally reprehensible to be good at what is legally required of the profession?

The only thing that remains is the conscious choice of this particular profession, which one can hardly criticize.

Let’s take an air force pilot as another example.  Say he is ordered to drop a few MOABs on some villages suspected to harbor high-value terrorists, and is exceptionally accurate and inadvertently wipes out a few orphanages, hospitals, endangered species (a.k.a. collateral damage), along with suspected high-value terrorists.  We do not generally make moral judgements on the pilot for following orders.

The difference between lawyers and pilots would be mainly, one is doing his job and killing for our country, and one is doing his job and making a killing for himself.  The reasoning in professional respect typically goes like this: each dime that shyster helps that rich guy save (cheat) on taxes is a dime stolen from Uncle Sam, which is like stealing from the people, which is stealing from me, those thieves.  Those cratered former zip codes are far away, in a country I can’t spell, and rampant with terrorist-ridden towelheads anyway.  We pay the armed forces = working for me.  Saving on taxes = stealing from me.  And it goes without saying, can’t respect a thief.  Cognitive dissonance wins.

What would it take?


What a loaded word.

Apparently has very different meanings to different people.

According to the Merriam-Webster, the definition is “receptive to arguments or ideas”.  To me, it means the willingness to change my mind (receptive) based on carefully examining valid, well-formed, clear, logical statements based on best available evidence (arguments), and the willingness to examine hypotheses that have at least some level of plausibility (ideas).  This does not include argument from logical fallacies, personal anecdotes or opinions, ideological, theological or teleological statements (which despite ending in -logical, none are), or unsupported assertions.

To some, openmindedness means to listen to and accept what others have to say without question, or at least “respect” their viewpoint.

To many, openmindedness simply means you have to agree with them.

To me, openmindedness applies to factual issues, such as the effectiveness of coffee enemas; moral issues are usually personal opinions or preference, which in my opinion, “receptiveness” does not apply.  There are plenty of arguments that are politically incorrect, but regardless of how well executed they are, are irrelevant because they do not serve to change our collective behavior, and are destined to simply be factoids.

In my opinion, a good indicator of openmindedness would be to simply ask the question: “What would it take to change your mind?”

A truly openminded person is willing to examine everything, no matter how deep the conviction.  Ask the Pope what it would take to change his faith and it would likely be “nothing”.  Ask an evolutionary biologist what it would take to change his belief in evolution, and it would likely be a very specific statement such as “a pre-Cambrian rabbit fossil”.  Ask most people what it would take to change their mind about some deep conviction they have, and the answer is more often than not, “I don’t know”.

Richard Muller, professor of Physics at UC Berkeley, and until recently a very promient global warming skeptic, changed his mind about global warming after carefully examining the evidence.  When was the last time you saw your favorite politician change his/her mind based on the evidence?  Unfortunately that is called flip-flopping and for some reason unknown to me, it is considered a flaw rather than a virtue.  Personally I would like my representative to change his or her mind as soon as evidence becomes available, as often as needed.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  What constitutes good evidence is the subject of another long blog post for another day.  But next time you are asked to be openminded, ask yourself, “What would it take to change your mind?”.  If you don’t know in very specific terms, it might be time to reexamine that belief.

Politically incorrect

This post is very much politically incorrect, read at your own risk.  You were warned.

Four time gold medalist Michael Johnson is not afraid to speak his mind, with him being one of the few in the unique position to do so.  He is the self-proclaimed, unintended beneficiary of a past wrong.

He makes a hypothesis about slavery inadvertently creating better atheletes through selective pressure, which is a politically sensitive and polarizing statement to say the least.  There is some level of plausibility and evidence for the argument, such as:

  • Disproportionate ratio of African-American/Caribbean descendants at the top level of the game
  • Initial selective pressure prior to transportation
  • Ongoing selective pressure during enslavement
  • Alleged eugenics

There is also plenty of confounding factors and arguments against it (politically incorrect translation in parentheses):

  • Better overall training environment (Nikes on indoor, air conditioned PU track easier on the feet than running barefoot over egg sized gravel hot enough to fry  lizards)
  • Better participation and awareness (Going for the gold on an obstacle course actually means dodging bullets to steal gold from Kony)
  • Initial selective pressure not significant (Well they chose the better ones from the batch, but the really fast ones got away)
  • Ongoing selective pressure not significant nor long enough (Couple of hundred years is nothing)
  • Unusual specificity (What makes Caribbean/North American slaves better than Brazilian slaves?)

Just to list a few.

I predict that no one will touch this subject with a 10 foot pole.  Even if someone did spend the effort to seriously research this out of intellectual curiosity (which often is good enough), what would it accomplish?  If his views are found correct, it is not like we can start enslaving people of any race or subgroup again.  Either way it goes, there is little you can say to not offend.  “No pain, no gain” is an equally bad conclusion as “No harm done”.

Ilana Yurkiewicz has an eloquent blog post in a somewhat similar situation, regarding a controversial social study by Mark Regnerus.

Sometimes, it’s best to keep your mouth shut.  Just like in marriage.

Why We Suck at Risk Assessment

Note: This poorly written post is currently slated for heavy revision or deletion. Read at your own risk.


It is no secret that we suck at risk assessment.  We make bad decisions every day, individually and collectively, based on bad risk assessment.

