How corporations and politicians lie

Risk, by Dan GardnerFrom British daily The Morning Star:

Heads you win

(Sunday 09 March 2008)

Risk: The Science and the Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner
(Virgin, £17.99)

GORDON PARSONS examines the tacit techniques that companies use to get us to part with our hard-earned cash.

“Britain plagued by 80 million rats,” spreading Weil’s disease, salmonella and tuberculosis, screamed a recent tabloid headline. Who says and who counted, you may ask. Not surprisingly, Rentokil UK, “Britain’s leading provider of pest control,” provided the info.

The second part of Dan Gardner’s invaluable book quotes many examples of the way in which statistics, both the legitimate kind and the damn lies variety, are used to frighten the customer into parting with his or her money and the voter to deliver at the poling station. For most readers of this review, the evidence will not come as a great surprise.

In the context, however, of the first half, where Gardner, quoting one of his many reliable sources, explains how “we unconsciously screen information about risk to suit our most basic assumptions about the world and our place in it,” we realise that none of us is free of wired-in bias born of our personalities, cultural conditioning and the influences of the people among whom we live.

When it comes to the inevitable struggle between gut and head, all the evidence of numerous socio-psychological experiments reveals that gut wins hands down.

We base our responses to the “information maelstrom” that engulfs us, engendering feelings ranging from anxiety to terror, on personal experiences, anecdotes from friends and, above all, the natural human propensity for storytelling, rather than unexciting scientifically analysed data.

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