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The Real Story of Risk

The Real Story of Risk

by Glenn Croston

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We live in a world of risk. It waits for us in our refrigerator and surrounds us on the freeway. It's lurking in our arteries and sitting in our 401(k) accounts. Given that we deal with risk on a constant basis, we should be good at it; as it turns out, though, we're not. We're blind to common risks like heart disease (one in five deaths), but we shrink in fear


We live in a world of risk. It waits for us in our refrigerator and surrounds us on the freeway. It's lurking in our arteries and sitting in our 401(k) accounts. Given that we deal with risk on a constant basis, we should be good at it; as it turns out, though, we're not. We're blind to common risks like heart disease (one in five deaths), but we shrink in fear from rare events like shark attacks (one in a million) and airplane crashes (one in twenty thousand). What accounts for our poor ability to perceive and react to the risks that really matter?

Starting from an evolutionary perspective, the author traces our distorted perception of risk back to our ancestors, reminding readers that we are all the culmination of a long line of survivors who fought life-and-death threats such as attacks from wild animals, starvation, and disease. The fact that we have covered Earth with seven billion people is a testament to our skill at overcoming these risks. But our spectacular success has also produced our contemporary artificial world with new threats like climate change, chili dogs, and online gambling. Our brains, which evolved to deal with the ancient world, are ill equipped to process the new threats we face.

Croston examines the many facets of our hazardous modern environment that we only dimly perceive. He explains why we let our guard down for a beautiful face, why slow-moving risks (like rising seas) are hard to stop, how a good story (though false) can be more persuasive than dry statistics (even alarming ones), what we fear even more than death, and many other intriguing quirks about our built-in incompetence to adequately handle present-day risks.

Offering a wealth of fascinating information about health, sex, money, safety, food, and the environment, this book illuminates an often-misunderstood but crucial aspect of daily life.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
For those who are not well versed in biology but appreciate engaging popularized science, this book offers promise. Croston, a biologist and green entrepreneur (75 Green Businesses), draws on both the sciences and social sciences to answer complex questions about our experiences of and reactions to risk. The result of Croston's extensive research is an intelligent, often fascinating, and never pedantic patchwork of studies. Readers will appreciate Croston's attempt to cover a broad range of seemingly disparate topics-such as our response to stories rather than statistics, or our failure to follow warnings even in light of past disasters-under the banner of risk. Part of this book's appeal is its author's amusing, and occasionally distracting, willingness to lump himself in among readers, as he refers to his own experiences, addresses his audience directly, and makes sometimes geeky pop culture references. This book compels its reader to turn the page not through suspense, but through identification with the material. Anyone could find his or her own vices and peculiarities regarding risk here and discover they are shared among much of humanity.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
"A tour de force on the topic of why we take the chances we do and avoid the ones we don't. You'll never look at your life's risks the same way again."
- Aaron Klein, CEO of Riskalyze

"Beautifully researched and explained, The Real Story of Risk presents an understanding of why we do the things we do. Croston masterfully shows us why we choose short-term thinking over long-term, why we prefer willful ignorance over informed logic, and why we'd rather die than speak to a group of people. This fascinating book provides insight into our muddled human nature and answers how to overcome it and live more sustainably."
- Eric Corey Freed, Founding principal of organicARCHITECT and coauthor of Green$ense for the Home

"Risk taking is not to be idolized, nor should it be condemned. Risk in everyday life is like salt in our soup: the best amount is neither too much nor too little. That is what The Real Story of Risk shows in an entertaining and informative way with documented data and interesting anecdotes."
-Gerald J. S. Wilde, Author of Target Risk

"As Croston cleverly points out, although humans are well adapted, through our evolutionary history, to react to immediate risks, we are much less able to respond to slowly approaching, less obvious, future risks. We are able to anticipate and prepare for a possible tiger attack but unable to stop eating ourselves to a heart attack or to understand the dangers of massive world changes caused by global warming. Croston provides excellent advice as to how we might better respond to these future, long-term risks."
-Robert W. Sussman, Professor of anthropology at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri

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Prometheus Books
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt



Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 Glenn Croston
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-660-3

Chapter One


How Our Ancient Biology Distorts Our Dealings with Sharks, Snakes, and a Changing World


Sharks are scary creatures, maybe the scariest. The slightest mention of a shark attack snaps your attention to a screen, imagining what it would be like if you were the one facing one of these primeval predators. Few of us have actually been through this, but Wall Street banker Krishna Thompson came face-to-face with a shark and survived to see them in a whole new light.

