Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 40, August 2003

Are we afraid of the wrong things?

I have an acquaintance of mine who tells me that he is worried whenever I get on a plane (which is more often than most people, though I’m not a golden level frequent flier). You know the reasoning: those things (the planes) are heavier than air; we were not meant to be flying thousands of feet above the earth; surely you heard about how the airlines are cutting on maintenance because of increasing costs, etc., etc., etc.

Interestingly, this same friend of mine is not the least bit concerned about the fact that in order to get to the airport I have to drive on a road, Alcoa Highway, that the locals have nicknamed “I’ll Kill Ya Highway” because of the high number of accidents. Never mind that the statistics clearly say that riding a car is much more dangerous than being on a plane, that if we were meant to do anything, that probably did not include racing at 60 miles an hour on asphalt, and that there is not an iota of evidence showing that airlines have been slacking on repairs (to the contrary, study after study shows that the airline industry -- including commuter planes -- has become increasingly safe over the past decades).

Are we afraid of the wrong things? That is certainly the thesis of University of Southern California’s sociologist Barry Glassner, whose The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things should be mandatory reading for people like my friend. Glassner makes an interesting point, and backs it up with tons of anecdotal as well as statistical evidence. We are more afraid of terrorism than of dying of ill effects caused by the operations of our own industries, and yet the latter is a much higher cause of death than the former. We are convinced by the media that it is very dangerous for anybody to walk city streets because of “random” crime. But, as Glassner points out, violent crime is anything but random: just consider that a black man is 18 times more likely to be murdered than a white woman.

The examples can be multiplied almost endlessly, but a regular pattern emerges. We tend to be afraid of things that are constantly in the news, even though the media have a stake in ratings (and therefore in high-emotional impact stories), not necessarily in informing us. We tend to be unduly impressed by personal stories, either recounted by people we know or broadcasted by talk shows, and often lack the overall frame of reference to reasonably interpret those stories. Surely there are genuine examples of, say, the IRS “persecuting” some poor chap well beyond the boundaries of reasonableness. But does that constitute a pattern of abuse of ordinary Americans by the tax people? More importantly, does that require a special Congressional investigation, and perhaps passing laws to curb such ghastly abuses of power? Maybe, but the answer is to be found in independent investigations of the problem based on large numbers of cases, not on the occasional horror story, as regrettable or even worrisome (nobody wishes to become the next “anecdote”) as that may be.

Is there a national conspiracy by the media, the government, and the military-industrial complex to keep Americans worried about the wrong things? Hmm, yes and no. On the one hand, it is simply natural for human beings to respond emotionally to personal stories and to yawn when faced with statistical analyses. It is also understandable, if borderline unethical, of the media to go for the gory aspects of life, as unrepresentative of reality as they may be, rather than for the more mundane but more relevant ones. Glassner even suggests that perhaps we tend to fear the wrong things because they neatly substitute fears of things for which we either can’t do much about or are in fact partly guilty of. For example, it may be that an obsessive interest in the relatively few cases of children killed by their mothers makes us feel better about our own deficiencies in our everyday exercise of the same role (along the lines of “well, at least I’m not as bad a parent as that”).

On the other hand, think of the recent and still unfolding story about President Bush “doctoring” the truth about Iraq’s nuclear program and why the US went to war. (I’m sure that if it were Clinton denying having received a blow job in the oval office we would not be ashamed of using the word “lying,” and perhaps even of thinking out loud about impeachment.) That one does indeed seem a case of the Government purposely manipulating our feelings for rather sinister ends.

Do we have a defense against being afraid of the wrong things? Can we hope to channel our fears where they belong? (After all, fear is a genuinely useful reaction, if directed to genuine threats.) Yes, but the answer is going to make you yawn and wish to turn the page or jump into another area of cyber space. The answer is slow, painful, continuous education of ourselves. A process that is mostly up to us, that requires reading widely and discussing openly, that can eat into your TV or golf time, and that would make you more sociable only with the NPR-listening crowd. Then again, perhaps the greatest responsibility of the citizens of a democracy is exactly to educate themselves, if nothing else in preparation for the next trip to the voting booth.

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2003