Innocent Bystander January/February 2004

Looking for Trouble

Get a life—at your own risk

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."

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Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor. More

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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