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In a risky world, how do we work out what’s safe?

Often, the way we get information makes it hard for us to make sense of it.

Relative versus absolute risk is a typical cause of confusion. A doubling or 100 per cent increase in risk sounds scary, but a change from one in ten million to two in ten million would be little cause for concern.

Actually, most of us manage risk pretty well. We are bombarded with so much information that to survive we actually need to ignore most of it, so we tend to draw rapid conclusions from bits of information – what some psychologists call ‘thin slicing’. We make rapid, semi-automatic decisions based on many factors: our past experience, current state of mind, understanding of the risks, personality, friends’ opinions, and so on. Most of the time it’s a pretty successful strategy, but it is ‘quick and dirty’ and can go wrong, of course.

As well as benefits, individuals are likely to be affected by their sense of control over a situation – or lack of it. In the GM crop scenario, it was clear that people felt they had little control over what was going on. Reaction was also influenced by a widespread loss of trust in authority figures after BSE (mad cow disease).

As a society, we continue to view science and technology, in general, as good things. Our concerns tend to be specific, or about issues such as regulation or who gets to benefit. What some people fear, however, is that our belief in science and technology means we often rely on scientific or technological solutions rather than social ones.

Lead image:

Bob Mical CC BY NC

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development