Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Dan Gardner - Risk, The Science and Politics of Fear
This is a sober and thoughtful examination of something that is altogether the opposite of those sentiments - fear. We are taken through a list of the most modern of paranoia's. Everything from concerns over cancer, terrorism to the threat of an asteroid impact wiping out life on Earth.
Along the way, the author doesn't simply explain how these things shouldn't terrify us as much as they do, but rather he tries to understand why we perceive some of these things as more dangerous than they actually are and asks, why we react to danger in the way we do.
Dan Gardner claims that it is "fear that defines us". Now I'm not sure how true that actually is, but certainly he is reflecting the way, in the modern world, political and social discourse is governed by threats to our way of life. As I read this, Swine Flu was dominating the headlines of every newspaper and TV news report, in a way that the ongoing deaths from preventable disease, war or hunger never does. Gardner points out that there actually has "never been a better time to be alive" - even in some of the poorest developing nations, people are healthier, living longer and suffering less from disease than at any other time in history. Yet we continue to believe that we are worse off, or in more danger than in the past.
Some of the most interesting chapters are those that unravel the myths behind the giant headlines. The discussion on Terrorism, focuses on precisely how unlikely anyone is to die of cancer, yet millions of US citizens continue to think they are personally under immediate threat of death from terrorism. Gardner uses some statistics that are almost comical if they weren't so sad - even if a 9/11 type attack had happened every month for a year, with the same death toll, the chances of a US citizen being killed would have been "roughly one in 7,750" yet the likelihood of dying in a car crash annually is "one in 6498".
Of course the threat of death by terrorism serves a purpose - it helps generate support for a political course of action by a government, it can help get through changes to the law that undermine civil liberties etc etc, but Gardner is most concerned here with why it is we are most likely to believe in the scary story, over the rational analysis. Only part of this, he argues, is because the media lie, or promote the unusual, exciting stories over the more sober ones.
For Gardner, our fear is down to the basic hard-wired instincts our ancestors developed millions of years ago as hunters, living by our wits, in the Savannas of Africa. We are governed by our "Gut" instincts - the instincts that helped our ancestors recognise the immediate threat of a man-eating lion, over the slower, more rational "Head" which calculated the risk.
There must of course be some truth in this, though it came across as a simplistic explanation to this reader - we have after all developed beyond our natural evolution in a way that allows us to think and work above our basic natural instincts. It's also true, that we rarely get to make judgements based on the complete picture of information - that's not how modern politicians, media outlets or headline writers work - so we aren't able to over come our instinctive fear of mugging, because we're constantly warned of the threat.
All in all though, this is a fascinating book, full of information on our modern lives that deserves to be made clearer to the public. Its a damning critique of how information is used in our society and can only help fuel a wider discussion of the issues.