Public Perception’s Role

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has finalized their latest report on climate change. It’s a very complex issue, involving a very complex system of input energy from the sun, water in various forms, air and water currents, reflectivity and absorption of electromagnetic radiation, and biological lifecycles. Farming techniques. Transportation and energy generation. Fossil fuel extraction and use. Market economics.

Recently ProPublica ran a series of articles on Acetaminophen (Paracetamol, or Tylenolâ„¢) (ProPublica: Series: 20 September 2013: Overdose), regarding the dangers surrounding one of the most commonly consumed medications in the world.

The Affordable Care Act’s exchanges and open enrollment period will begin on Tuesday 1 October 2013. But will it mean the end of the republic? Or a great new day for the health of the people?

Nicotine-containing liquids and cartridges of vaporizers will likely soon be deemed as tobacco products by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In preparation for the release, 40 attorneys general and a bevy of supposed public health organizations have rallied their mouthpieces to call for tough regulations.

People with guns keep killing people, stoking more and more debate over the role of guns and gun owners in society.

These things have in common one key factor: public perception, or at least the appearance of public perception.

At least in the case of Tylenolâ„¢, most people believe it’s safe. They believe it is safer than it is, at least in some instances. So, the argument goes, oughtn’t people be made aware of the exact dangers?

Ah, but the debate counters, it might stop people from using it out of fear, and that could indeed lead to harm, too. For example, someone might forgo a regiment of an analgesic like Tylenolâ„¢ when they have a high fever, and that could make matters worse.

And there we have the gist of these issues: risk balancing. Public perception deems some risks unacceptable, others acceptable.

But that’s not the nature of these debates, unfortunately. If these debates were predicated on finding our best tolerance for risks, we would be successful. But these debates are muddied by non-risk issues, such as profits for certain industries, or emotional appeals by people who have been victims or lost loved ones to particular diseases or behaviors.

The result is further muddiment: the side believing that the risk is too high or too low, faced with opposition using emotion or profit motives, slings back. Escalation.

But one of the keys is the tendency to equate property with self, and to equate company or incorporation with family or nation. That is, people will defend land as though it is an extension of the self, and will defend their employer as though it were their kin. To the extent that they put these things above the common good.

This is all seen as rather normal and in some cases laudable.

But the real measure of truth is putting the data forward in as clear a way as possible. Letting people decide their own risk tolerance, where possible. We don’t see that happening as much as it could. We see the opposite: companies trying to thwart the scientific evaluation of climate change. No improved information on the potential dangers of over-the-counter pain relievers. Sad attempts to demonize health insurance reform efforts, rather than the facts about the options for future reforms, including tradeoffs. Efforts to portray nicotine vaporizers as just as bad as smoking, undermining public health. And gun debates that focus on everything except the underlying problems that lead to violence: economics and mental health.

We seem to avoid real solutions in favor of addressing our unhappiness that our problems exist.