It was a warm August morning when Krishna swam out from the beach on Grand Bahama Island in the Caribbean. On a vacation with his wife, AveMaria, for their tenth wedding anniversary, he woke early that morning and went out to the beach for a swim while his wife slept in. Hurricane Barry was off the coast, making the water choppy, cold, and murky. Treading water at a depth of about four or five feet, he was the farthest out among the people in the ocean that morning. He was gazing out to sea when he saw a fin moving fast through the water and coming straight toward him. Krishna tried dodging the shark, but it grabbed his left leg, teeth crunching on bone, and started towing him out to sea.

Trying to shake loose, he had no such luck. "I can't believe there's a shark on my leg," he thought, his mind darting to thoughts of his wife and the kids he didn't have yet as he plowed through the water. Later, experts told him that, based on the bite marks on his bone, it was a bull shark that got him that day, one of the few types of aggressive sharks.

"Oh God, get me out of this," he thought as the shark towed him out deeper and deeper and then suddenly pulled him beneath the surface in a swirl into the darkness, shaking his body violently. Tensing, Krishna felt no pain from his leg but worried about not being able to breathe. Knowing he did not have much time, he reached around in the dark to where he knew the shark's mouth must be on his leg and grabbed its jaws to pry them open.

To his surprise, it worked. His leg came free and he was suddenly filled with new energy, happy to be free even if the shark was still right there, staring him in the face. "When you're in the shark's jaws one minute and then you're in front of the shark, you're really happy. I started going crazy, doing combinations, hitting him in the nose, eyes, and mouth. Before you know it, it turned around and swam away."

By this time, the ocean around Krishna was dark red with his blood. He swam back to shore, doing the breast stroke. When he got back to shallow water, he hopped on his good leg toward the beach and onto the sand. He tried to scream but couldn't at first, his body failing to respond due to the loss of blood. When he managed to scream for help, people came, but he remembered little after that for some time. Later he learned that the doctors had a hard time stabilizing him because he'd lost so much blood. They worked on him for hours, from eleven o'clock in the morning until six o'clock at night, his heart stopping more than once. By the time he woke up, he'd been moved to a hospital in Miami, Florida.

Later, Krishna was fitted with a prosthetic leg using the C-Leg, with a microprocessor prosthetic knee made by Otto Bock HeathCare (the ITLITL stands for computer). Though a realistic-looking prosthesis, it hurt to use at first, until he got used to it. In addition to continuing his work as a banker, these days Krishna also talks to people about prosthetics, blood donation, and shark conservation. Yes, shark conservation. Recently he was part of a group of shark-attack survivors testifying to the US Senate about shark finning, the practice of catching sharks just for their fins, which has decimated shark populations.

"The reason why I work for sharks is that it's not about the shark or me—it's bigger than that," said Krishna. "It's an issue that needs to be addressed and needs to be addressed now. Sharks are being depleted, they're slow growing, mature late, and have few offspring. At this rate, they'll be extinct soon, and we need sharks in our water, for our oceans and our world. Sharks have been around for hundreds of millions of years. If sharks die, the oceans die; and if the oceans die, then we're next," he concluded. It's more than a little ironic that the greatest risk we face from sharks isn't that they will attack us but that they won't be there at all.

When you take a look at a shark's mouth, it's not hard to see why they're so scary. The jaws of a great white hold hundreds of jagged teeth, rows and rows of them all the way around its mouth. In our mind, sharks are merciless monsters, unstoppable eating machines constantly prowling the depths for those unlucky enough to wander into their domain. There's just one problem with this. Despite the ordeal that Krishna Thompson and others have gone through, shark attacks are rare and fatalities are even rarer. Knowing this does not seem to make sharks any less frightening, though.

Across the United States, sharks killed twenty-five people from 1959 to 2008, while lightning (a rare risk itself) killed 1,930 Americans over the same time period. Pet dogs kill more Americans than sharks. Worldwide, shark attacks claim a handful of lives every year. For every death by a shark, heart disease claims over six hundred thousand lives. And yet a shark attack always makes the news, no matter how little it has to do with our lives. We can live in Kansas, never setting foot in the ocean in our lives, and still shiver at the thought of a shark attack. We're programmed to be interested, to see the risk of a bloody demise by tooth and claw as a grave risk, no matter what the numbers tell us.

