What Are The Chances? Our Inability To Assess Risk

The lights of Tokyo glittered underneath our wings as my Air National Guard crewmates and I flew a recent airlift mission. As we arrived in our C-5 Galaxy, news reports spoke of a thousand-fold radiation increase in seawater at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. We landed at Yokota Air Base, about 150 miles south of Fukushima. We carried dosimeters to measure the amount of radiation we received.

At the time, Americans on the west coast had made a run on potassium iodide tablets. They feared radiation-induced thyroid cancer, even though doctors advised against taking potassium iodide except in cases of known exposure.

Presumably, some of the people who dashed to drug stores to buy the tablets were talking on cell phones as they drove. Perhaps some were smoking. Maybe a few had not exercised in months. All of those behaviors posed far more risk to their health than a nuclear power plant an ocean away.

Centuries after the Age of Enlightenment, when we have more information at our fingertips than our ancestors could have imagined, we have lost our ability to analyze risk. Some parents refuse to inoculate their children because of discredited notions that vaccines cause autism. It’s hard to imagine how they weigh that nonexistent threat against the well-known ravages of dread diseases. Grocery shoppers swear off genetically engineered foods. Perhaps they don’t know farmers have used cross-pollination and selective breeding for hundreds of years–low-tech genetic engineering. Airline passengers grip their armrests at the slightest turbulence. But statistics show flying is the safest form of transportation–including walking.

Maybe our lopsided fears stem from dread of the unknown: radiation sounds scary, so any amount anywhere has gotta be bad, right? Or perhaps there remains in human nature a thread of superstition, a tendency to believe nonsense. After all, there are Americans who think 9/11 was a Washington conspiracy, that President Obama was born in Kenya, or that Apollo 11 never landed on the moon.

Loss of control may also play into irrational worries. We can’t do anything about melting fuel rods thousands of miles away, so we assign a disproportionate level of risk. But the driver of an SUV feels at home and in control, even if he’s dangerously distracted by a phone call or a cup of coffee.

Applying facts to our fears matters because failure to do so brings bad decisions. Unnecessary potassium iodide tablets aren’t good for you. Unvaccinated children reduce herd immunity and pose hazards to everybody else. And without high-tech, high-yield farming, we’ll need to put more wilderness under the plow to feed everyone.

At Yokota, a cold wind whipped across the flight line as we unloaded our cargo. I’d like to think the freight we delivered helped make life a little less miserable for earthquake and tsunami victims.

None of my crewmates had balked at flying into Japan. Though I don’t doubt their courage, their attitude had nothing to do with bravery. It was just a clear-eyed view of the hazards. Most of those guys had flown in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’d faced things that really could hurt them. So they weren’t likely to freak out over lesser risks. American society at large, and certainly our political life, could use a dose of the same kind of level-headedness.

With our cargo downloaded, we started engines, pushed up the throttles, and climbed away into night over the Pacific. At altitude and on autopilot, we took a moment to check the dosimeters. We got no radiation at all.


  1. D.J. Duiker on April 17, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Great article,Tom.
    Regarding the unreasoned fear associated with radiation: one fellow suggested it was the fear of the unknown – you can’t see, smell, or sense radiation. It is like the fear of ghosts – which was greatly diminished when electric lights allowed us to see into the dark.
    Many thanks to you and the others of the ANG who take on humanitarian missions like the one you wrote about.
    And many thanks for The Speed of Heat – we treasure it.

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