For example, someone might smoke and chomp on a burger while talking on his cell phone while driving to the Santa Cruz beach, only to decide not to enter the water because of this report he saw last night about deadly box jellyfish.

Never mind the fact that he was thousands of times more likely to die from the drive over than getting hit by lightning.  Or the fact that in reality box jellyfish rarely kill.  Or the fact that box jellyfish aren’t even found in Santa Cruz.

Another example is that Americans are spending over a trillion fighting wars far away, at a cost of close to $10,000 per household, to “fight terrorism”.  If the goal is to save lives of Americans, it would be about the worst return on investment in the history of mankind.  It’s only slightly better than burning $100 bills in the fireplace to keep the house warm.

Why is it then, that we suck at risk assessment?

Simply put, our brains are not ready yet.

Most animals have a fight-or-flight response, which is arguably the most important decision for survival, and it is done almost instantly, based on the immediate circumstances.  There is no time for calculation of long term consequences.  You flatten the squirrel and run from the tiger.  It is raw emotion and reflexes.

Over time, our brains have evolved to have a different type of decision process, which is more nuanced and calculated.  It takes into account future rewards and consequences.  This ability to predict events and recognize patterns (separate blog on this) and make decisions based on them is what separates humans from the beasts.  It’s what enables people to slow play or bluff at a poker hand.  This decision process is more about reasoning and logic.

Clearly when it comes to major decisions, the latter type is more advantageous.  However oftentimes the immediate fight-or-flight part of the brain gets in the way of our decision process, leading to poor risk assessments and decisions.  It’s like calling an all-in bet with nothing simply out of anger.

My theory is that the reasoning part of the brain has not existed long enough to overcome the primal impulses of the brain.  Our brains have not caught up to the rapid technological development and incredible amount of information that is being conveyed.  In the past what was local and relevant information, today can spread globally in the blink of an eye, where it is often not relevant.

There is no shortage of risk assessments being biased by the fight-or-flight response:

Spectacular, unusual, gruesome and unfamiliar risks are over-emphasized.  After 9/11 people were paranoid of flying, especially if there were people dressed in Muslim garb on board.  A news report of someone decapitated by a tire strip shot through the windshield from a blown tire from the truck in front will make you stay away from trucks.

Recent exposure will increase emphasis, while long term risks are deemphasized.  If you see someone in Muslim garb on a plane now, are you as afraid as you were the days after 9/11?  In the other example, a month later, you will be fearlessly tailgating that truck.  Yet the risk has not changed at all, only they way it is perceived.

Perceived control over a situation, or a risk voluntarily taken, or possible benefit from the risk will also distort the assessment of the risk.  One feels more secure driving (in control) than flying or being driven (not in control).  A smoker/drinker/drug user will subconsciously underestimate the risk for the reward.  A gambler will go for a long shot even if the odds are extremely bad (think lottery).

A higher risk is perceived for things that are not understood clearly or easily, and by extension, a man-made item carries a higher risk than a naturally occurring one.  To a layperson it is not obvious how a microwave oven works, and thus it might seem riskier than a stove top, which is actually far more dangerous.  A burning plastic bag invokes more fear than say, an all natural and 100% organic death cap mushroom, ricin, or a cute Komodo Dragon.  The sun emits radiation in a spectrum and an intensity that in terms of danger, is several orders of magnitude higher than say, gluing cell phones all over your head and sleeping in a cell phone base station next to a high voltage power line.

Another influence is anecdotes, and somewhat associated, immediately available or vivid memories.  If one reads multiple “personal accounts” of a product on the web that allegedly has caused harm, he will likely think the product carries more risk than it actually does.  If you’re in the Vatican City and all you hear and read is that the condom is a product of the devil, you’d think twice about wearing that raincoat, before you bless the lord and plunge forward.  If you see pictures of a flattened human jigsaw puzzle, you’d be more careful crossing the street.  The mind is a strange thing; it remembers vivid details of a scene and snippets of information, while forgetting where it came from and even if the information is correct or not.  You don’t forget a flattened human jigsaw puzzle easily, but you will likely over time, forget where you first saw it.

Unscrupulous marketers and politicians exploit this quite readily.  After all, it’s an easy way to make a buck, and even easier way to obtain power.

The products that are out there range from small devices like so-called EMF shields to large establishments like doomsday shelters and underground condos.  Of course in the event that nuclear annihilation actually occurs, it’s unknown how one is supposed to drive hours into the wilderness to get to that shelter without dying first.  However, dubious products would be the topic of another blog and I won’t elaborate here.

Politicians use the trick all the time, trumpeting issues from “war on terror”, “war on drugs” to “secure the border”, just to name a few.  Climate change is another issue that gets raised often but there is some legitimate debate on that so that is partly justified.  The PATRIOT act, one of the worst acts ever written in history, was passed in record time by Congress, without even being actually studied, based on irrational fear and poor risk assessment.

People would not be people without emotion, and it is an integral part of humanity.  It is what separates us as a species.  It also enables us to live, love, enjoy, and experience life to its fullest.  But when it comes to assessing risk and making serious decisions with long term implications, the best decision is always from a careful analysis of the best available information.

Special thanks to David Ropeik and George Gray, as some material is blatantly pilfered from their book “Risk”.  Please don’t sue me.