How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts

By David Ropeik; Reviewed by Mayer Nudell, CSC

***** How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts. By David Ropeik, McGraw-Hill,; 288 pages, $24.95.

Since 9-11, we’ve been bombarded with advisories, color-coded threat levels, and a variety of alarmist news suggesting that the world has become a more dangerous place. Governments add more and more procedures that affect individuals, claiming they are necessary to ensure our security. Billions are spent developing security technology and then persuading the public of the value of deploying it. Security has become big business.

In all of this, there is little discussion of return on investment. We have few ways of evaluating whether things work besides citing a lack of incidents. Risk, threat, hazard—whatever the term—is accepted by many as existing in greater measure than ever. Common sense has been trumped.

In this text, David Ropeik, an instructor at Harvard’s Continuing Education Program, and author of 2002’s Risk! A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You, looks more closely at the question posed in the title. He examines why we accept that the world is so dangerous, using real-world examples to make his point.

Ropeik identifies risk perception as a complex mixture of physiological and psychological triggers that often circumvent the logic centers of our brain. He looks closely at how our subconscious mind and instincts shape our basic attitudes and decisions often before we have all the facts related to a situation, forming the “perception gap” between facts and fear.

It’s a dangerous phenomenon that he says can actually pose a threat by leading to “risky personal behavior...stress…[and] social policies that don’t maximize the protection of public and environmental health.” In other words, we often do exactly the wrong things to protect ourselves and, in doing so, create new problems. Like our energy production options, all options bear different risks, from up-front costs to matters of safety and public health.

Ropeik shows how our risk perception can affect our security choices as well. How Risky Is It, Really? is an important book and security professionals should read it and its predecessor closely as they analyze and assess risks, threats, and vulnerabilities in today’s world—along with the countermeasures selected to deal with them.

Reviewer: Mayer Nudell, CSC (Certified Security Consultant), is an independent consultant on crisis management, contingency planning, travel security, and related issues. He is an adjunct professor at Webster University with publications including The Handbook for Effective Emergency and Crisis Management and No One a Neutral: Political Hostage-Taking in the Modern World. He is a member of ASIS International.




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