The following is a summarization and commentary by me on the book "The Science of Fear" by Daniel Gardner. I'd love to hear your comments on the topic.
Mankind now lives in a society where the number of ways to meet ones end are more numerous than they have ever been before. Whether it's the toxins in our diet, illicit drugs, terrorism, malfunction in transportation, pollution, obesity, disease, war, famine, nuclear radiation, failure of gravity, bad karma, large predators, riding with Ted Kennedy, falling out of a roller coaster, the failure of gravity, asteroids, cancer, sleep apnea, choking on a McNugget, being Jewish, voting for a Democrat, voting for a Republican, listening to Michelle Bachmann speak, gangrene, spontaneous combustion, riots, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, reality TV, zombies, crack, anthrax, Saddam Hussein, sleeping with a woman of disreputable character, sleeping with a man, gun violence, Viagra overdose, alcohol, Tourettes Syndrome, serial killers, or even being smited by one of three thousand deities; YOU ARE IN DANGER!
Or are you?
The average lifespan of a human being has on averaged increased steadily over time. Even though we find ourselves in the midst of more and more ways to die expectedly or unexpectedly, we find ourselves living longer than we ever have before. This is especially true in western civilized nations. The things that we fear are legitimate. The probability of meeting your end in many of these situations is minute.
Thanks to the advances in medicine, we live longer than we have before even in spite of the increased dangers we face. Of chief concern to many western people is infectious disease, cancer, toxins, and terrorism. While these issues do have a legitimate capacity to kill, the irrationality of fear has poisoned society.
Infectious disease is a legitimate threat to your health. Every surface in your environment is coated with organisms that in the right conditions will decimate your body and destroy you from the inside. Ebola virus, AIDS, SARS, the West Nile fever, bird flu, and swine flu have caused a cultural shock. In reality, all of these represent little statistical threat to kill you. The common influenza virus is much more likely to kill you and it never generates the type of hysteria that these diseases do.
The number of cancer cases has increased per capita steadily. Is it because of air pollution, water pollution, pesticides, or bad karma? Again, the answer is no. The simply fact is that if a person lives longer, they are more likely to get cancer. If I told you that in 20 years the lifetime rate of cancer would reach 100% you might be terrified. If I also told you that in 20 years, the average lifetime span would be 100 years, this would be a cause for celebration. When compensated for the rate of smokers and the longer average lifespan, the cancer rate has not really increased at all even in spite of the increased toxicity of our environment.
What about toxins? Many would point out that toxins are present in our drinking water, in our food, in our air, nearly everywhere and everything we encounter now is polluted with toxins. This is simply a misnomer. There is no such thing as a "toxin". Every substance known to man is a "toxin". What differentiates them is the amount that enters your body. Radioactive Uranium is a substance that is persistent throughout our environment. It is a natural substance that was formed during the creation of our galaxy. Your body right now has trillions of atoms of it unleashing radiation upon you. If CNN were to publish this information, mass hysteria might ensue due to the perceived "toxicity" and the large number. In reality, this number is minute compared with the number of atoms in your body and the amount of radiation to which your cells are subjected in negligible. Drink enough distilled water and your blood cells will explode. Eat enough table salt and your cells will implode.
What about terrorism? While the lives lost are emotionally tragic and the murder of unsuspecting civilians should be loathesome, your chances of dying of a terrorist attack are far lower than your chance of dying of influenza. After the 9/11 attacks, people were so afraid of flying (chance of death negligible) that they started driving to destinations in situations they would normally take an airline. The result: More people on the roads, more death. The chance of dying in an automobile accident in your lifetime is 1 in 75. Considering how long this fear of flying persisted, the fear of terrorist acts like 9/11 and the subsequent switch to automobile travel killed more people than the actual terrorist attacks.
While every single risk mentioned above is a legitimate risk, the amount of fear spread by biased media, rumor, politics and advertising is completely unjustified. This is not to say that society should forego developing risk aversion strategies. Society should look to use resources wisely in risk aversion, rather than rely on biased sources and the resulting hysteria.
So what are your thoughts on the inherent risks of life and the fear that we place in them? Which risks are justifiably worrisome and which aren't?
I believe you pretty much have captured the essence of fear. My concern is still terrorism. If al-Qaida had been able to sabotage 3-4 more airplanes after 9-11 -- as in stinger missiles -- the country would have shut down -- according to some? expert. Also the feasibility of a dirty nuclear device in a large city could be disturbing.
On the other hand since I have no influence on these possibilities I just don't get emotional about them.