Panicology

Briscoe, Simon and Hugh Aldersey-Williams. Panicology: Two Statisticians Explain What's Worth Worrying About (and What's Not) in the 21st Century. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2009. Tackling a panoply of modern day fears, Panicology offers a thoughtful treatise on the differential between what we are afraid of and how likely it is to affect us.

Authors Briscoe and Aldersey-Williams cover a wide range of scary subjects including population explosion, loss of languages, the dangers of cell phones, the risk of disease, whether your children are safe, and alien invasion. For each, they examine the amount of concern we have (with particular focus on the role played by the media and politicians), the amount of actual risk, and (to a much lesser degree) how much we can control the risk.

Although they have a background in statistics, the authors avoid using charts and graphs to illustrate their points, instead relying on a more approachable prose to lay out their case. While I would have appreciated seeing the numbers, I can imagine their publisher warning them against it as it might turn off readers.

As a anthology, your interest in any particular subject may vary. But the overall message of Panicology is a good one: you aren't always getting the full story; and some of the things you do every day are much more hazardous than the things that you are told to be scared of. That's not to say that no problem is real, but a healthy level of skepticism is required.

My main quibble with the book is that I felt a few topics weren't covered enough in depth---or at all (shark attacks and peak oil come to mind as things that should have made the list).

At a minimum, Panicology is worth picking up even if (especially if) you only read about those things that are worrying you.

Many thanks to Mark for the loan. You can see his review here.