Toward the end of the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough there is a scene where Bond and his sidekick, a physicist played by Denise Richards, are trapped in a nuclear submarine submerged in the Bosporus. The submarine's reactor is about to explode, killing all aboard and turning Istanbul into Chernobyl. But maybe, if Bond can hold his breath for a really long time, and swim underwater through a series of balky bulkheads, and then twirl some dials in exactly the right way—maybe, just maybe, everything will be okay. Should he give it a try? Denise Richards weighs the options—certain death in seconds versus a slender reed of hope—and declares, "James, it's too risky."
Those words immediately became a household catchphrase, used by my children whenever someone (in the newspapers, on television) cites the slim possibility of harm as a reason for inaction or concern. More broadly they use it in response to any mention of risk assessment at all. This means that the words are used a lot, because a growing share of the news consists not of bad things that have actually happened but of correlations indicating that bad things might very well happen. It is the White Queen syndrome, recalling the character in Through the Looking-Glass who screams in pain before she in fact pricks her finger.
The precautionary outlook has its merits. But as the Harvard analysts David Ropeik and George Gray point out in their recent book, Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You, the litany of risky correlations has become absurdly extended. In a spirit of ironic dismay I keep my own running list of discomfiting news reports. A scientist at the University of Bristol, in England, has discovered a correlation between not shaving every day and an increased risk of stroke (and decreased frequency of orgasm). Epidemiologists in Copenhagen have determined that airline pilots and their cabin crews are at greater risk of leukemia and skin cancer, perhaps because the high altitude exposes them to extra doses of cosmic radiation. A study conducted at Sweden's Karolinska Institute reveals that men who have worked for at least a year as bus drivers or taxi drivers are more likely than other men to suffer heart attacks.
Given the often conflicting nature of various risk factors, figuring out one's aggregate risk, or "risk load," is obviously beyond the ordinary person's capacity. People who are short have a greater risk of dying from stroke, but tall men are more likely to develop prostate cancer. It is not really surprising that people who suffer from depression have a greater likelihood of heart disease, but a sunny disposition isn't necessarily a happy alternative: optimists are more likely than pessimists to be involved in automobile accidents (because they don't give themselves enough time to get to where they're going, and end up speeding). People who play sports are obviously at risk for a variety of athletic injuries—but they are less likely than other people to develop gallstones. Drinking lots of coffee increases blood pressure but decreases the risk of Parkinson's disease.
Do Americans pay too much attention to risk? That's the indictment one frequently hears. Not only are we risk-obsessed, but we have a warped idea of the relative incidence of various kinds of calamity. Terrorism, SARS, anthrax—these things are statistically inconsequential but a cause of national panic, whereas common household stairs are responsible for more than a million hospital visits each year in America. Ropeik and Gray, as knowledgeable and prudent a pair as you will find, cite "a wide gap between what the public and the 'experts' think is actually dangerous" and what may in fact be relatively safe.
They certainly have a point. And yet it's hard to imagine that without a hair-trigger sensitivity toward risk, America would ever have taken the lead in perfecting one of modern civilization's acknowledged glories: the insurance industry. The idea of insurance goes back many thousands of years (it's mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi, which seems to have anticipated everything). Insurance of various kinds gained traction, almost as a form of gambling, among merchants in the coffeehouses of seventeenth-century England. But Americans have become the greatest consumers of insurance in history. We account for only a quarter of the world's economy, but we buy more than a third of the world's insurance. We spend more money on insurance in a year than we spend on food. Our attitude is embodied in the slogan of a California company, the Destiny Group, which offers insurance against lawsuits: "If you're alive, you're at risk."