Dan Gardner’s Risk—The Science and Politics of Fear

Fear has grown a lot in our society. There are no snakes around us and no giant dinosaurs that would eat us for supper yet the bombarding and ear-piercing news of climate change, terrorism, crime news, nuclear apocalypse constantly make us bite our nails.

Very handful of books actually look at this problem and the growing fear society we are collectively creating today. This is one of them. We need to read this book because we are in the 21st century and fear shouldn’t be an emotion that chases us in reality and dreams. Instead, we should feel more grateful, thankful and positive. So, let’s dive in ASAP

  • Risk Society. Ulrich beck talks about this risk society with cancers, nuclear disasters, famines, and all horrors we could imagine. Sure, risks are there and have been throughout history. Beck opines that as technology advances we spread more risk and cause eventually a steep fall of civilization. But do we?

    Modern society cures cancer and many nations already abandoned nuclear power programs. In other words, technology is making our lives better and safer. All these stupid fears media pump into our brains rarely happen and even if they happen we know how to tackle them.

    “Put all these numbers together and what do they add up to? In a sentence: 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.” —Gardner.
  • Ignore the old software. Dan says that brains haven’t changed a lot. Hence we fear more of lizards than car accidents. We entered the modern age and the brave new worlds, but brain primal fears still are hanging out in neurons. Since Stone Age, our brain has just increased by 200 cubic centimetres. Old fears had a purpose and were useful but now discard them. They are built into our software even though we don’t need them. For instance, monkeys raised in laboratories which never saw a snake backs away.
  • Use system 1 less. Daniel Kahneman in his Thinking fast and slow describes two brain systems. System 1 is largely driven by gut and intuition which passes out judgement without thinking much. System 2 uses the conscious part and is slow and deliberate which makes it less prone to miscalculation. So the logic is to use more of System 2. As Pascal says—“The heart has its reasons for which reason knows nothing of.”
  • Availability heuristic. When you are exposed a lot of times to a particular piece of information then you are influenced by it easily without thinking. More bad weather news makes you consider the possibility of dying in the next hurricane or being killed by an earthquake. But less available news like flu, sugars though very dangerous are less frightening for you.
  • Prefer data over stories. People want stories and anecdotes than hard data. Hence people still believe that mobile phones cause cancer, we have flat earth, angels exist. The author gives an example. In the 1990s rumours without scientific evidence and temper began to spread that breast implants cause cancer and were termed as toxic breasts and ticking bombs. The result was—the company was wiped out in lawsuits and no evidence ever came to light proving its correctness.

    Next time, a panic strikes, you better get your numbers right.
  • Politicians and Pharmaceutical companies have something in common. Yes, both breed fear in their farms. Former to get power and latter to get money. Politicians fake a danger and go to war. Pharmaceutical companies use fear and convince that you need nasty pills and manipulate data about the efficacy of a drug. And politicians are ready to target minorities.

    And now they have a powerful friend—The fourth estate in the name of media.

So always remember this quote that the author puts in the very beginning which I leave at the very end—

“Fear is implanted in us as a preservative from evil; but its duty, like that of the other passions, is not to overbear reason, but to assist it.”

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