Your Shitty Brain Is Scared Of Invisible Stuff For No Reason

You’re not often aware of it, but there’s bloatware embedded in the operating system between your ears.

Occasionally, it's useful, but for the most part, it's vestigial dead weight. These are the pre-installed cognitive systems that make me like shiny things, because some hairy ancestors were once naturally selected for their ability to find life-giving, shimmering water. And, I have an amusingly visceral fear of snorkelling, despite my ‘don’t breathe underwater’ instinct being made redundant by snorkels.

There's one particular piece of redundant psychological software I've had some direct experience with in my career, as an advocate for new forms of clean energy technology in Australia. When it comes to detecting potential threats to our safety, we over-estimate the threat posed by things we can't see. The parts of our world we use scientific tools to detect, such as electromagnetic radiation, inaudible sound and nanoparticles, are more likely to be perceived as harmful - regardless of our ability to to measure exposure, and determine the levels at which these agents cause damage.

A perfect example of the power of this factor in risk perception is our fear of electromagnetism. Recently, I was listening to an ABC Radio National interview about a new form of nano-structured battery gel - the host asked the developer of the technology:


“As I understand it your battery, the battery gel, is designed so it could be built into the walls of a new construction, when I heard that I was a little bit worried about the thought of living in a house with batteries all around me, in the walls, is that dangerous?”
“That’s why I went into a little bit of detail about why it is safe.”
“I’m not worried about the fire thing. I’m worried about just, I don’t know, are there waves? Electromagnetic waves or anything?”

The scientist responded with reassurances, but the host’s question highlights the continued existence of concerns about invisible electromagnetic radiation. In fact, community reactions to electromagnetism have seen a strong resurgence in recent years - the Australian Radiation and Protection Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) have a little-known but well-kept register of all complaints sent their way, regarding perceived adverse health reactions to electromagnetic fields - their most recent report shows a spike in 2012:

The majority of cumulative reports over the full period come from Victoria, and relate to smart meters. It’s a good reminder of another big factor in how we respond to new technology - if we feel it’s forced on us by a government authority, people are more likely to respond with skewed perception of risk. Within this complex mix of factors, ‘invisibility’ will often feature.

This part of our internal logic becomes prevalent in almost any technology that features something we can’t detect with our visual system. In 2012, a government survey of 1,000 people examined attitudes towards the use of nanoparticles in sunscreen and found that “Thirteen percent of this group were concerned or confused enough that they would be less likely to use any sunscreen, whether or not it contained nanoparticles, putting themselves at increased risk of developing potentially deadly skin cancers”. The Cancer Council, the Therapeutic Goods Administration and Choice all state that the use of nanoparticles in sunscreen is safe. That you cannot visually distinguish a sunscreen containing nanoparticles from one that doesn’t played a big part in this skewed risk perception - probably catalysed by the fact that a huge number of sunscreens were mislabelled.

Invisibility plays a big part in the emergence of health fears around wind turbine technology, too - the risk is described as pervasive, inescapable and totally undetectable using normal senses. A submission to a recent senate inquiry into wind farms claims that “We know there are many things that we cannot SMELL that can harm us. The lethal dangers of breathing carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide are well established. We know there are things that we cannot SEE that can harm us. It is well established that ultraviolet light is invisible, yet it can make someone's life miserable, with skin burns and eye damage if they are exposed to excessive amounts. The purported causal agent in this phenomenon, ‘infrasound’, is defined as sound below the hearing threshold of the human ear - around 20 Hz. Sound at this frequency is everywhere - you’re exposed to it when you drive, when you walk and when you stand near a fridge. Curiously, ultrasound (also inaudible but above the threshold of human hearing) has also been suggested as a ‘cause’ of this phenomenon.

Though ‘infrasound’ has stuck, both fit the criteria - they cannot be detected using normal human senses, creating a threat that’s pervasive, uncertain and undetectable. It also creates a niche industry in spurious ‘threat detection’ - stories on prime time current affair shows featuring the misinterpretation of EMF meters thrive on this.

Each of these are complex cultural phenomena. Plenty of invisible threats that science has confirmed are dangerous seem to be undervalued, too. Consider the threat posed by pumping obscene quantities of invisible greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (followed, naturally, with vague and ludicrous assertions that the entire planet’s scientific community has made an enormous accidental and coincidental mistake). In this instance, the agent involved threatens us indirectly, as opposed to the direct physical harm creating concern with agents like electromagnetism or infrasound, which seems to denature our fear. The sun’s radiation is invisible, yet we still take unreasonable risks with regards to exposure. This is because we perceive human-made agents as risky, and natural agents as safe - something known as the ‘appeal to nature’.

Our in-built fear of invisible threats makes a weird sort of sense, when you consider that most of our in-built threat detection systems are geared very much towards moving organisms that look like they’re probably going to hurt us. Radiation, sound and tiny particles are all things we’ve heard can be harmful, but the nuances of dosage and amplitude are boring candidates for our attention.

These are ancient parts of our brain’s operating system, and there’s really no way to uninstall this bloatware. It’s part of our thinking, and it’s now increasingly valuable to understand and preempt these features, particularly considering the increasing role of wireless communications in technology. Most recently, the rollout of the wireless NBN network could go more smoothly if health fears around them are better understood - which includes acknowledging and understanding that each of us is bundled with pre-installed bloatware.

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