Gardner: The Science of Fear
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Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear : Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger. New York : Dutton, 2008. 339 pages with notes, bibliography and index.
This book explores the disconnect between the actual risks in modern life and people's perceptions, in answer to the questions "Why are so many of the safest humans in history scared of their own shadows? Why do we worry about things we shouldn't and ignore things we should worry about?" The answer, in short, is that we listen to iPods, read the newspaper, watch television, work on computers, and fly around the world using brains beautifully adapted to picking berries and stalking antelope.
Mr. Gardner takes on this topic with clean prose that's easy to read but gives you plenty to think about. He provides a framework for the interactions of the conscious and unconscious--head and gut--that are the hard wiring of a human brain shaped by environments that bore little resemblance to the world we inhabit today. His framework includes:
- The Anchoring Rule: when we are uncertain and make a guess, gut grabs hold of the most recent number it has heard whether that number is relevant or not.
- The Example Rule: the easier it is to recall examples of something, the more likely gut believes that thing must be (even if gut is recalling fiction like a movie).
- The Rule of Typical Things: we form very complex images of "typicality" to help with snap judgments, but the rule can go wrong. We tend to go with the intuitively typical even when it flies in the face of logic and evidence; the rule is only as good as our knowledge of what is "typical" and the rule generally favors outcomes that make good stories.
The book provides examples and discusses subtleties for the rules, then sets them against the backdrop of modern life to see how they distort our perceptions of crime, terrorism, and the use of chemicals among other risks. Since our stone age brains can't change, we won't abandon information technology, and the incentives for marketing fear are growing, how is fear amplified when those three basic components: the brain, the media, and people with an interest in stoking fears, are wired together in a feedback loop that creates the circuitry of fear?
The book highlights the complexities of applying hard scientific thought to certain popular attitudes such as the Precautionary Principle or the Cost No Object pursuit of safety. Should we ban synthetic chemicals until we have a full understanding of their facts? That attractively simple idea is a lot more complicated than it appears because banning pesticides to reduce exposure to carcinogens could potentially result in more people getting cancer if it reduces consumption of fruits and vegetables. Or "It's worth it if even one life is saved" which we often hear. But if a program costs $100 million and saves one life, it is almost certainly not worth it because there are many other ways $100 million could be spent that would certainly save more than one life.
For me, one of the most pleasant and enlightening reads in recent years.
-- Notes by WBW