Like the cowardly lion, people just love to be afraid. From bear attacks in Anchorage, to “pandemic” swine flu, to famine caused by a mass die-off of bees, to rampant child abuse and abductions, the news media, the government, and experts of various sorts constantly bombard us with warnings about current or imminent disasters. Despite the fact that these alleged crises seldom pan out according to reports or predictions, large numbers of people will predictably fall into line to believe and parrot back the false prophecies. It is astounding (or at least it used to be) how credulous and uncritical in their thinking people can be.
The Attack of the Killer Bears
Last summer in Anchorage there were a number of injuries to people attacked in or quite near the city by bears. This was an unusual series of events and generally resulted from unwise choices by people moving about in bear country. None of the injuries resulted in serious harm.
But what was the response? That there was a bear problem in Anchorage and something needed to be done about it. Solutions ranged from relocating “problem” bears out of the city to killing bears wholesale.
A courageous few encouraged folks to get a perspective, but naturally they were dismissed as cranks. People did not want to be reminded that a number of people were attacked, and one kid killed, by dogs in town last summer, and quite a few people were killed in car accidents, neither of which facts caused public outrage or calls for banning cars or shooting dogs and drivers.
Remarkably, there have been no bear attacks yet this year, despite the absence of bear removals or shootings. The city government, however, in order to show that it was doing something in response to this grave threat, closed a portion of a city park where the most notorious of last year’s attacks took place. How would we all have figured out, especially in light of last year’s events, that it might be unwise to hang out around a salmon stream in bear country during the summer with such guidance from our guardians? The politicians have shown once again how necessary they are to protecting the public welfare.
An even more dire threat reared its head this year, however: swine flu. The news media were full of stories and reports about this deadly menace. Mexico City virtually closed down, emergency preparedness groups were activated, cruise ship crew members with fevers quarantined, and general paranoia promoted.
Once again, however, it was much ado about nothing. Some people have died of this flu, but way fewer than from ordinary seasonal flu, and the vast majority have had a relatively mild illness. But since we don’t want people to be confused by the facts, the World Health Organization decided to declare an official pandemic to keep the pot boiling.
While it is true that this flu outbreak is technically a pandemic because it has occurred in a lot of places, using this word promotes incorrect associations in the minds of many people, who believe words like epidemic and pandemic imply serious, widespread, catchable diseases. Swine flu, however, is proving to be neither serious, common, nor particularly contagious. But if there were no pandemics and other perpetual health crises, about which WHO generally does very little that is effective, there would be no justification for spending tax money extorted from working people on international health bureaucrats.
What’s the Buzz About Colony Collapse?
And then there’s the problem with bees. This time it’s not killer bees terrorizing the neighborhood, but a new “disease”: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
Over the last few years there has been a die-off on bees in north america that some have taken to be the sign of an impending bee shortage. Although the evidence that this kind of population decrease among bees is somehow extraordinary is lacking, hysterics have declared a coming debacle for bees and agricultural systems, especially those in california, of which they are a key part. If the bees aren’t there to pollinate, crops will fail and we’ll all starve, etc, etc.
However, not unsurprisingly, this year there is an overabundance of bees, at least in certain sectors of agriculture. While part of this may be explained by market fluctuations, interventions by apiarists to strengthen their colonies of bees have yielded healthier insects and fewer fatalities. While there appears to be some sort of infection involved in the deaths of bees labeled with CCD, improving their nutrition makes them less susceptible.
This reminds me of the panic a decade or so ago when a fluky freeze killed off a large number of monarch butterflies in mexico. The story was all over the press and concerns about possible extinction were raised. However, not only did this turn out to be a one-time event, the number of butterflies killed was exaggerated around seven-fold. So not only were the conclusions flawed, but the data on which they were based were faulty as well. Several years later there was another scare after a winter storm killed a huge number of the insects. However, the butterflies survived and have since thrived. Logging in their habitat in mexico appears at present to be a longer-term threat, but at least it is discussed in more measured and scientific terms.
It is not clear to me why people thrive on being afraid. Besides common worries about perceived, but non-existent, natural disasters, exaggerated threats of animal attacks, and so on, parents commonly obsess about their children’s safety when unsupervised despite evidence that crime against both adults and children has declined over the years. Homeowners worry about radon causing lung cancer, although the risk is likely way overblown, and others fear getting lung cancer from walking by the smoker outside the door of the local tavern, a risk which approaches zero.
Of course, the world is a dangerous place. The entire planet is dominated by governments that extort tax money from their subjects, use their military and police forces to murder people both at home and abroad, and imprison people who ingest or smoke prohibited plants. Our cities are overrun by vehicles powered by internal combustion engines that pollute the air and kill their occupants and others in collisions. Children are forced into wretched schools where they are taught to follow orders and believe untruths. People’s eating and drinking habits and lack of movement produce disease both acute and chronic, and often fatal. But these are not the things that most americans spend time worrying about.
Whatever the reason folks choose to be afraid at least it would make more sense if they feared the things that really are likely to hurt them. Like getting fat, driving automobiles fast on congested roadways, avoiding exercise whenever possible, and voting for politicians who will do their best to take working people’s hard-earned money and send their children off to war. Far more death and disability result from diseases related to eating too much and doing too little or automobile accidents than are caused by animal attacks or any sort of flu, and rising rates of obesity indicate that there is no real threat to the food supply. More residents of alaska are killed and maimed by warfare than by bears. But people prefer to exaggerate insignificant threats over which they little control and ignore those that have or could have a far more harmful effect, but about which they would have to actually do something on a personal level to avoid. Like eat less, move more, bike to work, and not join (or encourage their children to join) the imperial death machine.
The ability to look at data and analyze information critically is a skill few possess. It is not difficult to learn, but the education system, the news media, and our government and corporate rulers do their best to dissuade people from thinking for themselves. And most believe that some or all of these institutions know better than they as individuals ever could and turn over the decision-making to them.
But even when people know in their heart of hearts that what they are doing is or can be harmful, they all too often don’t do anything with that information. If the harmful activity gives them pleasure or is consistent with some comforting belief system, they focus on some obscure threat instead so it looks like they are actually concerned about their personal health and safety, when, in fact, they are not.
While irrational, this way of dealing with the world and perceived threats seems to help most people get through the day. Unfortunately, while it works for them in some ways, it is at the cost of their individual decision-making ability. Their failure to view the world rationally and critically leads them to rely on advice and supervision from those whose rule depends on keeping the common folk mystified and malleable. They trade their liberty—and sometimes their lives—for a perception of security. And they end up with neither.