The images are all around us. Some of them are bewildering, others bemusing. But they are scenes from the risky business of everyday living.
In California, members of a family cut back on sugar in the decaffeinated coffee they drink in their house -- on the San Andreas fault. In Pennsylvania, a man goes jogging -- against the backdrop of a Three Mile Island nuclear reactor. In Maine, a woman rides to aerobics class -- on her motorbike without a helmet.
A friend of yours, mine, ours decides that, after the recent crop of air crashes, he will fly only in emergencies. He explains this earnestly, while chain- smoking cigarettes. Another friend drinks only bottled water these days, eats only meat untouched by steroids and spends weekends hang-gliding.
In some peculiar way, each of us assesses risks with a different calculator and determines his or her own personal safety. As private citizens we all live now as if we were working for some vast national life-insurance company. Day by day, issue by issue, bulletin by bulletin, we rewrite our own Preferred Risk policy.
The most recent and most emotional scenes of public risk-assessing are happening now on the front lines of the AIDS story. Watching parents demonstrate against one school and then another for allowing an AIDS victim into their child's building, I couldn't help wondering how many packed up their picket signs in the back seat, their children in front and drove away without buckling the seat belts.
How do any of us make assessments? What part is reason, what part fear? What part do statistics play, what part emotions?
The AIDS story is a ripe way to look at how we handle and mishandle risk. It is a case study of sorts, if that is not too cool a phrase for such a terrible disease. It's a tale about experts and the public, about the gap between our skepticism and our longing for certainty.
Not that long ago, when Edmund Muskie was looking for facts about the relationship between pollution and health, he asked for a "one-armed" scientist who didn't always say, "On the one hand this, on the other hand that." Last week in New York, parents grilled doctors for absolute promises that their children could not "catch" AIDS by, for example, being bitten. Instead, they got qualifications: "I consider it unlikely." In dealing with the experts, the public wants guarantees and is offered odds.
There are two cultures at work in risk assessment, and more sensibilities. As an article in October's Science '85 magazine points out, there are times when the public pays scant attention to major risks and times when even a small risk is too big to be accepted. Our attitudes are much more complicated than the numbers.
Last year, for example, 45,000 Americans died in car accidents, half of whom would be alive if they'd worn seat belts. On the other hand, there is little record of medical persons caring for AIDS patients coming down with the disease. Yet the fear of holding the hand of a person with AIDS may far outweigh the fear of driving.
As the Science '85 writer explains, "We may be much more willing to accept higher risks in activities over which we have control, such as smoking, drinking, driving or skiing, than things over which we have little control, such as industrial pollution, food additives and commercial airlines." Or, surely, AIDS.
In dealing with public attitudes, we can't discount dread from the risk equation. Certainly not in talking of AIDS. The odds of an AIDS cataclysm on the scale of medieval plagues may be small, but we always weigh heavily the smallest chance of any massive disaster. Dread tips the scales of statistical logic.
None of us knows yet where the argument about the dangers of AIDS will lead. Part of us remains open to information. We do quit smoking or try to; we do pass mandatory seat-belt laws. In the latest Harris survey, less than one- third of us still believe that AIDS can be caught by casual contact.
Our anxiety may indeed follow statistics -- the path of the disease -- up or down. But I have the sense that there will be chilling arguments ahead of us. This is, after all, a country that bans saccharin and builds nuclear bombs. We argue and will go on arguing about risk in two different languages: numbers and emotions, odds and anxieties.