Looking for Trouble

Get a life—at your own risk

By Cullen Murphy

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."

By now virtually anything can be insured. Dolly Parton, Jennifer Lopez, Tina Turner, Betty Grable, Fred Astaire—the insurance industry has been involved in underwriting economically consequential body parts for all of these people. Surgeons insure their hands, soccer players their feet, chefs their taste buds. And there is plenty of room to grow in this direction, toward the insuring of ever more ineffable competencies. Could Roger Ebert take out insurance against the sudden loss of critical faculties? Or Donald Rumsfeld against a catastrophic lapse in judgment? There's no reason why policies like these couldn't be written (although underwriters would want to be wary of "prior conditions").

Indeed, insurance against loss of love already exists, in the form of the pre-nuptial agreement. The pre-nup (also anticipated in the Code of Hammurabi) doesn't lend itself to hard data—no government agency collects statistics on its prevalence. But the book How to Write Your Own Premarital Agreement was for a time the No. 1 best seller on Amazon's list of books about marriage. Another surefire best seller, I bet, would be a "greatest hits" collection of actual prenuptial agreements. The Los Angeles divorce lawyer Robert Nachshin has drafted pre-nups calling for the random drug testing of a spouse and stipulating that a spouse not watch more than one football game on Sundays. The prenuptial agreement between Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones reportedly entitles her to $5 million for any act of infidelity on Douglas's part. Although the actual terms of the pre-nup signed by Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck have not been divulged, the Daily Star, a London tabloid, has reported that Lopez, too, imposed a multimillion-dollar fine in the event of her husband's infidelity. She also demanded sexual relations at least once every two days. According to the Star, J. Lo's mother urged that the agreement be signed "in blood."

What all of this is about, probably, is our Manichaean attitude toward the unknown. Risk is the engine of an entrepreneurial economy, and Americans accept it as a way of life. But we are also a practical people, proud of our can-do spirit and our ability to look ahead sensibly. We want to know the score. We can take anything, as long as you give it to us straight.

Wouldn't it be useful, then, if officials at the National Institutes of Health, perhaps in conjunction with experts at the Department of Homeland Security, got to work on a vast, computerized master algorithm of all known risk factors—the Hell-gorithm, as it might be called? The mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace once asserted that if one simply had enough data, it should theoretically be possible to calculate the future of the universe. Creating the Hell-gorithm would be a far easier task.

The aim would be to compile a complete database of all risk correlations. A user would fill out a detailed questionnaire, revealing, say, that he is a short toothless smoker whose father was diabetic, whose mother lived to be a hundred, who drinks two glasses of red wine and five cups of coffee a day, who worked as a cabbie while in college and flies in commercial aircraft once a week, who always wears a seat belt in the car but talks on his cell phone while driving.

Based on these and hundreds of other variables the Hell-gorithm would crunch the numbers and come up with a personalized "risk-load assessment." The information could be delivered like the SAT, as a numerical score. (You might even get 200 points just for being alive.) A more user-friendly approach would enlist familiar voices to deliver the news about one's lifestyle.

"James, it's too risky," Denise Richards might purr.

In all too many cases, of course, the verdict would best be conveyed by someone else entirely: "Hasta la vista, baby."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/01/looking-for-trouble/302873/