Tierney’s take on the “availability cascade”

In yesterday’s New York Times, John Tierney in his “Findings” column has another excellent science-related article — this time about the tendency to assess dangers, say, of global warming, by selectively looking for examples that “prove” the point. As Tierney notes:

Today’s interpreters of the weather are what social scientists call availability entrepreneurs: the activists, journalists and publicity-savvy scientists who selectively monitor the globe looking for newsworthy evidence of a new form of sinfulness, burning fossil fuels.

He points out that when numerous examples of a particular danger are promoted, magnifying that risk can cause an underestimation of other risks:

When judging risks, we often go wrong by using what’s called the availability heuristic: we gauge a danger according to how many examples of it are readily available in our minds. Thus we overestimate the odds of dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash because we’ve seen such dramatic deaths so often on television; we underestimate the risks of dying from a stroke because we don’t have so many vivid images readily available.

This leads to what’s called “the availability cascade,” as Tierney explains:

The availability cascade is a self-perpetuating process: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and more fear. Once the images of Sept. 11 made terrorism seem a major threat, the press and the police lavished attention on potential new attacks and supposed plots. After Three Mile Island and “The China Syndrome,” minor malfunctions at nuclear power plants suddenly became newsworthy.

Read the full article for examples of the availability cascade in its full flow in relation to catastrophic global warming. And check out Tierney’s blog on this and the comments his article elicited.