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Let's Get Real About Risk
[FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Subjects: Government spending; Health hazards; Perceptions; Fear & phobias
Author: Ropeik, David
Date: Aug 6, 2000
Start Page: B.01
Section: OUTLOOK

By definition, fear is more emotional than rational. We fear before we think. Cognitive scientist Joseph LeDoux of New York University identified neural pathways that send information about possible hazards to the amygdala, the fear response center in the ancient core of the brain, before the same information is sent to the cortex, the newer, thinking, rational part of the brain. A hiker who comes upon a shape on the ground that could be either a snake or a stick jumps out of the way immediately--even while another part of his or her brain is trying to think rationally about which one it is.

Some years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency and the automobile industry declared something of a truce in their war over the science of automobile emissions. Instead of each side spending millions on self-funded research the other side wouldn't accept, they each put in 50 percent of the money necessary--a total of $6 million- -to create something called the Health Effects Institute. HEI was not created to make policy, but to give policymakers credible, trustworthy scientific information on which rational policy could be based. It was set up to be an impartial scientific review board--an agency of neutral arbiters, outside the government, beholden to nothing but the truth. To conduct its evaluations, it appoints panels of scientists, representing their various fields somewhat as a jury represents the community in a trial, so that no one with an ax to grind can control the process.

That means that lobbyists, politics, the media and money would also still have influence. The messy process of policymaking would not change dramatically. But a Risk Analysis Institute's credible analyses, supporting not a specific policy but rational policymaking in general, would incrementally move government decision making toward wiser, more informed choices.

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