I hate safety warnings. It’s not that I’m hurt by someone out there’s condescending belief that I can’t work out whether irons are for drying children. And I welcome the endless mental accretion of terrifying facts about obscure ways one can die. What really bothers me is that safety warnings often contain no information except ‘don’t do X’.
In a world covered in advice not to do X, and devoid of information about what will happen if you do X, except it will be negative sometimes, it is hard and irritating to work out when it is appropriate to do X. Most things capable of being costly are a good idea some of the time. And if you were contemplating doing X, you probably have some reason. On top of that, as far as I can tell many of the warnings are about effects so weak that if you wanted to do X for some reason, that would almost certainly overwhelm the reason not to. But since all you are ever told is not to do X, you are never quite sure whether you are being warned off some trivial situation where a company haven’t actually tested whether their claims about their product still apply, or protected from a genuine risk.
My kettle came with a warning that if I ever boil it dry, I should replace it. Is this because it will become liable to explode? Because it might become discoloured? My sandwich meat came with a warning not to eat it after seven days. Presumably this is because they can’t guarantee a certain low level of risk after that, but since I don’t know what that level is, it’s not so useful to me. If I have a lot else to eat I will want a lower level of risk than if I’m facing the alternative of having to go shopping right now or of fainting from hunger. Medical warnings are very similar.
Perhaps it’s sensible to just ignore warnings when they conflict much with your preconceptions or are costly. In that case, how am I worse off than if there just weren’t warnings? How can I complain about people not giving me enough information? What obligation do they have to give me any?
There is the utilitarian argument that telling me would be much more beneficial than it is costly. But besides that, I think I am often worse off than if warning givers just shut up most of the time. Ignoring warnings is distracting and psychologically costly, even if you have decided that that’s the best way to treat them. There is a definite drop in sandwich enjoyableness if it’s status as ‘past its use by date’ lingers in your mind. It’s hard to sleep after being told that you should rush to an emergency room.
I presume there are heaps of pointless warnings because they avoid legal trouble. But this doesn’t explain why they all contain so little information. It is more effort to add information of course. But such a minuscule bit more: if you think people shouldn’t do X, presumably you have a reason already, you just have to write it down. If you can’t write it down, you probably shouldn’t be warning. An addition of a few words to the standard label or sign can’t be noticeably expensive. For more important risks, knowing the reason should encourage people to follow the advice more because they can distinguish them from unimportant risks. For unimportant risks, knowing the reason should encourage people to not follow the advice more, allowing them to enjoy the product or whatever, while leaving the warning writer safe from legal action. Win win! What am I missing?