All the Tom-Toms of the Global Village

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Our civilization is a civilization of fear. Walk into any bookshop and look at the titles – horrors assail you from all sides; open a newspaper, check how many headlines try to awake in you a feeling, if not of mortal fear at least of anxiety; take a notebook and a stopwatch to your evening news and write down how many times during one evening you are told about violence, disasters, crimes, and suppositions that aim to trigger your fear, flight impulse, or “righteous” anger.

Newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations are waging a deadly battle over who can frighten you more. Every day specialists check to see what works, which headlines and which trailers induce you to buy a newspaper, to prick up your ears when you listen to the radio, to settle more intently into your armchair in front of the TV. The game to catch your attention is a game worth billions.

The news from the global village is dripping with blood. But reality is not enough: writers and film-makers raise the bar even higher, here the play on your feelings is limited only by the imagination of the artists.

Journalists and artists are far from the only merchants of fear. The producers of goods scare you and assure you in their advertisements that a small outlay can alleviate your “well-founded” anxiety. They advertise weapons, alarms, food, insurance, and medicines for real and non-existent illnesses. The market is huge; There are an infinite number of opportunities to call upon your fear and your yearning for security.

Politicians also love your fear. Election campaigns are competitions between halls of mirrors and ingenious walls of death. You have to be convinced that you are living in hell, that you and your family are in mortal danger, and that your country needs a strong man who will save you from extinction.

Behind the statesmen who are in the business of frightening you are politicians and activists from different spheres: police, army, teachers, doctors. The situation is bad and it will get still worse. We need money to prevent a catastrophe.

The army of fear-mongers even encompasses the ranks of young and beautiful NGO activists. They defend the environment and fight for peace, they fight the greedy corporations, they fight against globalization, euro-bureaucrats, genetic modification, physics and chemistry.

There is no lack of learned political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists among the merchants of fear, not to mention clergymen, for they were the first in the field.

Since the commerce with fear is such a gigantic business it means that there is a demand. It means that a day without Apocalypse is a wasted day. Whence this passion of ours for scary stories?

Recently a book by Dan Gardner, Risk, the Science and Politics of Fear, was published in London. Risk! Life is a continual game, and absolute safety does not exist. We are constantly calculating what is safer – to get out of bed and risk falling down the stairs or to stay safely in bed, which can end in death from starvation.

Risk calculation is not easy at all, especially because our psyche was formed in the Stone Age but we are living in a global village. We are living in the present tense, but all our reactions were formed in the past far-from-perfect, when we roamed in small groups on the savannah and we used to get our knowledge about the world from direct experience and from stories told around the fire.

Modern evolutionary psychology charts step by step how our instincts, like the fear of spiders, snakes, faeces, spoiled food, and vague shadows, came into being. The danger you experienced personally and the danger you were told about both had to trigger your immediate reaction. You could think later. We live in a world that never was so dangerous. All living people are living in a world that never was so dangerous for them, because only the living are in mortal danger (our ancestors already have all that behind them).

Fear is not only our guardian angel; sometimes it is also a sadist, a murderer, a habitual liar, or a destroyer of the meaning of life.

Dan Gardner is a journalist, but his book is a solid attempt to sum up what modern science knows about fear– about our mind’s reactions when faced with risk. The reader can sometimes be overwhelmed with the bulk of statistics, but Gardner reveals the maladaptation and the helplessness of our primeval nature when faced with the conditions of the modern world.

No previous generation ever lived in such a safe world as we do; we live longer, we murder each other less frequently, much less frequently do we experience the tragedy of losing a child. We are healthier, we do not have to fear hunger, much less often do we fall victim of natural disasters, not to mention wild animals. But we have the same or greater fears and anxieties as our forbears, and many of those fears are delusions that we allow ourselves to be talked into.

Take cancer, for example. We live in times of a terrible cancer epidemic, don’t we? More and more people die from cancer. Even a hundred years ago cancer caused a relatively small number of deaths. Of course, our ancestors didn’t have the chance to die of cancer. Before they had time to get cancer they were taken by tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera, or other diseases which are not present today or are thought of as trivial.

