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Author warns western world gripped by irratio -

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Author warns western world gripped by irrational fear

The World Today - Monday, 5 May , 2008 12:49:00

Reporter: Eleanor Hall

ELEANOR HALL: We humans, especially those in the western world, have never been healthier or freer
from risk. And yet, according to Canadian author, Dan Gardner, the western world is in the midst of
an epidemic of irrational fear.

The Canadian journalist has just published his book "RISK: the science and politics of fear", in
which he describes the growth of an unreasoning fear in all countries in the western world and
warns that this fear is causing us to make foolish and at times deadly decisions when we deal with
everyday risks.

A short time ago he spoke to me from Ottawa, beginning by talking about one of his most compelling
examples of the dangers of irrational fear, the response of US travellers to the September 11
attacks.

DAN GARDNER: The difference in the safety between driving and flying is enormous. Flying is vastly
safer than driving. So, after the September 11 attacks, enormous numbers of Americans fled the
airports, and of course they still had to get around, so they started driving instead. And as any
statistician will tell you, when you have millions of people who increase their risk of something,
then you're going to have consequences.

And one researcher actually crunched the numbers, and he found that this shift from the airports to
the roads lasted for about one year and as a direct result of this shift, approximately 1,500
Americans lost their lives. And that figure is actually six times higher than the number of people
who were actually on the jets that crashed on September 11.

ELEANOR HALL: While there may at times an over-reaction though, isn't fear sometimes also entirely
rational?

DAN GARDNER: Oh, absolutely. Our brains did not evolve for this world. I'll give you an example.
Here we are having a casual conversation, as if we were sitting together in the same room. We are
in fact on opposite sides of the planet. Now, we've come to accept that this is perfectly normal
today, but in the span of human history, this is absolutely, a fantastically radical change.

And the brains, which we are using to try and grapple with this radically changed information
environment, we're shaped in this Stone Age, quite literally in the Stone Age. So, there's a
radical mismatch between our intuitive system for understanding risk, and the world as it exists
today.

ELEANOR HALL: But we've clearly had these primitive brains for quite some time. Why is only in the
last few decades that it's producing this irrational fear epidemic that you're talking about?

DAN GARDNER: Well, ask yourself this. Before these last few decades, what sort of information
environment did people live in? For example, after the London bombing, images taken by the cell
phone cameras of people who were on the train during the bombing, were available all around the
world almost instantaneously.

ELEANOR HALL: So, we're more aware of risks and potential catastrophes than we were a couple of
decades, a couple centuries ago because of better education and mass communication. But, isn't that
an entirely rational response to be more afraid when you know more?

DAN GARDNER: No, it's not unfortunately. If it were simply a matter of being aware, that's one
thing, and in fact knowledge is good thing, information is good thing. I don't want to sound like
an information Luddite.

But I'll give you an example: Madeline McCann. Everybody in the English-speaking world knows that
Madeline McCann was the little British girl who was abducted and presumably murdered in Portugal.
Now, what does it say about my children, for example? Here I am, in Canada. What does it say about
my children?

What does it say about children in Australia? What does it say about their safety? Rationally, it
says nothing, but that's not how the unconscious brain, that intuitive primal brain that I was
mentioning, that's not how it assesses this information.

What the intuitive brain does, is it has certain mechanisms that allow it to form snap, quick
judgements, which it then communicates as intuition, as feelings, as hunches. One of those
mechanisms, for example, is something called the availability heuristic, that is very simple and it
simply says this: Is it easy for me to think of any example of something? If it's very easy for me
to think of an example of something, that thing must be common and therefore it must be likely to
happen again. Absolutely untrue, absolutely untrue, but that's what you will feel. You'll have a
strong intuition that says this is true, be aware.

ELEANOR HALL: It is interesting because you point out the statistics that we have much less to fear
in terms of our daily lives, for example the drop in child mortality over the last couple of
centuries. But, while our children are less likely to die of diseases like diphtheria, I mean,
people have always been irrationally afraid about their children anyway, haven't they? Are they
really more irrationally afraid now or are they just different fears?

DAN GARDNER: That's the toughest question because it's how you quantify these things. If you look
at western countries, you will find in country after country, after country, and I don't know the
situation in Australia, but I'm quite confident and I know how you'll respond to this. Are our
parents worried about their children being snatched by strangers? I suspect they are. Are they
allowing them to play less outdoors unsupervised? I suspect there are. Do they put them in cars and
drive them to school because they're afraid that they'll be abducted by strangers? I suspect they
are. And why is that? I think it's because of this information environment.

ELEANOR HALL: Yes, it's interesting. You say that we worry more about an increasing number of
things which are minor risks, and yet we shrug of greater threats. Now, why do we do that?

DAN GARDNER: It's the same as intuitive mind, which can result in you greatly overestimating the
risk of certain trivial risks. It can also result in you greatly underestimating certain risks. One
example is diabetes. Diabetes, particularly with the rise in obesity across the western world, is a
very serious, serious business. People consistently, however underestimate the risk of diabetes.

ELEANOR HALL: What about big, global issues like global warming, nuclear war, those sorts of fears.
Are they rational or irrational?

DAN GARDNER: When it comes to determining the rationality of a fear, these things are open to
debate. Reasonable people can differ, of course. If you look at society-wide concerns, what are
people bothered by? What do they say to pollsters, you know, "What are you worried that, you know,
is this going to harm you and your family?" Those grand, global, catastrophic scenarios may compel
some people, but they're not what show up as compelling the majority. The majority worries about
crime, terrorism, child abduction, school violence, sort of more personal, local things.

So, for example, if you have an extraordinarily rare event occurs and in gets a lot of media
attention, and this causes public concern to rise. Well, public concern, what will that do? Public
concern will draw politicians, and they in turn will raise the volume. And with that, that in turn
will lead to more media reporting, and all the while, of course, the public is processing this
information using these Stone Age brains, the intuitive sense of threat rises, and I've documented
in the book, some really quite extraordinary examples where there basically isn't any rise in the
real, underlying risk, but because of this back and forth, this feedback, as we discuss it, the
noise just gets louder and louder and louder and the fear just rises and rises.

ELEANOR HALL: And are you at all worried that you're warning about an epidemic of fear will spark a
whole new set of irrational fears itself?

DAN GARDNER: (laughs) Not terribly, no. Because I don't think I'm pressing any intuitive buttons,
this is strictly a rational argument and I don't think it will cause any irrational fears.

ELEANOR HALL: Dan Gardner, thanks very much for joining us.

DAN GARDNER: Thanks you.

ELEANOR HALL: That's the very rational Dan Gardner, the Canadian author of "Risk: The science and
politics of fear".