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Why Has 2015 Felt Like a Year of Fear, if We're So Safe?
Living longer, but worrying more. Why?
It was a fearful time. Murderous foreign terrorists were attacking with increasing frequency, slaughtering anyone they could. Their targets couldn’t be predicted. Defense seemed impossible. No one, and nowhere, felt safe. It seemed like this could be the most frightening time people had ever faced.
It was the early 800s in Northern Europe. The terrorists were Scandinavian Vikings.
Fear was everywhere. International travelers had brought home a horrible exotic new disease against which no one was immune. Victims bled and vomited and went mad with high fevers. No treatment worked. Everyone felt vulnerable, like this was one of the scariest times in which people had ever lived.
It was 1348. The disease was the Plague.
Dramatic changes in the weather around the world were literally threatening survival; unprecedented droughts in some areas, floods and storms in others. Temperatures changed so much that in vast regions crops couldn't grow. Food shortages led to riots and anti-government revolts. Hundreds of thousands of migrants left their homes in search of somewhere they could survive. For millions around the world this certainly was the most frightening time humans had ever faced.
It was 1816, the Year With No Summer, after the eruption of volcanic Mount Tambora dramatically altered the entire global climate.
So here we are at the end of an unsettling year, and yet again many feel that these are among the most frightening times humans have ever faced. The threats seem to be piling up. One terrorist attack after another. Ebola. Droughts and floods and killer storms associated with climate change. Dozens of wars, and even the reawakened threat of nuclear holocaust. Desperate refugees fleeing violence and oppression, triggering waves of anti-immigrant xenophobia and hostility. And all of this on top of widespread general worries about the future as the economy leaves more and more people behind, and a sense that governments can’t protect public health and safety because they’ve grown so corrupt or unable to act because of political polarization.
It has, in many ways, felt like a Year of Fear. Despite how safe we actually are.
We are living longer than ever. Progress has lifted billions out of poverty and hunger. The overall rate at which humans are killing other humans is at an all-time low. But the rationalists who cite these statistical realities and poo poo our paranoia are too, well, rational. Fear that sometimes exceeds the actual threat is the unavoidable product of a cognitive system designed first and foremost to survive, not to be the smartest kid in class or the best at objectively figuring things out. Job One for your brain from the moment you wake up is to get you and your genes safely to bed. We are biologically hardwired to be on constant alert for any signal of potential threat, protected by a subconscious warning system that operates on instinct and emotion and mostly beyond the control of conscious reason.
What’s more, we are hardwired to overdo fear. The cognitive psychologists call this Loss Aversion — giving extra emotional weight to the prospect of loss; loss of money, of property, or health and safety. As a result of this basic precautionary instinct, we worry about lots of things more than the evidence says we need to. Yes, this can seem irrational, and yes, it can lead to choices and behaviors that are bad for us; the divisive racism of fearing all Muslims as terrorists, arming ourselves to the teeth whenever we’re afraid (at least in the United States), or just generally worrying so much that our health suffers in profound ways because of the biological effects of persistent stress.
But despite the dangers our emotion-based risk-perception system can cause, this seemingly irrational system persists because it works. Excessive worry may get us in trouble from time to time, but a default that favors precaution helps keep us alive. We tend to see the dark side in danger because that protects us.
So sure, the statistical likelihood of being a victim of terrorism or mass murder is infinitesimal, and Ebola can’t spread without physical contact, and yes, modern medicine and cleaner food and water and modern technology have given us longer lives and greater opportunities for a better quality-of-life than ever. But against those rational truths lies a system of risk perception based largely on affect and instinct that tends to see danger around every corner.
That’s why we so readily abandon our morality and turn into bigots when we are afraid. It’s why we fear Ebola more than the flu. It’s why some of us are more afraid of guns than cars, which kill four times as many people in the U.S. as are shot to death. It’s why politicians, and businesses, and the news media, have been and always will be able to succeed by appealing to fear.
And our precautionary risk-perception system explains why across history humans have so frequently felt like the times they’re living in are the most dangerous times humans have ever faced. We don’t consciously think about the bigger picture and how good things are overall. We are predisposed to pay more attention to what threatens us. And we don’t compare the present to the past. We only care about what threatens us, now.
We should fight to keep this in check, and reason can help. Careful objective thinking can also help us stay safe. It can even help us recognize the mistakes we sometimes make when we worry too much, or not enough, and minimize those mistakes
But there is only so much conscious control we can exert over our powerful instinctive survival system. Worry is just a part of who we are. Now go and have a safe new year. Odds are you will.
Image; GettyImages, Kinson C Photography
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.