The University of Chicago Magazine

October-December 1996


Calculated Risk

It looks bad: Former industrial site equals hazardous-waste dump? Such untested assumptions, says public-policy scholar Howard Margolis, create bitter environmental disputes between experts and the public.

In our complex, technological society, people often substitute expert advice--a doctor, an auto mechanic--for firsthand experience. "If you've got a lump in your chest," says public-policy scholar Howard Margolis, "you go to a doctor. It wouldn't even occur to you to take a vote of your friends as to what you should do."

Our trust in experts is the rule, says Margolis, a professor in the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, to which certain environmental issues are the exception. The public rejects the specialist's talk of costs and benefits and, suggests Margolis, sees only one side of an issue. When asbestos is found in a building, of course it should be removed--though the experts may suggest otherwise. If a chemical is hazardous, the response may be to ban it, no questions asked. In Dealing with Risk: Why the Public and the Experts Disagree on Environmental Issues (U of C Press), Margolis offers a boldly unfashionable account of these public convictions--beliefs, he says, that are often plain wrong.

As a result, regulations "often seem to have no relation to the actual risks." Margolis praises Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's analysis of the problem in Breaking the Vicious Circle: Toward Effective Risk Regulation (1993). Breyer argues that "the politicians are aware that people are very concerned at X," Margolis explains, "so they adopt stringent measures about X. Then the press, noticing these stringent measures, says, 'Well, there must be some serious problem.' That's passed on to the public, which then becomes more firm in how stringent the measures have to be."

That the public might be overreacting clashes with most explanations of the lay vs. expert opinion gulf. According to one popular theory, laypeople and experts embrace different, equally valid conceptions of risk. Conflicts start when experts undervalue a threat like nuclear waste by seeing it only in the narrow, numerical terms of predicted deaths or injuries. The public weighs many other factors, like whether a risk is heavily publicized.

To Margolis--who, in two previous books, has explored how persuasion and individual belief shape social outcomes--that's a defense, not an explanation, of public opinion. In lay-expert conflicts, he argues, public sentiment sometimes locks into a rigid position, skipping nuances like the immediacy of a risk. The result is an intuition, like "better safe than sorry," that's deaf to counterarguments because, he says, our intuitions "just seem right," and any evidence against them is suspect.

Margolis blames this reaction on the special nature of often subtle or small environmental risks. Drawing on his and others' studies of perception and cognition, he describes intuitions as a kind of mental reflex or "habit of mind," effective in recognizing and acting on patterns in everyday life but potentially misleading in extreme, unfamiliar conditions. Most people, for example, have personally experienced the risks and rewards of driving a car, so it's a small step to hear an expert's opinion on, say, driving safely. But a pesticide that raises cancer rates by a tiny statistical margin? The public, says Margolis, lacks a visceral sense of such probabilities and how they are estimated, or of how a pesticide ban might affect their food. Thus a "better safe than sorry" intuition preempts the balancing act. An expert who claims that the pesticide poses less health risk than the pest is roundly dismissed.

Against this cognitive logjam, he argues, logic is useless until a powerful counter-intuition can restore what he calls "fungibility"--the open-minded position where arguments on both sides are considered. He cites cases like the former mining town of Aspen, Colorado, where residents' reaction to the news of lead contamination swung from the predictable--the polluted soil must go, and forget anyone who suggests otherwise--to a nearly opposite view. Because the townspeople understood the severe disruption that the proposed clean-up would cause, they listened to scientists who advised that the risk from the lead was minor and, indeed, smaller than that from the heavy trucking required by a cleanup.

Through the controversial suggestion of so-called cost-benefit analysis, many Republicans have pushed to incorporate such a counterforce into policy making. Cost-benefit analysis, Margolis explains, resembles the private, mental balancing act of risks and benefits that a person makes every time she drives a car, but he discounts it as a political reform because "people, except for economists, have a visceral feeling about not wanting to think about trading lives for dollars." A better change, he says, would require that laws and regulations pass a standard similar to Hippocrates' counsel to physicians: Above all, do no harm. Similarly, legislators should require regulators to have a "reasonable confidence" that a new environmental measure is "more likely to save lives than cost lives."

Many current laws, he believes, fail this "do no harm" test, and merely enforce the public's erroneous intuitions. "Indeed, if the experts are right," he writes, "we are engaged in a great deal of intense and expensive activity that will eventually come to look as peculiar if not as pernicious as the witch-hunts of earlier centuries."

Written by Andrew Campbell

More Investigations:
  • Schools Without a Net: Melissa Roderick listens in to learn why even good students in Chicago high schools often struggle.

  • Look, Ma, No DNA!: Mad cows, defective yeast, and a disease spread by cannibalism are all key evidence in a scientific controversy over a new mechanism of inheritance, Chicago biologist Susan Lindquist and colleagues at the U of C Medical Center report in Science.

  • Also in Investigations:

    • Two Nations: In Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals (U of C Press), political scientist Lynn Sanders charts a gulf far deeper than many Americans acknowledge.
    • The Power of One: In Under God, Indivisible, 1941­ 1960 (U of C Press), Divinity School's Martin E. Marty looks at how religious organizations helped Americans to set aside cultural and political differences and cultivate consensus during World War II.
    • No Jolt: Chocolate does not affect children's behavior, says a team of researchers led by Medical Center's Mark Stein.
    • Rough Sailing: The idea of free trade among nations hasn't lacked critics, but it has become one of the strongest ideas that economics has to offer, says GSB's Douglas Irwin in Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade (Princeton).

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