Be Afraid! Be VERY Afraid!!! How Can You Help It These Days?
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
Good LORD the world suddenly seems a threatening unsettling mess, doesn’t it? Wars and plane crashes and disease and environmental catastrophe looming, all at once! It reminds me of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention sang in “Trouble Comin’ Everyday”;
“You mean to say that every day is just another rotten mess, and when it’s gonna change my friend is anybody’s guess?”
But here are two questions, and I will ask you to join with your fellow readers and answer them in a fun little quiz below, which will let you see how you compare to how others who participate in the quiz are feeling.
2. Do YOU feel any more at risk, personally?
This is a great teaching moment about how we perceive risk, and about a dangerous phenomenon at work right now that is probably fueling fear in some of us. It’s called the Availability Heuristic, one of many psychological components that shape our perception of risk, and it works like this; The more ‘available’ to our conscious awareness a risk is, the more emotional weight it carries. Zappa sang about it decades before cognitive science research identified it;
“Well I’m about to get upset, watching my TV, checking out the news until my eyeballs fail to see.”
The news seems like non-stop mayhem and danger…even more than normal…and in these circumstances the Availability Heuristic causes fears disproportionate to the actual danger.
The problem is, disproportionate fear leads to risk all by itself. Studies of traveling after the 9/11 airplane attacks found that flying went down, driving went up, and so did road deaths for the 6 months following the attacks. Depending on which study you want to believe, motor vehicle fatalities rose in the immediate months following 9/11 by either 350, 1,100, or 1,800. Fear, fed by high ‘availability’, killed.
Now it’s not as though there is nothing real to worry about. Before we get to the quiz, then, let’s lay out the litany of bad news and danger. The following are just the headline makers;
-- Wars or insurgencies in Syria (a quarter of a million dead, 2.5 million refugees who fled), the Gaza strip of Palestine being brutalized by Israel in response to terrorist rockets from Palestinian terrorists, Iraq (where incredibly brutal anti-western Islamic radicals have declared a new Caliphate, or state of Islam), the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan (Islamic extremist insurgency connected to war in neighboring Afghanistan, Ukraine (where rebels probably armed by Russia just murdered 298 civilians by shooting down a civilian passenger plane), and Nigeria (where 200 young girls were recently kidnapped by fanatic Islamic extremists.) And those are just the bigger ones.
-- Scary anti-west militancy in KGB-trained Vladimir Putin’s Russia that probably contributed to a civilian airliner being shot down over Ukraine.
-- Militant nationalism in China and Japan, unsettling all of Asia, in a dispute over the Senkaku Islands, uninhabited bits of rock that Japan claims that may have underwater oil nearby.
-- Chikigunya, a debilitatingly painful, untreatable mosquito-born disease that raced through the Caribbean, has shown up in the U.S. (Florida) and is spreading. Public health experts are sincerely worried.
-- Middle East Respiratory syndrome (MERS), a new flu strain that first arose in Saudi Arabia, has shown up in the U.S.
-- A city in northwest China is closed off from the outer world and 15 people are in quarantine after a man died of bubonic plague (you remember…the Black Death)
-- Ebola is spreading in western Africa, in cities for the first time. 632 are dead. The Sierra Leone doctor heading the fight to contain the epidemic, abnd an American doctor colleague just came down with incurable disease, which has a fatality rate in this outbreak of 60%.
-- Measles and whooping cough, vaccinable diseases, are re-emerging in pockets across the U.S. and other nations in part because a rising number of people in those areas are afraid of vaccines and are refusing to vaccinate their children (chart).
-- The ability of antibiotics continues to decline against bacteria that can mutate drug resistance faster than we can design new drugs. Serious health officials are starting to imagine a ‘post-antibiotics future' in which ‘normal’ infections will once again kill and many standard forms of medicine, like elective surgery, will no longer be possible.
-- The Director of the CDC bioterrorism lab just resigned after his lab mishandled a deadly sample of anthrax, exposing several lab workers. That followed CDC screw ups with a deadly strain of avian influenza and the accidental discovery of misplaced samples of smallpox stranded in the back of a lab frig.
(The disease category brings to mind the hysterical classic 1968 Monty Python/Firesign theater humor skit “BEAT THE REAPER!” in which a contestant has ten seconds to identify the increasingly worse diseases to which he’s exposed. Our suffering contestant makes it all the way to THE BIG DISEASE. Spoiler alert. It’s the plague. He dies.)
-- Climate change is no longer something we don’t have to worry about until later. The U.S. National Climate Assessment, and lots of real-world evidence, says it’s here now.
-- Water shortages are getting worse around the world.
-- Colony collapse is killing off the honey bees that pollinate the crops we depend on. (Environmentalists blame neonicitinoid pesticides but most neutral experts say the worst cause is probably the Varoa mite) on.
-- White nose bats are dying off, just one of many species disappearing in the fastest and what is headed to be the most massive extinction of species in the history of life on Earth.
-- Suspicion grows, mostly based on wildlife evidence and lab animal tests, that a wide range of industrial and natural chemicals are interfering with our hormone systems (this is known as Endocrine Disruption) and damaging the impairing the healthy development of fetuses.
-- Warnings about GMOs, fracking, and the “toxic” chemical du jour, exceed what the evidence supports, but they sure make scary headlines.
- - -
Near-miss asteroids that fly between us and the moon. Shark attacks. Amoebas that eat eyeballs. (Don’t leave your contacts in for 6 months straight.) Killer squirrels (really…a species in Papua New Guinea has been discovered that jumps on small deer and bites open their jugular veins until they bleed to death, then eats them! The movie “Killer Squirrels” is already in production. Check out the trailer! Hysterical!)
It’s like Frank and the Mothers sang, it seems like
“There’s no way to delay that trouble comin’ every day.”
Which raises the question my book asks; How Risky Is It, Really? But in this case, the specific question is, how risky does all this feel, to you?
So please take this little quiz, to help generate an idea of how much, if at all, events these days are making you more worried.
Pick any number between 1 and 10, with 0 = not at all, 5 = some, and 10 = a lot.
Enter your replies in the comments below. I’ll run the numbers over the next several days and if enough people participate, I'll post something next week to let you all know what the average results were. They won’t exactly be scientific findings, but maybe we’ll all learn something.
(Please re-post this piece and share it with friends and followers. The more you share this quiz, the more participants we all get and the more we’ll all learn.)
Here's the science of black holes, from supermassive monsters to ones the size of ping-pong balls.
- There's more than one way to make a black hole, says NASA's Michelle Thaller. They're not always formed from dead stars. For example, there are teeny tiny black holes all around us, the result of high-energy cosmic rays slamming into our atmosphere with enough force to cram matter together so densely that no light can escape.
- CERN is trying to create artificial black holes right now, but don't worry, it's not dangerous. Scientists there are attempting to smash two particles together with such intensity that it creates a black hole that would live for just a millionth of a second.
- Thaller uses a brilliant analogy involving a rubber sheet, a marble, and an elephant to explain why different black holes have varying densities. Watch and learn!
- Bonus fact: If the Earth became a black hole, it would be crushed to the size of a ping-pong ball.
Protected animals are feared to be headed for the black market.
In a breakthrough for nuclear fusion research, scientists at China's Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) reactor have produced temperatures necessary for nuclear fusion on Earth.
- The EAST reactor was able to heat hydrogen to temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius.
- Nuclear fusion could someday provide the planet with a virtually limitless supply of clean energy.
- Still, scientists have many other obstacles to pass before fusion technology becomes a viable energy source.
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