Wednesday, July 8, 2015

What are the odds, anyway?


I attended a conference on food safety two years ago and discovered a disquieting pattern in discussion with other participants. I was one of a few farmers in a group of mostly urban advocates for more stringent food safety rules. As we discussed some differences of opinion, (and there were many), I began to notice that common ground eluded us, despite sincere efforts to understand.  

After many mental replays of the conversations, it has occurred to me that we used two distinctly separate sets of criteria to decide if food was safe. My opinions were based on what has happened, while their arguments were based on what might happen. My arguments centered on the fact that food was extremely far down the list of things threatening our health (way below automobiles, smoking, handguns, stress, etc.). Food was not a big sweat, in my opinion, especially if you bothered to cook it.  

The countering argument reversed the burden of proof.  Prove to us our food supply will not possibly cause this phenomenon, or contribute to this condition, they challenged. I could not do so to their satisfaction, largely due to the actions of too many science teachers who made me understand that the world does not deal in absolutes (never, always, impossible).  They were uncomfortable with what I considered negligible risk. We differed in our methods of assessing risk, just like all people do.

People do not simply look at numbers to evaluate personal risk. Other factors skew their judgment. People are more comfortable with a larger risk from a familiar situation (smoking) than a smaller risk from a little known source (pesticide residues), regardless of the actual hazard. Familiar risks, like driving fast, seem to be under our control. Dangers that are controlled by others loom larger before us. People nervous about nuclear weapons often sleep peacefully with loaded weapons in the house, for instance. Even technology, which fascinates Americans, because we are increasingly incapable of understanding its new forms, has become suspicious. Simply put, it is easier to fear an unknown than learn about it.
Here on the farm, we don't help our own cause a great deal by using such fear exploitation to resist everything from landfills to high-voltage lines. I often suspect such concerns reflect less the actual fear for personal safety than unhappiness with economic changes, but the argument has been most effective. If we are unwilling to accept negligible risks, we should not be surprised when our customers demand the same right. Additionally, as we have demanded to know what the exact odds are for any action, science has gotten better at telling us. It is ironic that with more precise evaluations than ever, we are less willing to accept any risk, however small. Given a "one-in-a-zillion" chance, we choose the "one" or the "zillion", as needed, to argue our case. 

Most troubling is the naive belief that any safety risk outweighs any economic cost. The slightest threat to one life is too great to bear, especially one of "our" lives. What is not widely explained is that economic costs end up as personal costs. Raising the price of food with needless regulation, as an example, to accommodate a remote risk, results in thousands of Americans finding good nutrition a little bit farther beyond their reach. Aid programs to overcome this causes a tax burden that repeats the process. The choice is not just sacrificing some dollars to be sure, but sacrificing the well being of one group for the peace of mind of another. The needs of the many should outweigh the fears of the few. This is even more reasonable when the benefit for the few is slight. We all have the right to reach our own conclusions about personal risks. It is particularly self-centered point of view to consider our anxieties the responsibility of others.

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