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Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear [Hardcover]

Dan Gardner
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 15 2008 0771032994 978-0771032998
In the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell, Gardner explores a new way of thinking about the decisions we make.

We are the safest and healthiest human beings who ever lived, and yet irrational fear is growing, with deadly consequences — such as the 1,595 Americans killed when they made the mistake of switching from planes to cars after September 11. In part, this irrationality is caused by those — politicians, activists, and the media — who promote fear for their own gain. Culture also matters. But a more fundamental cause is human psychology.

Working with risk science pioneer Paul Slovic, author Dan Gardner sets out to explain in a compulsively readable fashion just what that statement above means as to how we make decisions and run our lives. We learn that the brain has not one but two systems to analyze risk. One is primitive, unconscious, and intuitive. The other is conscious and rational. The two systems often agree, but occasionally they come to very different conclusions. When that happens, we can find ourselves worrying about what the statistics tell us is a trivial threat — terrorism, child abduction, cancer caused by chemical pollution — or shrugging off serious risks like obesity and smoking.

Gladwell told us about “the black box” of our brains; Gardner takes us inside, helping us to understand how to deconstruct the information we’re bombarded with and respond more logically and adaptively to our world. Risk is cutting-edge reading.

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"An overdue rational antidote to those of us who fear becoming a victim of the next terrorist attack, a fiery plane crash or some exotic killer disease." — The Ottawa Citizen

"Entertaining....A breath of fresh air and common sense." — Publishers Weekly

"Compelling ... an invaluable resource for anyone who aspires to think clearly" The Guardian, UK

"A fascinating insight into the peculiar and devastating nature of human fear" — Sunday Telegraph, UK

“An excellent work… his take on terrorism in the book’s penultimate chapter is refreshing ... a cheery corrective to modern paranoia.” — The Economist

“A beautifully observed study.” — The Observer, UK

“Terrific… As a writer, he’s exceptionally good.” — The Evening Standard, UK

About the Author

Dan Gardner is a columnist and senior writer for the Ottawa Citizen, specializing in criminal justice and other investigative issues. Trained in history and law, Gardner worked as a senior policy adviser to the premier and the minister of education before turning to journalism in 1997. His writing has received numerous awards, including the National Newspaper Award, Amnesty International’s Media Award, and others. He lives in Ottawa with his wife and two children.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
By James Connolly TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
After having read Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions and Why Popcorn Costs So Much at the Movies: And Other Pricing Puzzles, I was predisposed to find Gardner's Risk lacking in depth and relevance.

While the first two are written by economists for the masses and fail (in different ways) to deliver content that goes beyond "interesting" to "generalizable to the human condition", Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear is exceptionally interesting and illustrative. Gardner, a reporter not an economist, has researched his topic to depths atypical of modern texts. He provides historical and visceral examples of his topics, then extends the understanding to current happenings in the world and goes so far as to show the implications (practical and irrational) of such understanding.

Like Naked Economics, this book is powerfully educational without being dry, preachy, or esoteric. A particular sign of quality is Gardner's highly insightful treatment of the modern media and those who wield it. While I won't say I sympathize with media editors and producers, I have a greater appreciation for how they are swayed by the "current story" - zeitgeist or meme if you will - almost as much as consumers of media.

If you want to enjoy a book which may expose your own consistent (yet mistaken) views on risk, and if you're ready for the challenges posed by this newfound knowledge, you will find Gardner's book well worth the time invested in reading it.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars And the odds are . . .? July 21 2008
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Dan Gardner's concerned about how we handle fear. In North America, of course, a single event, the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon generated a new level of fear in the population. So unexpected and abrupt was use of commercial aircraft in a terrorist assault that an avoidance of flying was the immediate and widespread reaction. Gardner, however, wants to consider the event and the reaction in a more rational perspective. He notes at the outset of the book that the chance of dying in auto incidents is far higher than that of flying. As the statistics proved - since nearly 1600 additional auto deaths - about half of those lost at the World Trade Centre - were added to the annual total in the following year. Gardner taps into psychology and the field of risk assessment in this fascinating study of how we deal with fear. We aren't doing a very good job of it.

