The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldnt--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger

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We are the safest and healthiest human beings who ever lived, and yet irrational fear is growing, with deadly consequences — such as the 1, Americans killed when they made the mistake of switching from planes to cars after September In part, this irrationality is caused by those — politicians, activists, and the media — who promote fear for their own gain. Culture also matters. But a more fundamental cause is human psychology. Working with risk science pioneer Paul Slovic, author Dan Gardner sets out to explain in a compulsively readable fashion just what that statement above means as to how we make decisions and run our lives.

We learn that the brain has not one but two systems to analyze risk. One is primitive, unconscious, and intuitive. The other is conscious and rational.

The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger

The two systems often agree, but occasionally they come to very different conclusions. When that happens, we can find ourselves worrying about what the statistics tell us is a trivial threat — terrorism, child abduction, cancer caused by chemical pollution — or shrugging off serious risks like obesity and smoking. Risk is cutting-edge reading. About The Author. Dan Gardner is a columnist and senior writer for the Ottawa Citizen, specializing in criminal justice and other investigative issues.

Trained in history and law, Gardner worked as a senior policy adviser to the premier and the minister of education before turning to journalism in His writing has received numerous awards, includin Select Parent Grandparent Teacher Kid at heart. Age of the child I gave this to:. Hours of Play:. Tell Us Where You Are:.

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Why Some People Never Grow Out of a Fear of the Dark

Your review has been submitted and will appear here shortly. Extra Content. Read from the Book Risk and fear are hot topics among sociologists, who have come to a broad consensus that those of us living in modern countries worry more than previous generations. Some say we live in a culture of fear. Terrorists, Internet stalkers, crystal meth, avian flu, genetically modified organisms, contaminated food: New threats seem to sprout like poisonous mushrooms. The list goes on and on. Open the newspaper, watch the evening news.

Occasionally, these fears burst into full-bore panics. The pedophile lurking in parks and Internet chat rooms is the latest. In the early s, it was road rage. A decade earlier, it was herpes. Some surge back to prominence now and then. Others slip into the category of minor nuisances and are never heard from again. Farewell, herpes.

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This is just the stuff of daily news. Authors, activists, consultants, and futurologists are constantly warning us about threats so spectacular and exotic they make scenarios of nuclear Armageddon look quaint. But why are we so afraid? Of course terrorism is a real risk. So are climate change, avian flu, breast cancer, child snatchers, and all the other things that have us wringing our collective hands.

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If we had started global decarbonization in , according to the Global Carbon Project , we would have had to cut emissions by only about 2 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming. Only 44 percent of those surveyed in a survey last month cited climate change as a top political priority.

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But it should be. The fact is, further delay will only make the problem worse. If we started a broad decarbonization effort today — a gargantuan undertaking to overhaul our energy systems, building and transportation infrastructure and how we produce our food — the necessary rate of emissions reduction would be about 5 percent per year. If we delay another decade, it will require us to cut emissions by some 9 percent each year.

A fourth argument for embracing catastrophic thinking comes from history. Fear can mobilize, even change the world. Throughout the Cold War, foes of nuclear weapons did not shy away from warning of the horrors of mutually assured destruction, and in the s and s, campaigners against drunken driving did not feel obligated to make their case simply by celebrating sobriety. But perhaps the strongest argument for the wisdom of catastrophic thinking is that all of our mental reflexes run in the opposite direction, toward disbelief about the possibility of very bad outcomes.

I know this from personal experience. I have spent the past three years buried in climate science and following the research as it expanded into ever darker territory.

Summary and reviews of The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner

I know the science is true, I know the threat is all-encompassing, and I know its effects, should emissions continue unabated, will be terrifying. And yet, when I imagine my life three decades from now, or the life of my daughter five decades from now, I have to admit that I am not imagining a world on fire but one similar to the one we have now.

That is how hard it is to shake complacency. We are all living in delusion, unable to really process the news from science that climate change amounts to an all-encompassing threat. Indeed, a threat the size of life itself.

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How can we be this deluded? One answer comes from behavioral economics. The scroll of cognitive biases identified by psychologists and fellow travelers over the past half-century can seem, like a social media feed, bottomless, and they distort and distend our perception of a changing climate. These optimistic prejudices, prophylactic biases and emotional reflexes form an entire library of climate delusion.

We build our view of the universe outward from our own experience, a reflexive tendency that surely shapes our ability to comprehend genuinely existential threats to the species.

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We have a tendency to wait for others to act, rather than acting ourselves; a preference for the present situation; a disinclination to change things; and an excess of confidence that we can change things easily, should we need to, no matter the scale. His solution is a wonky one: We should all be more rigorous in our cost-benefit analysis. That climate change demands expertise, and faith in it, at precisely the moment when public confidence in expertise is collapsing is one of its many paradoxes.

That climate change touches so many of our cognitive biases is a mark of just how big it is and how much about human life it touches, which is to say, nearly everything. And unfortunately, as climate change has been dawning more fully into view over the past several decades, all the cognitive biases that push us toward complacency have been abetted by our storytelling about warming — by journalism defined by caution in describing the scale and speed of the threat.

So what can we do? The size of the threat from climate change means that organization is necessary at every level — communities, states, nations and international agreements that coordinate action among them. Instead we live in a consumer culture that tells us we can make our political mark on the world through where we shop, what we wear, how we eat. But conscious consumption is a cop-out, a neoliberal diversion from collective action, which is what is necessary.

People should try to live by their own values, about climate as with everything else, but the effects of individual lifestyle choices are ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve. Buying an electric car is a drop in the bucket compared with raising fuel-efficiency standards sharply. And if I eat fewer hamburgers a year, so what? But if cattle farmers were required to feed their cattle seaweed, which might reduce methane emissions by nearly 60 percent according to one study , that would make an enormous difference.

That is the purpose of politics: that we can be and do better together than we might manage as individuals. And politics, suddenly, is on fire with climate change. Last fall, in Britain, an activist group with the alarmist name Extinction Rebellion was formed and immediately grew so large it was able to paralyze parts of London in its first major protest. But that alarm is cascading upward, too.

This is what the beginning of a solution looks like — though only a very beginning, and only a partial solution.


We have probably squandered the opportunity to avert two degrees of warming, but we can avert three degrees and certainly all the terrifying suffering that lies beyond that threshold. But the longer we wait, the worse it will get. Which is one last argument for catastrophic thinking: What creates more sense of urgency than fear? The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. Here are some tips. Sunday Review Time to Panic.