The stories of shark attacks go back deep in history. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of shipwrecked Phoenician sailors getting eaten by "monsters" in the Aegean around 490 BCE. There are sharks in cave paintings and on totems of Pacific Coast natives of North America. Native Hawaiians have stories of sharks in their culture, including the King of Sharks who took human form and married a beautiful woman, only to have their child driven from the island to take shark form again when the fishermen feared the boy was chasing their fish away.

And then there's Jaws, which came out in theaters in the summer of 1975. A whole generation stayed out of the water and abandoned the beaches in droves after watching Bruce the shark go berserk in theaters. Jaws may have amplified the fear of sharks many feel, but it did not invent it. It exploited a fear that was already there, the fear of the unknown lurking in the depths, the fear of being eaten alive by a ruthless predator.

"Our innate fear of sharks comes from our inability to protect ourselves in the marine environment," Ralph Collier, founder of the Shark Research Institute, said in an interview. "Even in clear water, we can only see so far down in the water, while something from below can see us against the backlit sky. The fact that there's an animal that can eat us alive and there's nothing we can do about it is always in the back of our mind. In water we're out of our element, out of our realm. We're totally vulnerable to anything. You have no control."

Collier has spent most of his life studying sharks. As the founder of the Shark Research Committee in Southern California, he's been studying sharks for fifty years both in and out of the water. In the early days of his research, little was known about sharks, which was one reason he started his work in the field.

"People said that people and divers were attacked because they looked like seals, but that's not true," said Collier. "Sharks have very good vision, with the same rods and cones that we [have], and the same visual acuity and color detection. Because they have acute vision, they don't mistake a surfboard for a seal and could not possibly mistake a diver for a seal. From the types of bites to surfboards and divers, probably most are from investigation. White sharks bite a lot of things. Crab-pot buoys are yellow and blue and don't resemble anything in the ocean—sharks bite them all the time." Collier estimates that 85 percent of shark attacks are the result of sharks' investigation or curiosity, not predation.

There are stories of boats getting bumped by sharks, or even of sharks knocking boats over, like malicious demons of the depths. But these stories are mostly about sharks just pushing people back, says Collier. "The boat gets in the way, and suddenly the boat is in his area. When [the boat pulls] away, the shark goes back and continues to feed." It's as if the shark feels that you're in his personal space and wants you to back off. He probably feels how you feel when somebody crowds you in the elevator or sits too close on a park bench.

The world has changed a lot since Collier started his research. For one thing, the number of sharks in the oceans has plummeted. In truth, we're more of a threat to sharks than they are to us. "Some populations are off by 90 percent," said Collier. "At least a third of sixty species of pelagic sharks are endangered. We are facing a critical problem. The finning of sharks on the US East Coast has taken so many sharks of so many species that the cownose ray population has exploded. The only predator of the rays is sharks. Without sharks, if you could get all of the rays to come to the surface, you could walk across [the Chesapeake Bay]. It's decimating the shellfish industry, setting up an imbalance in the ecosystem, and eventually it would end up with the whole system collapsing." Ultimately by killing sharks, we're a threat to ourselves.

Sharks might have the last laugh, though. Rather than getting their revenge by eating people, the real risk comes when we eat them. "Like most people, I like fish," said Collier. "And I used to have a shark steak now and then until they studied heavy-metal poisoning and found high levels of methyl mercury in shark meat, and even higher levels in shark fins." Methyl mercury is a potent poison derived from mercury released into the environment by people, which then concentrates in sharks and other fishes. In recent years, huge ships have hauled in thousands of sharks at a time, and workers have removed their fins to sell them and then dumped the sharks back into the ocean to sink to the bottom and drown. As more shark fins are taken, more people eat them and are exposed to the mercury they contain. "And now we're finding that because of all the shark fins on the market, their cost has gone down, availability has gone up, and now you can go into most restaurants in Japan or elsewhere in Asia and ... buy soup. People who eat shark-fin soup every day will never get rid of it [methyl mercury in their body]. We're seeing neurological disorders and birth defects, all traced to shark-fin soup."

The sharks lose; the humans lose—everybody loses. It's kind of your classic lose-lose situation, I guess.


How we see risk is the result of millions of years of evolution that shaped our species, making us who we are today. Evolution never sleeps, tirelessly working to shape and change the millions of species on earth, including humans. Relentless evolutionary pressure shaped generation after generation of vertebrates, mammals, and primates long before our ancestors were human or anything like it. To know how our environment shaped our ancestors and ultimately made us who we are, we have to understand what that environment was and what kind of risks this environment held. And to do that, we have to get down and dirty.

