Post script: Most of the articles also explained how government agencies calculate the value of a statistical life (or mortality risk reductions), which is generally based on surveys of the extra pay that workers receive for high-risk jobs, or on surveys that ask people what they would be willing to pay to avoid a certain risk. Another proposal in the EPA’s white paper suggested placing a greater value on preventing cancer deaths compared to other causes of death, because people are more afraid of cancer and would pay relatively more to avoid it.

All of the news outlets highlighted above mentioned the “cancer differential,” but only the AP dug deeper. Its report quoted risk expert David Ropeik, who called the idea “dangerous” because people tend to overestimate the risk of cancer. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Ropeik elaborated, explaining that people tend to fear cancer more than heart disease—believing the former causes more pain and suffering—even though heart disease is much more likely to kill them. Because of such “gaps” in our perception of risk, “we push for government policies that protect us more from what we’re afraid of than from what’s more likely to kill us. Resources devoted to lesser risks aren’t available to protect us from the bigger ones - meaning that our overall risk goes up.” [Disclouse: Ropeik has contributed to The Obervatory.]

The debate about the cancer differential is related to the debate about terminology. When the EPA suggested that it begin referring to the value of “mortality risk reductions” rather than of a “statistical life,” it was trying to stress that it wasn’t putting a value on actual human beings, or, as Ropeik put it, that “these aren’t real people with faces and arms and legs. These are statistical, abstract lives.” When it came to the cancer differential, however, the agency seemed to be encouraging the opposite point of view, asking people to think about real human experience. It’s a discrepancy with a lot of nuance, but one that reporters should be aware of.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.