This is part four of a series I’m doing on Daniel Gardner’s Book, The Science of Fear.
As a society, we have left ourselves very open to fearing things we shouldn’t fear. Often, we let our gut rule our decision-making without much interest in doing the research necessary to squelch our own fears. Then, even when we actually WANT to analyze the data, and determine the risk, we often lack the basic math skills to truly do so. So we become open to being misled into being fearful. And often, we are.
So who would lead us down the road of being fearful even if the fear was not justified? Well, sadly, anyone who may profit from our fears.
People who sell security alarm systems often lead us to be fearful of crime – because the more people who fear crime, the more people who will by their products..
Pharmaceutical companies often lead us to be fearful of diseases that they just happen to sell the treatments for in what many experts refer to as “disease mongering”.
Even special interest groups and not-for-profits often lead to creating fear in order to get more funding and/or donations. (It should be noted that a large number of the websites dedicated to defaming particular breeds of dogs tend to be run by dog bite lawyers).
Politicians also have a vested interest in creating fear.
H.L. Mencken once wrote that “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence, clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Mencken penned this line in 1920 at the height of the first Red Scare.
In the book,
In 1991, an American activist group named the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) released a report claiming “one out of eight American Children” had gone hungry at some time in the previous year. The report garnered widespread press coverage despite being fatally flawed by an unrepresentative survey sample and questions drafted too broadly to be meaningful. On the most precise question – “Did any of your children ever go to bed hungry because there was not enough money to buy groceries: -- just one third of those counted as “hungry” said “yes.” That alone should have cast doubt on the validity of the report, but almost every new story about the report passed along the statistic as if it were unchallengeable fact. (Someone at CBS Evening News not only accepted the study as hard fact, but misread it in an almost comical fashion – which resulted in Dan Rather leading off the newscast by announcing “A startling number of American children in danger of starving. Dan Rather reporting. Good evening. One out of eight children is going hungry tonight.”
Many of these groups take the approach that their intentions are honorable and why worry about the accuracy of information used to advance a worthy cause? Surely what matters is raising awareness and getting action.
That attitude is all too common and the result is a parade of half-truths, quarter-truths and sort-of-truths. In the mail, I got a brochure from the government warning me that “car crashes are the number one cause of death for Canadian children!” That was true – as far as it goes. But the brochure doesn’t mention that the rate of fatal car crashes is steadily falling and is now lower than it was generations ago (the number of fatalities dropped 37% between 1986 and 2005, despite rising numbers of people on the roads. Nor does it say that car crashes became the number-one killer only because the toll inflicted by other causes (notably infectious diseases) declined more rapidly…..Sins of omission are far more common than active deceit in fear marketing.
The media – for their part – have become an active participant in the fear-marketing. Reporters have become increasingly asked to do more with less time. As such, they commonly do not read the full studies of the reports they write about – only what they read in the press release. If a statistic is given, like, 1 in 8 children went hungry this year due to lack of money for food, often the methodology is never discussed or questioned – and in fact, other media outlets often use the original report as a source, and the number gets passed around as fact even though the number may or may not have much legitimacy.
It should also be noted though that media are far from victims of their low staffing and people feeding them mis-information. They benefit from the fear-mongering as well as fear increases attention to the media that writes about it – and
"The power of images to drive risk perceptions is particularly important in light of the media’s proven bias in covering causes of death. As Paul Slovic was among the first to demonstrate, the media give disproportionate coverage to dramatic, violent and catastrophic causes of death – precisely the sort of risks that lend themselves to vivid, disturbing images – while paying far less attention to slow, quiet killers like diabetes….overall the picture of traumatic injury and death presented by the news is “grossly” distorted, with too much attention paid to ‘events with high visual intrigue.’
The information explosion has only worsened the media’s bias by making the information and images instantly available around the world – turning even extremely rare events – even one in a million events -- into things that happen multiple times a day.
“As a result, the producers who put together the news have a bottomless supply of rare-but-dramatic deaths from which to choose….remove all professional restraints – that is, the desire to portray reality as it actually is – and you get the freak show that has taken over much of the media.”
The end result is that we have a lot of different images of strange, rare, dramatic deaths in our memory banks.
“It fills our memories with examples of dramatic causes of death while providing few examples of mundane killers – and so when gut uses the Example Rule, it will tend to over estimate the risk of dramatic causes of death while underestimating others.”
One other factor that
What drives the media’s sensationalism seems to be plain old self interest. Fear creates interest….and interest means more newspapers are sold and more people are watching the news…which is good for the media. And as there are more and more media options, and viewership becomes more fragmented, we can only assume that the sensationalism will continue to grow as the media works harder to gain eyeballs. This creates a complete feedback loop: the media reflects society’s fear, but in doing so, the media generate more fear, and that gets reflected back again. This can eventually lead to cause a strange eruption that sociologists call a moral panic.
I’ll talk a little bit more about the media when the series resumes next week, but tomorrow, I’ll provide a recent example of how all of these elements came together in the dog world just two weeks ago.