Risk : The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner is an excellent book that looks at how the risks in life are misrepresented and lead to unwise actions. The book deals extensively with terrorism, cancer and other illnesses.
Gardner describes people as perceiving things with their gut or their head. The gut, or emotional perception, likes things being black and white and is hooked on narrative stories. The head perceives things more reasonably and can look at statistics and consider things more calmly. The problem is that the gut is often more powerful than the head.
Gardner goes through a number of errors and quirks of perception, the anchoring effect, the errors in deciding more specific things are more likely than more general things, our inability to gauge the benefits of risky things properly and our ability to believe we are smarter and more correct than we actually are.
The book outlines how the media are addicted to scare stories and concentrate on strange and unlikely events. Given current enormous populations such strange events will almost always occur. This in turn has led people to fear things which are highly unlikely to hurt them and their families.
Gardner goes into specifics on terrorism and points out that the threat from terrorism has been willfully and wildly exaggerated. Gardner points out that the threat from terrorism to an average American is too small to measure while people actually believe it is likely that they or someone they know will be affected by terrorism.
Gardner looks at crime in detail and shows how the actual threat from crime, and in particular violent crime, is far lower than most people believe it to be and is declining. He points out that the decline in crime since the 1990s across much of the developed world is rarely, if ever, brought to attention by the media.
The book has a chapter called ‘The Chemistry of Fear’ that goes into how people perceive man-made chemicals to be far more dangerous than they are. Gardner points out how Environmental groups deliberately scare people to further their own ends. He points out that the reason cancer incidence has risen is that people are not dying earlier of other causes.
Gardner ties the book up nicely by pointing out that there has never been a better time to be alive and that it is quite likely that in 50 years the same thing will be true. He goes over how out mis-perception of risk, fed by cognitive functions designed for picking berries and hunting, the media and various groups have given people a poor picture of risk in everyday life. The book is a powerful antidote to this problem.