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The Science and Politics of Fear

By Dan Gardner
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Risk by Dan Gardner

We live in a society that pushes us to fear what’s out there. Risk (2008) delves into the psychological and sociological reasons why fear is so deeply rooted in modern times, and why the world isn’t really as bad as we’re made to think it is.

Key idea 1 of 10

Modern society is chock-full of false fears.

We’re constantly being told that the world is under threat, whether it’s from terrorism, climate change or global epidemics. It seems we live in dangerous times. But do we?

We currently live in a so-called risk society. Ulrich Beck coined the term in 1986 to describe societies in which there’s a high sensitivity to risk, whether it’s cancer or nuclear war. The United States and Europe are both good examples.

Beck noticed that risk societies were spreading throughout the world, especially as people grew more afraid of technological advancements.

As technology improved, our news outlets became filled with stories intended to scare us. In fact, a study conducted by Eurobarometer in 2006 found that 50 percent of Europeans believed their cell phones were a threat to their health. Meanwhile, stories of terrorism, cancer, obesity and gluten intolerance have taken over our media.

Most of these frightening stories are exaggerated, however. Frequently people don’t even understand the things they’re afraid of, like cancer.

In a 2007 Oxford study, researchers asked women at what age they thought they were most likely to develop breast cancer. Twenty percent said it was their fifties, and over half said that age wasn’t even a factor.

Only 0.7 percent knew the real answer: breast cancer is most common among women over the age of 80. Age is the single greatest determinant of breast cancer, not cell phones or anything else.

And the only thing that rivals many people’s fear of cancer is their fear of terrorism, despite the fact that, statistically speaking, it’s very unlikely that you’ll die in a terrorist attack. It would be much more logical to fear the flu: 36,000 Americans die every year due to flu-related complications.

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