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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Terrorists, Nuclear Powerplants, and Snakes


Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Nicholas Kristof wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times a few weeks ago titled: "Terrorists, bathtubs, and snakes."

It was about how our evolved abilities to assess risk (which worked great when we were hunter-gatherers) can fail us pretty miserably in the modern industrial world--a point that has been made over and over again by lesser known writers over the last decade about the safety of nuclear powerplants. From the article:
"In short, our brains are perfectly evolved for the Pleistocene, but are not as well suited for the risks we face today. If only climate change caused sharp increases in snake populations, then we’d be on top of the problem!"

"Yet even if our brains sometimes mislead us, they also crown us with the capacity to recognize our flaws and rectify mistakes. So maybe we can adjust for our weaknesses in risk assessment — so that we confront the possible destruction of our planet as if it were every bit as ominous and urgent a threat as, say, a passing garter snake."
Not that it matters, but I strongly suspect that a fear of snakes is largely a learned behavior. In my experience, if you hand a garter snake to a toddler, she will treat it pretty much like anything else and try to chew on it. You can be taught to fear garter snakes just as easily as you can be taught to fear nuclear powerplants, or not, neither of which is an ominous and urgent threat.