Cultivating the Culture of Fear

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

Marie Curie


So we now have something else to fear. The coronavirus has caused the death of over a thousand people in China. That of course is not inconsequential, but we lose something like a half a million people each year from influenza.

No doubt a healthy sense of fear was an evolutionary advantage helping our ancestors from being devoured by carnivores, bitten by venomous snakes or falling over the edge of cliffs. However some of our fears are irrational. Most of us, for example, still have an instinctive fear of snakes, but the likelihood of being killed by snake bite is extremely unlikely. In today’s environment it would be more useful if we had an instinctual fear of speeding motor cars or electricity outlets. But these things haven’t been around long enough for natural selection to have responded to them.

Of course fear of the future has always been with us. But in previous times our fears of the future were often driven by religious motives like the fear of divine retribution and the personal fear of being assigned to Hell because we could not meet the moral standards our chosen religion seemed to demand of us.

But I would suggest to you that the fear of the unknown (and consequentially the future) has been so thoroughly internalised that many are unaware of its influence on their behaviour. It is not as though these people are perpetually fearful, but they do seem sensitised to focus on potential threats and dangers and have difficulty in ascertaining opportunities in their future. Consequently they anticipate the worst and lower their expectations about the future.

[Interestingly such pessimism is often a precursor of depression. Some psychologists attribute pessimists with a more realistic viewpoint than optimists, but their more realistic assessment obviously comes at a personal cost and their negative point of view will often come at the expense of their happiness. But I am not suggesting people should not take reasonable steps to guard against future threats, I am merely saying they shouldn’t exaggerate those threats in order to seek to change the minds of others. And given how well these fears have been internalised they are probably unconscious of their bias towards fear.]

From the beginning of the twentieth century with religious influences on the decline, the fear of the future was redirected towards more earthly matters.

Two famous themes that arose in the 1960’s and 1970’s were:

  1. A concern that we had almost exhausted the earth’s resources (refer The Club of Rome’s report The Limits to Growth published in 1972). We still hear echoes of this concern in the notion of “peak oil” for example.
  2. A modern version of the Malthusian spectre of disaster resulting from overpopulation (refer Paul Erlich’s book The Population Bomb published in 1968).

The dire predictions of these prophets of doom were never realised, largely because science responded by showing ways to find and extract more resources and by dramatically improving agricultural practices so that even with higher populations the world’s people are better fed than they have ever been.

In latter years we have been frightened by such phenomena as the Y2K bug, the SARS epidemic, the onset of Islamist jihadism, the Global Financial Crisis, HIV/AIDS, climate change and much more. But we have largely dealt with these issues. We normally underestimate the resilience and the innovation that we bring to these threats.

In john Mueller’s book Overblown he notes that:

Fewer people have been killed in America since 2000 by international terrorism than have drowned in toilets or have died from bee stings.

It is strange that while most of us fear the future, Stephen Pinker has been demonstrating on most objective criteria like longevity, poverty, exposure to violence, levels of literacy and numeracy, and so on, the world has been progressing well. It would seem on this basis, the future is likely to be better than the past. But our obsessive fear of the future renders us blind to the opportunities that the future may bring us.

As the Norwegian philosopher, Lars Svendsen explains:

A paradoxical  trait of the culture of fear is that it emerges at a time when by all accounts we are living more securely than ever before in human history.

No doubt, some of the blame for this dysfunctional way of looking at things can be placed at the feet of the media. For the media, alarmism is a major selling point. Even small disasters get larger coverage than large successes in advancing human welfare. A traffic accident that kills someone in your local community will always get more coverage than a school opened or a new healthy water supply secured in a third world country.

In the public domain risks are exaggerated. With children there has been a wide scale programme about “stranger danger” whereas statistics show that children are more at risk from people who they know well and are likely close to them.

The public concerns about the risk from nuclear power stations bear little resemblance to the actual risks of such facilities. This undue fear has prevented nuclear power playing a part in securing our power supply and reducing carbon emissions.

The concern by landholders of the “fracking” process to extract coal seam methane has little justification gauged by experience around the world and particularly in the US. And like nuclear power, this irrational fear has prevented coal seam gas playing a larger role in power generation were it could reduce emissions and the costs of energy.

Exaggerated fears of vaccination have also resulted in some disastrous outcomes.

Another incidence of irrational fear leading to unsatisfactory outcomes is the growing tendency to drink bottled water. If you are in Beijing or Hanoi it is probably prudent to drink bottled water. But sales of bottled water in Australia and the USA have skyrocketed. Seemingly this is because people are sceptical about the quality of tap water. Paradoxically the regulation of the production of tap water is far higher than the production of bottled water. Moreover, bottled water is hugely expensive. It is normally more expensive on a per litre basis than petroleum. And what’s more it is a large source of environment-threatening plastic bottles. So on any account, be it economic, health or environmental, drinking bottled water is a deleterious move.

Despite Stephen Pinker’s optimism about our longevity some of the doomsayers are now telling us that increasing rates of childhood obesity will mean that the next generation won’t live as long as their parents.

