Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Fear and Risk


This extract is a review of “Risk – The Science and Politics of Fear”. I’m posting it in the context of a proliferation of blogsites (A Western Heart is a good example) using fear as a driver for a range of loony viewpoints. Perhaps the head can be taught to rule the gut in this issue. It’s worth a try.

Many of you won't believe this, but Western societies are safer than they ever have been in history. This is hard to believe because of a constant struggle between two human factors, the Head (rational thought) and the Gut (hard-wired survival instincts). This conflict is laid bare in a new book by Dan Gardner: “Risk: the Science and Politics of Fear.” Within this 300+ page book, Mr. Gardner, a journalist and historian, throws the fear that pervades our lives into sharp relief. He not only shows how we're all wired to be terrified of unrealistically small risks, he also shows that the media, our governments, and big corporations encourage these fears. Sometimes they encourage them for mercenary reasons; other times, the fear is encouraged inadvertently.

A century ago, your window to the world was in fact the front window of your house. You paid attention to threats that were local. You could read the paper and note the threats that were far away, but they had little impact on your daily assessments. Fifty years ago, your window to the world was the television. With visuals and the humanizing effect of in-person interviews, distant threats became more real and pertinent to Gut. Today, what you see on television has become your local community, with all of the rapes, murders and abductions from around the world neatly organized and queued up for your consumption. When a sweet little girl 1400 km away goes missing, Gut tells you that all little children in your immediate community are at risk. The truth, of course, is quite different.

Where were you on 9/11? Everyone remembers. I also remember that the U.S. airline industry took it in the pouch for a full year after that tragic day. Almost no one wanted to fly, because Gut said that the risk was too great, and Head had no data to mitigate that fear. Everyone decided to drive instead, and this choice caused a spike in driving deaths. In the U.S., there is a 1-in-135,000 chance of being killed in a hijacking if you fly once a month for a year -- trivial odds, especially when you consider that there is an annual 1-in-6,000 chance of being killed in a car crash. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives on 9/11. The switch from flying-to-driving caused an additional 1,595 people to die the year following 9/11. The news media didn't notice, because it wasn't spectacular like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. Only the loved ones of the dead paid any attention.

Looks like a good read.

1 comment:

Ron C. de Weijze said...

Seems like you are describing what Gilbert Ryle called the "category mistake" of body and mind that Descartes supposedly made. Question should be whether fear is real or not. 'Realangst' is what it is called in Germany. Unrealistic fear calls for a shrink.

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