The longer we live the greater the probability that we will die of cancer. The greatest number of cancer incidents affect people over the age of retirement. Not true, cry journalists, there is a rise in the rate of cancer among children. But maybe we are seeing better diagnosis, maybe we know more often what is happening and have the chance to save a child who has cancer? Pediatric oncologists do not doubt this. But cancer in an old man is not so heart-rending, and that is why the media show the tragedy of a child or a young woman a hundred times more often. The picture of this “epidemic” of cancer which arises in our heads as a result of media information is ridiculously warped.

There are many types of cancer and many reasons for getting cancer, for example heredity, environmental factors, and the normal process of aging, which causes a dramatic rise in the probability of having cancer in old age.

Cancer is more often the cause of death because we are healthier and we are dying later. In the last century we saw a rapid rise in the incidence of lung and throat cancer. The connection between smoking and these types of cancer is beyond any doubt. The only type of cancer that shows an indisputable rise of cases in relatively young people is just these lung and throat cancers.

Leaving aside the cancers of old age and cancer caused by smoking, we observe a decrease in the incidence of cancer and a sharp decrease of mortality caused by cancer. But our brains are not excited by statistics–we react to particular stories about particular people. When we meet parents who have lost a child, it is much more likely that the reason for this tragedy was cancer than flu, tuberculosis, or typhoid. Of course, we do not remember that losing a child is now a rare event, while until quite recently it was a normal occurrence. We take for granted that our child will live into his/her eighties and do not see it as a privilege.

But such knowledge does not free us from fear for ourselves and for our children. We more readily believe that the source of this non-existent epidemic is the environment rather than heredity. It appears that it is easier to believe in some obscure chemicals or magnetic fields than in heredity, cigarettes, a wrong diet, or lack of exercise.

Is it true that the safer we are the more eagerly we devote ourselves to the fear of improbable threats? Not quite, for the fear of the imminent end of the world is as old as the history of mankind, but the possibilities of magnifying improbable risks are immensely higher now.

If we smoke we want to have organic tobacco without any chemical additives. Such natural tobacco cannot harm us. It is chemistry that is killing us. Gardner recapitulates the history of the fear of “chemistry”.

“Our bodies have become repositories for dozens of toxic chemicals”, begins a report from Greenpeace. “It is thought that every person on Earth is now contaminated and our bodies may now contain up to 2000 synthetic chemicals.”

This blood-curdling statement is just one of the many examples of “information” we are fed daily. The word “chemical” itself no longer has anything in common with the chemistry we learned at school. A survey in the USA has shown that the majority associated the word “chemical” with death, toxicity, and danger.

Panic fear of “chemistry” started in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Carson, a biologist working with marine fauna, found traces of chemicals like DDT in birds’ eggshells. Her research was solid but the conclusions went far beyond the research. “For the first time in the history of the world,” Carson wrote, “every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.” Carson was deeply convinced that the rise in cancer incidents was connected to the revolution in agriculture. While in 1900 cancer accounted for only 4 percent of deaths, in 1958 it was 15 percent.

Silent Spring immediately became the bible of ecological movements and sold in the millions. Eight years later it caused the ban of DDT production in the USA. Silent Spring is on the bestseller list to this day.

Rachel Carson drew wrong conclusions from her statistics. The rising proportion of cancer deaths was connected to the elimination of other diseases, longer life spans, and the spread of smoking (which she didn’t mention in her book). As a result her book blamed a factor which plays the smallest role as a cause of cancer. “Exposure to pollutants in occupational, community, and other settings is thought to account for a relatively small percentage of cancer death”, the American Cancer Society stated in 2006.

Moreover, not all carcinogenic substances are man-made; many of them occur in nature. The key question here is concentration. Many chemical substances (either natural or man-made), when given in high concentration to laboratory animals, sooner or later will cause cancer. Traces of pesticides in our food have in no way influenced the rising incidence of cancer.

Of course, environmentalists remained unconvinced. The machine fueled by faulty conclusions goes on from its own momentum. Why? Because we are a receptive audience. Our Stone Age brain is programmed to react with panicky fear to toxic food.