When it comes to our children, the current generation of parents seem to be particularly sensitive to trends that might impact their offspring. There is a movement to prevent children being academically tested at school because it is too stressful.

Many junior sporting clubs have decided that it is not appropriate to score in competitions with children because they fear that children can’t handle the disappointment of losing.

These initiatives are sheltering our children from the reality of life. The fears of parents that their children might be disappointed are preventing their children from facing up to the fact that they will often fail in life as indeed most of us have. Our most important characteristic in facing an unknown future is our resilience. These initiatives to cloister our children are not helping them develop resilience.

To further highlight this problem, in the UK, the charity Childline reported a 200% increase in counselling sessions relating to exam stress from 2012 – 2014.

The culture of fear is propagated also by moralistic manipulation. Parents of obese children are made to feel morally responsible for health outcomes of their children. Parents who allow their children to play in the sun and don’t slavishly follow the strictures of “Sun Smart” are deemed morally degenerate. I am not advocating that parents should allow their children to have undue exposure to the sun or allow their children to eat excessive amounts of “junk food”.  All I am saying is such negligent parents shouldn’t be labelled as immoral thus discounting them out of hand without allowing any opportunity to defend their non-conformist behaviour.

But more than anything else, the culture of fear cannot tolerate scepticism. This is unfortunate because scientific progress has relied on scepticism to challenge dominant paradigms in search of other theories to better explain the world.

So today, instead of welcoming the questioning of the conventional wisdom, which is the underpinning of good science, the word “sceptic” has become a term of abuse. It is deemed, for example, the highest level of opprobrium to term someone a “climate sceptic”. To be described as a “climate change denier” is akin to being called a “Holocaust denier”! Senator Jim Molan, who is a distinguished Australian, was recently excoriated on ABC TV for saying he had an “open mind” regarding anthropogenic global warming. Surely if we had more people with open minds who were prepared to listen to both sides of a debate we would be betterinformed.

The defenders of the conventional wisdom have again in many ways avoided confronting the uncertainties of the science by turning the argument into a morally charged conflict between good and evil. Thus those who question the conventional wisdom can be discounted because they are morally inferior evil agents.

So in this way, debate is curtailed. Time and again we see in the climate question and the stances of the proponents of identity politics, contrary opinions are not only not debated, they are not allowed to be heard. In these fields the proponents of the conventional wisdom allow no scepticism (as the discoveries of science relied upon) and any discordant views are dismissed as the rants of evil people who should not be allowed a platform to express their problematic viewpoints.

The culture of fear is also promoted by elitist liberals who assert that ordinary people can’t see the cause of their fear because ordinary people are not privileged with the superior knowledge that liberal elites possess. Think Hillary Clinton and her dismissal of American voters as deplorables. Or think the British political class that resisted the Brexit referendum result.

And the culture of fear is aided and abetted by a tendency to catastrophize and exaggerate. How often did we hear in the recent bushfire crisis that the fires were “unprecedented”. But previous fires have been more extensive and resulted in greater loss of life. Indeed looking at Australia as a whole a smaller proportion of Australia burnt this year then has been the norm. The problem has been that these fires impinged more on settled communities than normally has been the case. Two major contributing factors to the recent disaster have been allowing the accumulation of high fuel loads in many of our forests and the flawed planning processes that have allowed people to build in high fire risk areas and have prevented them from taking reasonable steps to protect their properties by creating appropriate firebreaks and clearing flammable understorey.

So in summary I would assert that the prevailing culture of fear, whilst in some cases understandable, is not helpful in preparing us to engage the future in a productive way. Moreover we live in the most fortunate era in history with every indication that the future will more likely be even better. So without suggesting our lives should be free of fear, our history suggests that we have the capability of countering most of the threats behind these fears.

In engaging the future, we will find a better path not from shying away from the real and imagined fears it brings, but by engaging with it by being open to the opportunities it brings and remembering our long history of innovation and technical progress.

But above all else we need to build our resilience. We need to actively confront our future and not shy away from it. Modern society has found many ways of sheltering people from the realities of life rather than preparing them to fully engage life.

7 Replies to “Cultivating the Culture of Fear”

  1. Ted, as always, your calm and considered approach to complex issues inspires me to adopt a similar approach when I have conversations with others on such issues. Thank you.

  2. ‘…with the 15 percent that did happen, 79 percent of subjects discovered either they could handle the difficulty better than expected, or the difficulty taught them a lesson worth learning. This means that 97 percent of what you worry over is not much more than a fearful mind punishing you with exaggerations and misperceptions.’Don Joseph Goewey, Contributor author of The End of Stress, Four Steps to Rewire Your Brain.

  3. Fear sells almost anything, sadly. The medical industry today exploits fears to over-medicate, over-vaccinate, over-operate, over-test and makes a fortune in the doing.

    Both the medical industry and society in general have forgotten that the greatest protection comes from a healthy, well-nourished, well-rested body. But there are no profits in those things.

    Then again, humans have always lived in fear and perhaps we are so hardwired we will find something to fear if nothing exists.

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