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Risk of Fear vs. Fear of Risk: A Physical Scientist Trying to do Social Science
MRIC 2006/07

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"Risk of Fear vs. Fear of Risk: A Physical Scientist Trying to do Social Science"

March 20th 
Mickey Gunter
Geological Sciences
Abstract: Hopefully, this title might pique the curiosity of those who think I just study rocks (actually, I study minerals!). My interest in this subject stems from a lecture I prepared for Geology 101 back in the early 90’s titled “Asbestos: A metaphor for risk perception.” That lecture grew into a seminar and later a publication in the Journal of Geoscience Education. Asbestos is the fibrous form of certain minerals and thus occurs naturally. All of us breathe thousands of asbestos fibers every day, yet many have heard the phrase and believe that “one fiber you kill you.” Numerous civil lawsuits have been argued on this point. I have discussed the health effects of mineral dusts in an integrated science course taught in the mid 1990’s, an honors class in risk perception, and a core integrated science class on minerals and human health.

The thread that runs through this issue is that we, as humans, have an inherent trait that makes it difficult for us to ascertain real from imagined risks. For instance, we fear flying and will often drive to avoid the perceived increased risk of flying. Sadly, these sorts of decisions kill us. A prime example of this is the fact that Americans shunned air travel after the events of 9/11/2001 and the result was a significant increase in the number of deaths from auto accidents. I will discuss several other similar examples along with the cold hard facts of what we will die from and how there is often an inverse correlation between what will kill us and what we fear we kill us. Last, I will offer the premise that we as a society might be causing more negative health effects from stress brought on by worrying about all the insignificant risks we face on daily basis. Hopefully, you’ll leave this talk and think more about how much you eat and how far you drive your car and stop worrying about bird flu, mad cow disease, or tainted spinach!

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