Friday, March 11, 2005

From Echidne's Mailbag: On Mattresses

I get lots of nice e-mails from people. I love them! Even the ones which tell me that I have been signed up for the chatgroup called reallybigasses and other similar jokes. Even the prayer group announcements; I like the idea that people are praying for my salvation.

I also get ideas for the blog, and once in a while I'm going to talk about these ideas. One good one is from Psycho Kitty, who alerted me to a new upcoming law that requires all mattresses to be made flame-proof. The intention of this law is to save people from dying in fires, but the problem is that flame-proofing mattresses involves pouring a lot of possibly very harmful chemicals on them and then these chemicals will be in close contact with the sleeper. This is especially bad news for people who suffer from asthma and allergies, but it could be bad for all of us if these chemicals turn out to be carcinogenic, for example.

What is bad about the law is that it is not based on proper studies of the pros and cons of flame-proofing mattresses. Therefore, we don't actually know if the law will cause more deaths than it saves. It also takes away our ability to decide for ourselves which risks we'd rather take.

This is part of a wider human pattern: we tend to put a heavier weight on those disasters that have already happened than those that will happen because of the corrective action we are taking. Just like we find named deaths more upsetting than deaths which happen to some unnamed individuals. But governments aren't supposed to be subject to these psychological quirks. That's why they use expert advice.