Ed’s Weblog

…now my real blog

Risk assessment and the media

Posted by Ed on September 26, 2003

The BMJ has a very interesting article about risk assessment in the context of the MMR vaccine, vCJD and road accidents. The author analyses parental perception of risk and observes (unsurprisingly) that it bears little resemblance to actual risk.

Road transport crashes are perceptible risks, the low risk of vCJD is an expert assessment, and the link between autism and MMR is, if anything, virtual. Parents seem to neglect the easily perceptible risk, to reject the expert assessment, and to amplify the virtual risk.

It may seem from this that the public has misunderstood the risk assessment, with the help of misleading information from the media (this has been discussed before on this weblog: here and here). The author dismisses this, however, claiming that ‘it would be a mistake to suppose that the media led the public’.

Instead the author claims that parents are being entirely rational and merely assessing relative risk, or risk:benefit ratio. That is to say: its easy to reject the MMR vaccine with its perceived risk and rely on ‘the compliance of the majority in order to secure the benefit of herd immunity for their child’ (apparent risk of harm from MMR outweighs potential benefit); to simply avoid eating ‘mechanically recovered meat’ in the case of vCJD (no risk from not eating meat); or justify taking your child everywhere in the car despite the inherent high risks (‘In 2002 there were 34 689 casualties from road crashes in Great Britain, of whom 4596 received serious injuries or were killed’) because

it is interpreted as a way of protecting them from greater dangers on the streets from other road users and abduction by strangers.

I’m sure all of this is true and the majority of parents are entirely rational, but despite that I still believe the media did and does lead the public. After all, what is the real risk of being ‘abducted by strangers’, compared to the other risk which it is being used to justify?

See The Observer’s report about the perceptions and realities related to crime.


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