For millions of years animals relied on quick responses for survival. Reaction to potential danger or a possible meal left no time, nor need, for reflecting. Act fast or expire. That kind of brain is now called the limbic system, or "lizard brain". Evolution granted humans a chance to build on that foundation to produce a "thinking" part of the brain. The limbic system is still in place, however, and issuing commands we are rarely aware of. Psychologists, says Gardner, call these System One and System Two. The author, in the best journalist's style, calls these The Gut and The Head. The Gut reacts to crisis situations quickly and effectively. The Head follows along later at a more deliberate pace - if it gets any voice at all.

Gardner is eager to have us understand how these Systems work. He contends that we are carrying a reaction system founded on our ancestors' time on the African savannah.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Manipulating People Though Fear Feb. 13 2009
By G. Poirier TOP 50 REVIEWER
This book mainly deals with psychology as it pertains to human reaction to tragic events. In roughly the first third of the book, the author discusses important aspects of how the human mind works under various conditions - especially scary situations. He comes up with a set of simple rules that are used throughout the book to help explain how people behave when frightened by something that they don't understand very well. But the main theme of this book, and what is most disturbing, is how these fears can be used and played upon by certain groups, e.g., politicians, the media, etc., to manipulate the public in order to fulfill some hidden agenda, e.g., winning votes, selling newspapers, acquiring funding for something, etc. A great many examples of fear-inducing events are presented, including terrorism, epidemics, cancer incidence/deaths, various disasters, etc. Fortunately, all of these are put into perspective by the author in order to illustrate how the often-resulting public fear is usually completely unnecessary. The writing style is clear, fast-paced, authoritative and quite engaging. This book can be enjoyed by anyone, especially psychology and sociology buffs but also by those concerned about how the public's fears can be so skillfully and often cruelly exploited.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Adding my praise Nov. 17 2009
This is the best book I've read in a very long time. Without repeating what other reviewers have said, what I found most impressive is just how much research and academic theory he brings into such an easy, enjoyable read. The first half of the book summarizes the key findings of 30 years of research in evolutionary psychology and sociology on how humans make decisions about risk, and what things trigger us to make bad decisions. It's fascinating, and acts as a very solid foundation from which to systematically analyze, in the second half of the book, those societal actors that are (intentionally or inadvertently) pulling the triggers -- primarily the media, politicians, corporations, bureaucrats, and NGO's. But it's not a polemic and he's not a conspiracy theorist -- quite the opposite in fact. Rather than dark manipulating forces, he sees mostly well meaning individuals trying to get a message out and doing it in the most effective way. Unfortunately for those of us who aspire to think clearly, what's most effective often rings our hard-wired risk bells and causes us to make irrational assessments of the world around us.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Every Advocacy Group Should be Forced to Read This!
Coming from a science background, one of the basic concepts is the idea that one needs to look at the evidence and then use it to prove or disprove a particular theory and that... Read more
Published 6 months ago by ATC123
5.0 out of 5 stars Amusing
Very interesting read.. But what else can you really expect from Dan Gardner?
If you have the time, i would recommend giving this a quick read.
Published 9 months ago by kRond036
5.0 out of 5 stars A deeper understanding of our own minds
The author does an excellent job laying out how we perceive risk, and all of the troubles that come from that inherently flawed process.
Published 11 months ago by Cameron Moser
4.0 out of 5 stars Seeing beyond what they want us to see
I really enjoyed this book. It not only stripped away the illusions of how we see events and people but also helped me to understand how we think and how I can better get a more... Read more
Published on April 11 2011 by R. Kilpatrick
4.0 out of 5 stars Unfounded and Unbounded Fear
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5.0 out of 5 stars A
At the time I write this review there are 7 reviews showing 5 stars and 2 reviews showing 1 star - nothing between. Read more
Published on Aug. 23 2010 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Finally, a book with some Meat !
I was pretty happy with this book. Most books (and movies for that matter) have great titles and promise much but end up falling (very) short of delivering any real value to the... Read more
Published on April 3 2010 by P. Kudsieh
1.0 out of 5 stars Waste of Time
I wish I could've had my money and time back that I wasted on this book. It is too simplistic and not very well thought out. It insults our intelligence.
Published on May 25 2009 by Boiler
1.0 out of 5 stars Save your money!
I wrote the publisher of this book requesting my purchase price be returned as they could not have possibly read the manuscript before they published the book. Read more
Published on May 8 2009 by Pearl Johnson
5.0 out of 5 stars How not to panic in any given situation!
This book is excellent, well written and especially important at a time like this (swine flu pandemic!); the author
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Published on May 1 2009 by R. Kellhammer
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