I hadn’t predicted, when I picked up Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear and Richard Mullen’s Physics For Future Presidents, that there would be so much overlap between the two. I suppose, ultimately, it was inevitably: Mullen’s book, by title and design, covered those areas of science which are the most politically and socially relevant. As is so often the case with complicated issues with big numbers, these situations have the ability to frighten people who can’t keep a level head: consider, if you will, the fear, antipathy, and abject horror that most people have for nuclear energy after the events of Three Mile Island and —even worse in the sense that it actually caused deaths—Chernobyl.
Enter The Science of Fear, Daniel Gardner’s (a Canadian journalist) to both explain and debunk the fear that tends to grip most people when it comes to vaguely menacing concepts.
Like Mullen, one of Gardner’s opening stories is about 9/11, one of the most vivid collective cultural memories of recent history. To illustrate the destructive power of fear, Gardner shows how the hijacking of three planes—something which is now an almost impossible occurrence—caused a dramatic decrease in airline travel and equivalent increase in automobile traffic as people chose to drive instead of fly. Given the relatively high rate of highway fatalities compared to that of air travel, Gardner estimates that the increase caused an additional 6,000 deaths1. This simple exercise in probability illustrates not only that we are susceptible to irrational (though not unwarranted) fear, but that it actively hurts us, and that the people who should know better and tell us as much so rarely do. Gardner notes that one of the few politicians to ever point out that relative safety of airline travel even post-9/11 was John McCain, but he did it in the form of a 2003 book as opposed to speaking his mind where people might actually hear him. George W. Bush, for all the flak he caught for his encouragement for America to shop2, was doing the right thing in telling us to continue about our business; unfortunately, he spent the rest of his presidency beating the “Fear!” horse to death. Republicans tend to play this card heavily; since their platform doesn’t offer many points besides cutting back on everything but defense spending, it was a decent way to get Americans to color their ballots red; Democrats did some of it, too, though I don’t think I need to explain how much doom and gloom the GOP platform contains.
Fear is difficult, Gardner explains. That’s because it’s not a reaction that easily listens to facts or rational arguments. Gardner’s surrogates for human impulse is the Head and the Gut3; the head is good at figuring out the logical side, but it takes time and energy; the Gut, meanwhile, is our primitive survival mechanism which finds shallow patterns and reacts to them in a way that attempts to assure self-preservation. In doing so, it falls prey to every statistical bias that we’ve catalogued: those which give the most influence to events which happen recently, those which give the most influence to events which happen to us in particular; those which reinforce our existing beliefs; et cetera ad infinitem.
Downplaying the likelihood of our being killed or hurt by most of the newsworthy bogeymen (dirty bombs, nuclear explosions/meltdowns, terrorists, anthrax) is an academic exercise, since it’s relatively easy to calculate the probabilities based on past history. The conclusion—as you might guess—is of course that we are far more likely to be hurt by everyday occurrences, such as our morning commute or an Egg McMuffin™, than by any spectacular event. But this knowledge doesn’t sell advertising space, it doesn’t keep our interest, and it actually forces us to accept responsibility for things instead of asking the government to legislate away our problems or simply blame it on evildoing third parties.
The title is a bit misleading; though Gardner covers some of the basic psychology that causes us to fear the way we do—including the Head/Gut dichotomy—this really isn’t about the “science” of fear so much as a point-counterpoint: choosing from the long list of bogeymen, Gardner undermines our fear of them, outs their abusers in the political or commercial sphere, and occasionally uses them to make larger points about social or political currents. By the end, the book has drifted dangerously close to repetition, as there are only so many times that the author can loop back to his original point before it becomes tiresome. On the whole, however, it is a well-constructed book, and Gardner has even more rhetorical skill than I expected when I began.
- I’m recalling this figure from memory and can’t vouch for its accuracy[↩]
- I am not the greatest fan of GWB, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where he was going with this statement, and I think he was right. Though, as I explain in the text body, he proceeded to blow this little bit of collateral by immediately acting like a jackass[↩]
- Reminding everyone of Stephen Colbert, I’m sure[↩]