Misperception of risk

A common thread runs though much of NP advocacy: the “normative” way of life (mainstream parenting, diet, values) is rife with risk, in a way the NP isn’t. Refraining from action towards the normative way of life will prevent dangerous outcomes, and if a bad thing happens, well, that’s what nature intended…”Nature’s will be done”.

The problem is that we humans are not all that good at objectively assessing risk. We also often have preconceived notions which often bias us towards a certain result. Everyone is prone to this; all of us have our biases, though scientific training and development of critical thinking skills can sometimes assist in identifying when we are biased. Hence the importance of peer-reviewed research and replicability of scientific results by different teams of researchers.

Psychology Today has a great article about how humans commonly misperceive risk. Or as my doctor used to say, “You’re afraid of all the wrong things”. Instead of fearing real, permanent damage that may happen during a birth gone wrong, many have a greater fear that some doctor might speak to them in a tone they don’t like, or – heaven forfend! – that a nurse might ask them if they want an epidural. Instead of worrying about the real, catastrophic results of contracting an infectious disease, some worry about the much smaller risk of a bad vaccine reaction (or the more common, but not severe or permanent, risk of a mild complication). It doesn’t help that there is a plethora of websites willing to stoke the fires of their fear by magnifying small (or hypothetical or nonexistent) risks and minimizing real and larger ones.

It reminds me a bit of an online conversation I had with a lactofanatic, who asserted that it’s important to breastfeed because a meteor might hit the Earth and as a result, thre will be no ready formula. No, I am not making this up.

An item in the article that especially “speaks” to this issue:

We Love Sunlight But Fear Nuclear Power

Why “natural” risks are easier to accept.

The word radiation stirs thoughts of nuclear power, X-rays, and danger, so we shudder at the thought of erecting nuclear power plants in our neighborhoods. But every day we’re bathed in radiation that has killed many more people than nuclear reactors: sunlight. It’s hard for us to grasp the danger because sunlight feels so familiar and natural.

Our built-in bias for the natural led a California town to choose a toxic poison made from chrysanthemums over a milder artificial chemical to fight mosquitoes: People felt more comfortable with a plant-based product. We see what’s “natural” as safe—and regard the new and “unnatural” as frightening.

Any sort of novelty—including new and unpronounceable chemicals—evokes a low-level stress response, says Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist at ChildTrauma Academy. When a case report suggested that lavender and tea-tree oil products caused abnormal breast development in boys, the media shrugged and activists were silent. If these had been artificial chemicals, there likely would have been calls for a ban, but because they are natural plant products, no outrage resulted. “Nature has a good reputation,” says Slovic. “We think of natural as benign and safe. But malaria’s natural and so are deadly mushrooms.”

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3 Responses

  1. Hi. I wandered over here from Homebirth Debate and just want to add a couple of silly quotes about natural versus artificial risk…

    (Context: A lecture on risk of infectious diseases such as SARS and bioterrorism, in answer to the question: Is the money spent on preventing bioterrorism well spent): “Nature is the biggest bioterrorist there is.”

    “Gamble with Gaea and she’ll eat your dice.”

  2. After reading this post, I’d be interested to hear your opinions about vaginal birth after cesarean section. Are VBAC moms minimizing the risks in order to have a more pleasant birth experience? Or are repeat c-section moms overestimating the risks of trying for a vaginal birth? (in general, I’m speaking to situations where there is a choice…not medically indicated repeat c-sections)

  3. Great quotes, Dianne! Does that mean that money spent on preventing bioterrorism is a waste of time, though?

    Kathie, that’s a great question. I think it deserves a blog post all of its own, if you can stand to slog through my personal experiences as well 😉 …

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