Much of the evidence we have about our past comes from digging in the dirt. Archeologists and anthropologists make a living out of getting dirty, carefully sifting through tons of dirt, sand, and dust for rare fragments of fossilized bone, tools, trash, and any other sign of early humanity. The dirt of the valley in the East African Rift has been a particularly rich trove of human fossils, and it is also revealing clues about the environment our ancestors lived in at the time, including coexisting plants and animals, as well as the climate.

As you move forward in time through the layers of the fossil record that bring us closer to the present, more clues to humanity's origins appear, such as tools, shelters, clothing, art, and burial sites.

Fossils from a long string of human ancestors are found in the same general area of eastern Africa, originating from as far back as about six million years ago on up until the time modern humans, or Homo sapiens (that's us), appeared on the scene about 160,000 years ago. Altogether, the remains of about six thousand individuals, usually only fragments of bones, have been found spanning this time. At the earlier end of that time period, hominid species like Sahelanthropus tchadensis still looked quite apelike overall, and their brain was smaller than a chimpanzee's. But based on how their skull sat on top of their spine, we can surmise that they walked upright. As time progressed, a variety of human species came and went in the budding tree of humanity, often with a few different humanlike species living at the same time and even in the same place.

The popular story of early humanity often portrays humans as wily and aggressive hunters on the primeval scene, wielding spears against mammoths in the snow. And while our primate ancestors may have been smarter than many of the other creatures around them at the time, they could not have been the fiercest or fastest animal. They lived in a world with giant hyenas that weighed 440 pounds and saber-toothed cats with enormous slashing teeth like knives. The humans, meanwhile, had no fangs or claws to speak of and were thin skinned with little in the way of defenses. Dr. Robert Sussman, professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and his coauthor Donna Hart, professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, have come to see early humans as more often the victims of predators, as described in their book, Man the Hunted: Primate, Predators, and Human Evolution. All in all, early humans were a tasty little meal for many predators.

"The story of man the hunter was really in the late Pleistocene, about forty to sixty thousand years ago," said Sussman in an interview. By this time, modern humans were on the scene and were systematically hunting their prey, including large animals like mammoths, with the aid of tools, like spears. They were also better able to defend themselves, although even then predators remained a great challenge. The challenge was even greater for our more ancient ancestors, who would have been practically defenseless, lacking anything but the most primitive of tools. But this is only the most recent slice of human prehistory.

"Around two to five million years ago, when humans were becoming more human than apes, they were about four and a half feet tall, and for them the world must have been a very scary place," said Sussman. "The predators at the time were five times as large, and ten times more abundant, than now. Even today, for medium to large primates, the main danger other than humans is predation, and early humans were largely unprotected."

Early humans did not have much in the way of tools until about two million years ago, which came in the form of pebble tools, primitive hand tools consisting of a rock with the edges chipped off. Imagine yourself with a sharp rock in your hand, facing a lunging leopard far larger than yourself. Not a pretty picture. These tools fit in your hand and might have been handy for small prey or for cutting things, but they were worthless for protection from large predators lunging at you or for hunting larger animals.

The fossilized remains of humans often show evidence of predator attacks from the likes of lions, hyenas, and even giant crocodiles, with as many as 4–6 percent of fossils showing signs of predation, Dr. Sussman explained. The bones of these early humans reveal bite marks, scrapes, or even puncture wounds left by talons or claws. Large predatory cats alive from one to two million years ago assembled piles of bones from their prey in South African caves, including primates and early hominids. Besides cats, a host of other predators, like hyenas, birds of prey, crocodiles, and even giant snakes preyed on humans. "Paleontological evidence supports the conclusion that both hominids and other primates, such as baboons, were frequent meals for ancient predators," writes Sussman, describing case after case of fossil remains that showed signs of predation, like holes in skulls where animals' fang-shaped teeth must have gripped their hominid prey.


Excerpted from THE REAL STORY OF RISK by GLENN CROSTON Copyright © 2012 by Glenn Croston. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Glenn Croston, PhD (San Diego, CA), is a biologist who has spent more than twenty years performing research in universities and in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. He is also a green entrepreneur and the author of 75 Green Businesses and Starting Green. His work has been covered in the New York Times, BusinessWeek.com, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, GreenBiz.com, and many other websites and blogs.

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