Sunday, April 22, 2012

BC2012: The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner

It took more than a week to read this book, but it was well worth the effort. It starts out with an intriguing number: 1,595. After 9/11, fear of flying led people to drive instead, and that led to an extra 1,595 highway fatalities. This is the first of many examples Gardner uses to demonstrate the costs of our inability to rationally evaluate risk. The early chapters of the book explain how we make these mistakes. Our head (meaning logical, rational thought) and our gut (based on instincts developed throughout our evolution) are in constant conflict, sometimes leading us to to bad decisions because we over- or under-estimate danger. The rest of the book looks at how fear manipulates us in areas such as crime, chemicals, and terrorism.

People today are living longer than ever, and yet we are more fearful than ever. Plus we worry about the wrong things. We fear being murdered when murder is a relatively rare crime. We fear a nuclear attack by a terrorist organization. But we don't fear getting in our cars and we don't fear not getting enough exercise, even though those behaviors are much more likely to kill us. Seniors are most afraid of being crime victims even though they are least likely to be targeted.

The Science of Fear has life-changing potential. Not only does Gardner help us evaluate risks and allay many of our concerns (when we realize how small some of those risks really are), but he also encourages us to think critically about what we are told by the media, corporations, and the government. For example, everyone is afraid of cancer when we read that cancer rates are going up. But that fact doesn't necessarily mean that cancer is "an epidemic." Gardner notes several major influences on the increase in cancers:
  1. Cancer was lower on the list of leading causes of death a century ago, but some of those major causes have been greatly diminished or virtually wiped out by antibiotics, vaccination, and sanitation: tuberculosis, diarrhea and enteritis, typhoid fever, diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles, et al. Without them, cancer naturally moved up on the list.
  2. Age is cancer's number one risk factor so as people live longer they are more likely to get cancer.*
  3. Improved screening methods have led to more detection (including many cancers that would never reach a level that would noticeably affect one's health).
To keep perspective, we must remember that a century ago, the death rate for children under age five was 20% and the average life expectancy was around 50 years. Now only 0.8% of children die before age five, and the average life expectancy is around 80 years. Those kids who would have died of diphtheria before they started school are instead getting cancer 60 years later. With all of this in mind, we should resist immediately pointing the finger at, say, chemicals in the environment whenever we hear about people getting cancer. I'm paraphrasing quite a bit, but the book is full of thoughtful assessments like this.

I could go on and on about this book -- just ask my wife or my mom. The Science of Fear is a safe bet to be one of the top ten books of Book Challenge 2012.

* On a related note, breast cancer risk is greatest for women over age 80, but surveys find that women are not aware of this. When asked which age group is most at risk, more than half said "age doesn't matter", and one in five said it is when a woman is in her 50s. Only 0.7% chose the correct answer. Gardner believes this is largely because media coverage of breast cancer tends to highlight cases of younger women.


1 comment:

Chris said...

Calling out breast cancer specifically is interesting -- there's a growing body of evidence that the pink movement has caused problems for other cancer groups by greatly overshadowing them. That's why you're seeing other groups emulate/copy groups like Komen -- because it works, largely by building on that fear.