Arnold Kling  

State of Fear

Doctors, Pharmaceuticals, and ... Poor Choices...

Megan McArdle participated in a panel discussion on fear with Chris somebody and Frank Furedi. The topic was fear, which I discussed here.

Furedi, a sociologist, complained that people are starting to have their identities wrapped up in what they fear. Several in the audience proceeded to prove him right--they were very attached to their fears of global warming or George Bush's police state.

Furedi has been thinking about this issue a long time, and it showed. The webcast is almost two hours, and I bailed out before the end, but I recommend at least watching Furedi's opening statement.

One of Megan's points is that we have only recently overcome the need to fear death from starvation. And I think that all of the panelists brought up various irrational fears, such as fear of witches.

If you think of it in terms of human evolution, it makes sense that we would be very alert to danger. What makes less sense is that our mechanisms for distinguishing real dangers from irrational fears would be so inadequate.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Eric Wilson writes:

I think that paragraph of fear is a very suitable comment in America for the way things are going in this country right now. I think it has been an overcast feeling that most Americans have been hiding in the back of their minds, since we expirence the tragedy that took place on 9/11. We were suppose to be this invince force as a nation and that event showed that like everyone else, we do have a chink in our armour. The way things are going now, with us in a war that we are really sure why we're in, I think that poses a question on the sercurity of this country. That insercurity is what cause the fear. Another thing is the flooding caused by Hurrican Katrina, the devasted that was brought to America posed questions on how we really care about are fellow Americas, and brought more frustration, to a country that has been somewhat divided.

Kyle writes:

I don't find it hard to believe at all that we are _much_ better at finding things to be afraid of, as compared to determining that we should no longer be afraid of them. In general, sensitivity to danger is a big benefit for survival, while mild alertness/concern/fear regarding dangers that aren't really there is only a minor survival cost. Hence, ability to spot dangers, even when wrong, might ought to be selected for.

jb writes:
"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."
--- Frank Herbert, Dune - Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear

When you fear something, you give it power over you, to control your actions and even your thoughts.

Why would you willingly give control over your thoughts and actions to anything, or anyone?

'Cept for Earwigs. Those little buggers are creepy.

Alex writes:

"since we expirenced the tragedy that took place on 9/11...That insercurity is what cause the fear"

It's interesting that Eric mentions 9/11 or the threat of terrorism as a cause for fear with Americans. I would lump that in with a fear of witches. People should be much more comcerned about a poor diet / lack of excersise leading to poor health, driving on the highway or being shot by a fellow American.

Bob writes:

I like Kyle's point and it relates to a recent posting over on "Overcoming Bias" about whether there are "efficient" biases. If we accept the presumption that it is evolutionarily sound to overreact to potential danger, how should we recognize/manage that bias now that it is no longer useful?

Barkley Rosser writes:

No one at this conference was afraid of
Big Government?

Matt writes:

How much fear is bad, like fearing flying so much that you don't travel, versus going to see horror movies? People enjoy a certain amount of fear.

Separating irrational from rational fear is no different than separating ignorance from reality. Take a poll of Americans and they will probably say we are wasting tons of money on foreign aid, when in reality it's just a pittance. Or that guns are more dangerous to children than swimming pools, bathtubs, and buckets of water.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

...or fear of gay marriage somehow hurting heterosexual marriages...

Tex writes:

Furedi has been thinking about this issue a long time, and it showed

Frank makes a valid point about how fear is a means by which we shape our identity and define a community, but he meanders pensively into post-modernism when he promiscuously suggests that all "fear mongering" should be rejected, which suggests that all threats are of equal weight and probability. (The way he formulates his case makes his case either circular or just wrong. Of course we should resist "fear mongering" - spreading ungrounded fears. The real question is which fears are not grounded, which are, and by how much?) Clearly you stand a greater chance of dying by being hit by a car than by being hit by a meteorite. Fear of one should not be rejected as readily as fear of the other.

So in one sense, Chris is more correct than Frank. But Chris misdiagnoses the problem when asserts that responsibility rests mainly on the shoulders of journalists. People liked to be scared. Journalists loose paying customers to their competitors if they fail to supply the required dose of fear. (I vaguely remember reading a story - from Julian Simon? - about a newspaper devoted to reporting only good news. It soon folded due to lack of interest.)

Looks like the accurate calibration of fears with risks will remain the preserve of specialists in the insurance industry. By extension, the recalibration of popular fears with actual risk would more readily come about if information on insurance premiums were more widely available. (What is the premium of terrorism insurance these days, anyway? And how does it compare to the premiums from last year? I have a devil of a time finding this information). Here is a proposal, an editor could include a link to the relevant insurance information at the end of every fear story.

Barbar writes:

One of Megan's points is that we have only recently overcome the need to fear death from starvation.
When was the last time America suffered from a famine?

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