February 27, 2009

DT Friday Meta-Freakout: Intuitive Toxicology And The White Male Effect Edition

The regular DT Friday Freakout will return next week, so that we can present you with this special DT Friday Meta-Freakout.

A couple of weeks ago, this NY Times reader's interest was understandably piqued by the lede for Peggy Orenstein's story, "The Toxic Paradox":

There is nothing like the suggestion of a cancer risk to freak out a parent, especially one of the hypereducated, ecoconscious ilk. So you can imagine the reaction when a recent USA Today investigation of air quality around the nation's schools singled out those in the smugly green hamlet of Berkeley, Calif., as being among the worst in the country.
In her investigation of why parents worry about what they worry about, and whether that's what they should worry about, Orenstein referenced the work of Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who specializes in risk perception and analysis. Slovic calls the outsized worry over major-but-extremely-unlikely risks "intuitive toxicology"; as Orenstein puts it, "When the potential impact of a chemical is catastrophic -- cancer or birth defects -- we tend to act from the gut, ignoring the actual probability of harm. I wouldn't expect parents to have the same risk tolerance as experts. "

So I looked into Slovic's research a bit, and though Orenstein's use of the term was a bit loose, it's still a very apt and interesting concept. Slovic and his colleagues found that while experts define risk on a quantitative basis [e.g., probability and outcomes], lay people use a variety of qualitative assessments as well, including "catastrophic potential" "involuntariness," and whether the subject knows about the risk he faces.

In the abstract of a 1994 survey of how toxicologists and lay people assess chemical risk in particular, Slovic and his colleagues explain what anyone who survived the whole Bisphenol-A hubbub last year already knows: communication methods and the limits of statistics and science have an impact on how people perceive risk:

Human beings have always been intuitive toxicologists, relying on their senses of sight, taste, and smell to detect harmful or unsafe food, water, and air. As we have come to recognize that our senses are not adequate to assess the dangers inherent in exposure to a chemical substance, we have created the sciences of toxicology and risk assessment to perform this function.

Yet despite this great effort to overcome the limitations of intuitive toxicology, it has become evident that even our best scientific methods still depend heavily on extrapolations and judgments in order to infer human health risks from animal data.

Many observers have acknowledged the inherent subjectivity in the assessment of chemical risks and have indicated a need to examine the subjective or intuitive elements of expert and lay risk judgments.

Such an examination was begun by surveying members of the Society of Toxicology and the lay public about basic toxicological concepts, assumptions, and interpretations. The results demonstrated large differences between toxicologists and laypeople, as well as differences among toxicologists working in industry, academia, and government.

In addition, toxicologists were found to be sharply divided in their opinions about the ability to predict a chemical's effect on human health on the basis of animal studies. These results place the problems of risk communication in a new light.

Although the survey identifies misconceptions that experts should clarify for the public, it also suggests that controversies over chemical risks may be fueled as much by limitations of the science of risk assessment and disagreements among experts as by public misconceptions. [paragraphing added where I thought it'd help make it easier to read]

But wait, there's more. In addition to their "psychometric paradigm" which has become nearly definitive in the risk assessment field, Slovic et al have found that different groups of people assess risk differently, too. Dubbed "cultural cognition," this is the theory that people "form perceptions of risk and related facts that cohere with their self-defining values." My favorite finding is the "White Male Effect," first identified in the early 1990's [and elaborated on by Finucane, Slovic, Mertz and others in 2000.]

White males turn out to perceive risks significantly lower than females and non-whites, as much as 30% lower, in fact. For a long time, it was not clear why white guys see risks so differently. But then in 2005, a couple of Yale Law professors Dan Kahan and Donald Braman, along with Slovic, Mertz, and Gastil--it's starting to sound like a law firm around here--discovered that when they threw "worldview" into the mix, they could explain the gender and race differences of risk perception almost perfectly. In a blog post explaining the research, Kahan dubbed this "the White Male Status Anxiety Effect."

Basically, the perceived danger something poses--something like guns, for example, which were one subject in Kahan & co's nationwide survey--varied not just by the respondent's gender and race, but by whether, in his worldview, thing enhanced or undermined his cultural status:

risk skepticism about guns was most pronounced among white male hierarchists and male individualists. We had predicted this pattern on the ground that the individualist virtues associated with guns--courage, physical prowess, self-reliance--and the hierarchic roles enabled by them--father, hunter, provider--are primarily status-enchaining for men within those groups. Male individualists and hierarchists thus have a much larger psychic investment in resisting the claim that guns are dangerous and worthy of regulation than does anyone else. Moreover, because the hierarchic associations that guns bear have historically been confined to whites, white male hierarchs have the biggest investment of all in seeing guns as safe (indeed, we found, that such individuals believe that gun ownership enhances rather than reduces public safety).
Which 1] gave me an epiphany about why frilly diaper bags and fashion-coordinated strollers are so bad, because they generate deep-seated male status anxiety to the point of excluding men from participating in childcare at a critical, early stage. And 2], the point of this post, which is that it made me wonder if moms and dads might view risk differently, too.

The kneejerk playground answer, "Of course they do. My husband lets the kids climb on the freakin' roof when he's watching them." has enough gender issues packed into it to last through several Yale grad programs. But what about these "intuitive toxicology"-type risks? Do dads freak out over BPA and low-VOC varnish more, less, or differently than moms do? I was surprised, as was Dr. Slovic when I asked him about it, that no research has been done on parental perception of risk.

Or at least none with the intent of studying parenting. Because if you look at how Kahan et al filled their worldview buckets, several of their agree-or-disagree survey questions [available as a pdf here] are directly related to parental values and responsibilities and family-based gender roles:

  • "A lot of problems in our society today come from the decline in the traditional family, where the man works and the woman stays home.

  • "Parents should encourage young boys to be more senitive and less "rough and tough."

  • "Society as a whole has become too soft and feminine."

  • "The women's rights movement has gone too far."

  • "The government should stop telling people how to live their lives."

  • "It's not the government's business to try to protect people from themselves."

Do gun-revering individualist dads worry the CPSC isn't testing enough Thomas trains for lead paint, or do they think it's your own damn fault for letting the kid gnaw on that gumball machine trinket in the first place? Are Berkeley moms of the "hypereducated, ecoconscious ilk" the only ones who worry about the pollution wafting across their kids' playground, or are they just the most visible cohort because one of their members writes for the Times? Do dads hold some secret key to overcoming the freakout-obsessed model of headline-driven parenting? Until the researchers get digging, I guess we're left to discuss amongst ourselves.

3 Comments

Greg: This post is one of your best...thanks for finding and digesting stuff like this so I can explain to my non-white male wife why I don't worry so much about BPA, silicone pacifiers and vaccinations...keep it coming.

Oh well. I grew up in the 70s, in east Europe. I still remember the smell of -everything-. Back then, all that parents cared about was if our cheeks were pink and round. Being a scientist, I always used my common sense when it came to parenting. Breastfed from the getgo, got mostly wooden toys, glass containers, etc, etc...you can only do so much. Common sense is all one needs.

This probably also explains our cavalier attitude to automobile deaths -- cars are too ingrained in our self-image for them to be seen as dangerous.

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