We are afraid not only of cancer, we are afraid of everything, and at the same time we can see how real but familiar danger is underestimated whereas rare and unlikely events have real power to move our minds.

The likelihood of a car accident is many times higher than the likelihood of an aviation disaster, not to mention the likelihood of airplane hijacking. After the attack on the WTC tens of thousands of people in the USA gave up flying and changed to driving. The result was that the number of fatal road accidents rose by 1900 and returned to normal the next year. It would seem that the number of victims of 9/11 increased by an additional 1900 persons.

For a terrorist, to trigger fear is more important than to kill victims directly. The true goal is to cause panic, to paralyze with fear. Terrorists count on politicians, the media, and the readers of newspapers, and they are seldom disappointed.

Gardner discusses psychology in Risk and attempts to answer the question of why our reactions are so often guided by instinct, by our gut feeling, and why our heads are so seldom able to correct those instinctive reactions. We are constantly weighing risks, but our scales are badly out of kilter. We see the world in a distorting mirror, and journalists are people with the same brains as ours. They distort the picture of reality not only for profit, and not out of ill will, but because certain inclinations in our brains are hardwired.

When we read a newspaper the most bizarre story will draw our eyes and we will read it carefully. Even this story will increase our fear. The likelihood that an American child will be in a car accident or beaten up on the street is much greater than that the child will be shot at by a madman in school, but in the opinion of American parents the fear of a shooting at school is much stronger than the fear of a car accident. Likewise with murders. Public opinion is deeply convinced that the rate of violent crimes is rising and that our times are much more dangerous than any time in the past. Actually, the exact opposite is true.

The myth of a gentle savage totally false: in primitive societies virtually every adult man was a multiple murderer. Our lives are not only exceptionally safe compared to the Middle Ages, but the murder rate is lower than in the 1980s (though in the USA it is still slightly higher than in the 1950s).

Our minds are especially receptive to rare, extraordinary events, but in the global village in the age of the information revolution, the news from faraway corners of a country and of the world comes to us in a flash. Therefore, very rare events, in the scale of a big country or a planet, happen quite often. The likelihood that just our child (under the age of 14) may be abducted by a pervert is in the USA 0.00015 %. However, since every such event is trumpeted by all mass media, not surprisingly the feeling of threat is much stronger.

All the tom-toms of the global village are constantly warning us of risks that are slight, but we are perfectly able to ignore those risks which we know and which we meet every day.

Is there anything we can do to change the proportions between instinctive reactions to false or absurdly exaggerated warnings and moments of rational sobriety? Dan Gardner’s Risk does not encourage optimism, but it is worth realizing that we have been frightened since the beginning of time and that most apocalyptic prophecies never came true.

Philip Tetlock, a psychologist from the University of California, examined the accuracy of the predictions of sociologists, economists, and journalists over a period of twenty years. He checked 82,361 predictions, and their accuracy was so pathetic that guessing at random would give better results. And they were not any old predictions or any old experts. In 1975 the world was supposed to start dying of worldwide hunger, later we were suppose to become extinct because of a demographic bomb, and of course according to Rachel Carson’s prediction there are no more birds, and that is not because of a nuclear war–which was also unavoidable.

The future inevitably holds uncertainty and anxieties. Dan Gardner opens his book with the inauguration of President Roosevelt, for whom the battle with fear was the key element to fight the Depression. At the end he quotes a passage from an article by Thomas L. Friedman, known for his techno-optimism, describing driving his daughter to college:

“I was dropping my daughter off into a world that was so much more dangerous than the world she was born into. I felt like I could still promise my daughter her bedroom back, but I could not promise her the world, not in the carefree way that I had explored when I was her age”.

How familiar it is. The past was perhaps dangerous, but it is already behind us and in hindsight our fears of yesteryear seem trifling and not worth mentioning; “the world we live in today is surely more dangerous”.

There is a risk but fear, especially unfounded fear, may only increase this risk. It is worth looking skeptically at the aggressive offerings of the fear merchants.

Dan Gardner, Risk. The Science and Politics of Fear, Virgin Books Ltd., London 2008, 355pp.

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