My first thought about how to describe The Science of Fear was “Wow.” It is a fascinating look at fear, risk, risk perception and the psychology and marketing behind it all. Yes marketing. News outlets offer sensational stories that often give us misleading information to get us to watch, read, and listen. The recurring theme is how our “head” is often at odds with our “gut” when we filter information about risk. You’ll have to read it to find out which wins most often.
“So the media image of crime is upside down. The crimes that are by far the most common are ignored, while the rarest crimes get by far the most attention…The habit of reporting the rare routinely and routine rarely can be seen even within the category of murders. The media do not report every murder…nor do they give equal attention to the murders they do report.”
Early on author Daniel Gardner tackled one of my pet peeves of the media and society – health care, “We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid. This is one of the great paradoxes of our time…how the same person who doesn’t think twice about lighting up a Gauloise [cigarette] will march in the streets demanding a ban on products that have never been proven to have caused so much as a single case of indigestion.” Gardner also explores our reactions to nuclear power, terrorism, cell phones, cancer, AIDS, WMD, breast implants, bubbles, and even global warming. I am sometimes suspicious about the pointing fingers when reading one of these books, but the author provides an even, clinical assessment of the science behind our fear. Gardner does use information from clinical studies, but presents them in a very readable way.
There are a number of factors that hinder our ability with assessing risk:
- We “are good with stories and bad with numbers.”
- When we are convinced that something is bad it is hard to change our mind.
- Activists, NGOs, charities, etc. have their own agendas and offering the truth may not be in their best financial interest.
- Fear is a tactic
There have been a number of books written about risk and of the one that I have read The Science of Fear is very comprehensive in a readable way and well worth reading.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”