Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Science of Fear

Why would a book that gives you evidence that the things that you worry about are not such a big problem irritate you?

Okay, that's easy. It's because you are worried about certain things, and yelling at yourself that it's not such a big deal only reduces that a touch, so you feel lectured to. Secondly, you have expended resources, physical or psychic, into problems that now seem small, so you feel a bit foolish, a little ripped off, a little sheepish, at having this pointed out.

Daniel Gardner's The Science of Fear has some minor flaws, I'll touch on those, but they shouldn't dissuade you from reading the book. We are hardwired for certain types of fear, which, once activated, we have trouble turning off. A whole lot of other people get resources from the tribe by exploiting our fears, so they have an interest in keeping us on tenterhooks.* Politicians, nonprofit advocacy groups, companies that produce safety goods or services, government agencies...

Okay, that's adding up to a lot of people who need us to be anxious in order to sell us alarms, foods, programs, wars, medicines... We spend a lot of our precious resources on things that we might not, hope not, ever use or need, in order to reduce our anxieties. And we do this within the context of western society which provides unimaginable wealth and safety. My theory is that a certain amount of worry is built into us, because the ancestors who worried lived to perpetuate their DNA. We may be able to redirect our worry to things that actually have a fair chance of harming us, and which we have some control over. But I propose that we cannot, at present, reduce the amount of worry in our lives without specific intervention, such as medication, therapy, or radical life change. Sumus quod sumus, we are what we are. You will always be this nervous. Your job is to direct the anxiety to the best targets.

Note: As you get older, what you worry about will change automatically, and you will be absolutely sure you are wiser. Uh, maybe so

Worried about the environment? A dozen medical conditions that aren't actually life-threatening? Crime? Terrorism? Gardner will give you the numbers, reminding you how small the danger is. And, he will demonstrate how misplaced fear costs us not only money, but lives. After 9-11, people drove instead of flying. But driving is dangerous, and the most likely number is that 1,595 people died because they drove instead of flying - about five times the number who died in the planes on Sept 11. We spend money to protect ourselves from extremely unusual risks, and don't protect ourselves against more common ones.

The Amazon reviews say that some people found the book too long, and the statistics a bit much, but everyone basically liked it. I vaguely see that, but thought the book was great. The readers of this blog are not going to find the numbers daunting. I thought it was about right. Additionally, he gives a good summary of the research into our fearful and risk-evaluating minds, and this fits very well with our "May We Believe Our Thoughts?" discussions. Some of the research, in fact, we have already covered here. The Science of Fear covers a lot of ground on confirmation bias, our attraction to certain narratives, and a half-dozen smaller brain quirks you had no idea were influencing you so much. Yet Gardner also demonstrates how we can override these tendencies with thoughtful risk assessment.

The quibbles: Despite his clear explanation that we perceive greater danger from cancer because we are living longer, and have greatly reduced other causes of death (many who face cancer today would not have lived to face cancer in the old days, having died in childbirth, or of diphtheria, cholera, or smallpox), Gardner still counts all deaths as equal in some other calculations. He contrasts deaths from terrorism with deaths from diabetes, smoking, and obesity, for example. But the lifestyle deaths occur later in life, taking 5, 10, 15 years off our total. Deaths which take fifty or eighty years off our expected longevity should be counted higher. (Historically, the opposite was sometimes true. So many children died before the age of five, and this was so expected, that these were counted - not very consciously - as of lesser value. We were habituated to 20% of all children dying, and thought it sad, but not a greater loss than an adult's death. This has shifted over the last 50-100 years). Secondly, Gardner does not weigh in on the less-measurable goods of justice, fairness, and culture. While this may be scientifically reasonable, seen as outside his purview as a risk-evaluator, it results in his setting these values to zero. This becomes important in his discussing risks in crime and terrorism. He undervalues all other possible benefits of deterrence, social pressure, and foreign policy in his number-crunching. He tips his hand as a Canadian of the center-left in some of his assumptions as well, but he is even-handed enough that these should be passed over without additional mention. He tries extremely hard to be fair, and few conservatives could match him in this.

Your politics will shift just a bit after reading this book, wherever you started from.

*WTH are tenterhooks, anyway? Ah. Mildly interesting.


Sam L. said...

Medical ailments? Prickly heat has me paralyzed!

Also remember that one of Garrison Keillor's advertisers on APHC is The Fearmonger Shop.

My favorite advertiser was Raw Bits, though the Ketchup Advisory Board is a close second. Haven't listened to APHC in a long time.

Sam L. said...

And thanks for the link to tenterhooks.

I think I knew that. Once. Long ago. Way back when.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I had forgotten the Fearmonger's Shop, probably because I haven't listened to APHC much over the last decade or more. Tracy listens to it some, and I catch part of it as I wander through the kitchen.

You can read my very mixed opinion of Keillor by putting his name in my search box and noting what I have written over the years.

Anonymous said...

"And, he will demonstrate how misplaced fear costs us not only money, but lives."

Driving instead of flying after 9/11 meant less harassment by "public servants" sexually fondling grandmothers and infants.

If flying after 9/11 had been the same, er, pleasure, that it had been prior to 9/11, I'm sure the number of deaths in car accidents could have been reduced.

Sam L. said...

My local cable dropped the radio signal 9-10 years ago, and I didn't miss Ol' Garry because of his Republican Derangement Syndrome and follow-on severe case of BDS. Every so infrequently I catch a piece of his show, and I continue to worry about his mental health. That much anger is bad for him; but as you've said, it is a tribal marker. He'd be better off to use Sharpies rather than neon or the flashing lights he's currently using.