Thinking about risk

Consider this passage from a recent New York Times article

Mr. Portier, who led the center when the revision process was initiated, said he believed parents should have been presented “with enough information to say caution isn’t ill advised, because we really don’t know, and there are enough indicators to say we should be cautious.”

The quoted former CDC official is espousing a form of the precautionary principle.  What do you think he's referring to? GMOs?  A new pesticide?  Food irradiation?

Nope. He's talking about cell phones.   The article describes some squabbles at the CDC on whether using cell phones cause cancer (the same World Health Organization group that says bacon and the weed-killer glyphosate may be carcinogenic  have also said that cell phones are a possible carcinogen), and how to communicate with the public on the issue.

So, here he have an issue for which there is apparently some scientific uncertainty, for which some government officials want the public to proceed only with caution, and the the public response?  A big shrug.  

Why is it that people think about the risks surrounding cell phones so differently than they do the risks surrounding GMOs, glyphosate, irradiation or many other food and agricultural technologies?  One could write a whole paper on that topic.  In fact I have (along with Jutta Roosen and Andrea Bieberstein).

There are a variety of reasons.  For one, people tend to conflate benefits and risks.  If something is beneficial then, people tend to think of it as less risky (even though we can imagine some very beneficial products that are also risky).  People directly see the benefits of using cell phones every day and thus they are perceived as less risky than, say, a pesticide that they have never heard of and scarcely can imagine  using.  Then, there is the old risk perception literature that originated with folks like Paul Slovic that is still relevant today.  The idea is that risk perceptions aren't driven by objective probabilities of possible bad outcomes but by how familiar or unusual a product seems and by how much control we believe we have over the risk.  Cell phones seems relatively safe because they're now quite familiar and because we decide whether to pick it up or turn it off.  Many food and agricultural technologies, by contrast, seem foreign and have secretly been slipped into our food supply (or so the story goes; ever notice now many of the top-selling food books use words like "hidden" or "secret" in the subtitles?).  

Whether there are good reasons for these psychological biases is less clear, particularly when they run at odds with the best scientific evidence we have on relative risks.  I for one, am perfectly at ease eating a tortilla made from Roundup-Ready corn while chatting on my cell phone.  The biggest risk is probably getting salsa on my iPhone.