Nothing to fear but fear itself

May 30th, 2008 - 11:40 am ICT by admin  

Sydney, May 30 (DPA) Last year 1,200 council staff in Sydney were issued survival kits containing bandages, a bottle of water, a dust mask, a radio, a torch, a notepad and even sunscreen and tissues. These so-called Go Bags were distributed when fear of a terrorist attack in Australia’s largest city was running high.

At the same cost to the taxpayer, the city fathers could have presented those lucky 1,200 staff with a copy of Canadian author Dan Gardner’s Science of Fear, a book described by The Economist magazine as “a cheery corrective to modern paranoia” and by Publisher’s Weekly as bringing “a breath of fresh air and common sense to an emotional topic.”

Gardner makes the case that the western world is beset by irrational fear that leads to decisions that are often foolish and sometimes deadly. It’s not so much that people have become incapable of accurately rating risk but that our brains have never been able to accomplish that assessment task.

“Our brains didn’t evolve for this world,” Gardner said in an interview with Australia’s ABC radio. “There’s a radical mismatch between our intuitive system for understanding risk and the world as it exists today.”

An example is the Go Bag: sunscreen to warn off sunburn and a notepad to jot down thoughts - accoutrements that aren’t going to be of much use against buildings crashing down and might even be distractions from actual survival.

Gardner’s own example is the response of travellers in the US to the 9/11 terrorist bombings in New York and Washington.

In their wake, people reasoned wrongly that driving was safer than flying and around 1,500 of them took to the roads and lost their lives trying to reduce their risk of being killed by aircraft hijackers.

The deadly shift from planes to cars is explained by what psychologists call the availability heuristic.

“Is it easy for me to think of any example of something?” Gardner explains. “If it’s very easy for me to think of an example of something, that thing must be common and therefore it must be likely to happen again. Absolutely untrue, absolutely untrue, but that’s what you will feel. You’ll have a strong intuition that says this is true, be aware.”

When the Sydney council decided on its Go Bags, it had in mind a 9/11 attack. Our enthralment with the availability heuristic determined it was something easily imagined and therefore likely to happen again.

Gardner blames the media for inflating perceived risks by preying on our innate irrationality.

Skinny fashion models have filled the papers with scare stories about the scourge of anorexia and how it’s affecting schoolgirls.

Researchers find - surprise, surprise - that parents are more fearful of daughters becoming beanpoles than of becoming morbidly obese.

According to Gardner: “Diabetes, particularly with the rise in obesity across the Western world, is a very serious, serious business. But people consistently, however, underestimate the risk of diabetes.”

The Canadian author will find unsurprising the findings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a private think-tank that found that since 9/11 Australia had spent 10 billion Australian dollars ($9 billion) on counter-terrorism initiatives but only 500 million Australian dollars on getting ready to deal with catastrophic events like cyclones, tsunamis and floods.

“We’ve never had the big one and I think people need to imagine the worst before we can properly prepare,” said the institute’s Anthony Bergin.

And there it is again: we can’t readily imagine it, therefore we downplay the risk, while at the same time vastly inflating the risk of that which we can readily imagine.

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