A while back, I was invited to one of those neighborhood earthquake-preparedness meetings we have out here in the shaky state of California.
I listened with interest as the homeowner who hosted the event described, with evident trepidation, her biggest earthquake fear: that the shaking would cause power lines to fall into the street in front of her home.
What should she do in that event, and how could she escape?
Now, this woman happened to be an artist — a sculptor in clay — and during this anxiety-ridden discussion over power lines, she was seated directly in front of a tall, spindly, sideboard completely laden from top to bottom with heavy pottery she’d made, including a huge platter that was precariously balanced on the very top.
I pointed out to her that she was much more likely to get beaned by her own artwork than to be harmed by a fallen power line — a remark she took with both great surprise and a touch of resentment.
I mention this to point out how distorted our perception of life’s risks can be. While this woman worried over an infinitesimally unlikely event, she was quite oblivious to the much more immediate earthquake danger of being clobbered by her own falling pottery.
Human nature being what it is, we often seem to fear esoteric risks far more than mundane ones. For example, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from gas appliances has been widely publicized in recent years, yet none other than the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that there are typically about 170 cases of fatal carbon monoxide poisoning in domestic settings each year.
By comparison, 33,808 people died in traffic accidents during 2010, an increased risk factor of about 200 times.
Actually, driving provides an excellent yardstick for judging relative risk in general, because we do it so casually in the context of daily life. We worry more about lighting a candle at home than we do about taking a spin to the local 7-Eleven — yet once again, the average American is 10 times more likely to die in an auto accident than in a house fire.
Likewise, while many people are nervous around electricity, statistically you’re about 50 times more likely to meet your doom in a car than you are to get zapped around the house.
For better or worse, government-mandated bans on environmental hazards such as asbestos and lead, which are often accompanied by public relations and media campaigns that emphasize danger without providing any sense of relative risk, further conflate big risks with modest ones.
Indeed, manufacturers of safety goods trade heavily on such disproportionate fears, and may even amplify the perceived danger — the better to sell hazardous material test kits and the like.
The foregoing doesn’t even take into account perceived domestic risks that border on the irrational, such as phobias of microwave ovens and electromagnetic fields from power lines.
Which brings us back to the woman with the pottery: She may as well relax no matter where she’s sitting, because even here in risk-prone California, her chances of being permanently retired by an earthquake are a fairly manageable 1 in 2 million.