Better living through warnings

As I have explained before, warning signs are what separates modern humans from cavemen.  If Neanderthals had spent less time doodling on cave walls and more time putting up signs saying “Warning: Cro-Magnons may be hazardous to your survival!”, actuarial tables show that Neanderthals would be approximately 92% less extinct than they are today.

Fortunately for us, modern humans warn the crap out of each other.  This morning, while I was getting my oil changed, I walked down the road to a nearby coffee shop.  (Disclaimer: it was not olde enough to be a shoppe.)  While I was waiting, I glanced up at the menu board and saw a warning in small print at the bottom.  I don’t remember the exact wording, but the gist of the message was this:

Allergen warning: Some of the products here may contain the following allergens: peanuts, tree nuts (which I first read as “tree moss”), wheat, milk, and (wait for it) fish.

Fish. Continue reading

Warning: Faulty Warning Ahead

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, there were three causes of death: falling off cliffs, getting eaten by wild animals, and starvation.  Very few people died of anything else, largely because nobody lived long enough to get (for example) cancer.

With the invention of, respectively, guard rails, zoos, and fast food, people now live long enough to require new classes of stuff that will kill you.  And, since people tend to be much more sensitive about being killed than they used to (mostly because of the paperwork involved, I think), mankind has evolved a powerful defense mechanism against danger: the warning.

I became sensitized to the power of warnings after I had my stroke.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, much of the dialogue between me and the medical community during my recovery consisted of them warning me to 1) be careful and b) don’t fall.  (Disclaimer: I was giving off a pretty strong “suicidal 92-year old daredevil” vibe, so it was understandable).

Since that time, I’ve become sensitized to the power and limitations of warnings.  We live in a warning-rich environment, and while in theory this makes us safer, the sheer volume of warnings can become counter-productive, because so many warnings are poorly conceived and poorly implemented. Continue reading