The Washington Post Column

Finding Things To Fear

Is life today more dangerous than it used to be? It certainly seems that way. Between Alar in apples (remember that one?), acrylamide in crackers and trans fats in just about everything, our food has become inedible. What with the radiation emitted by our houses, the arsenic in the water and the toxic rays coming out of cell phones, it isn’t really safe to sleep, drink or talk, either.

Last week the entire Metro system in Washington, the capital of the free world, had to close down for a whole day because someone might be blown onto the tracks during a hurricane that began after dinner. This week children in Washington were not allowed to go to school for a whole day because streets were blocked by fallen trees and power lines, and because traffic lights at some intersections weren’t working. A previous generation might have walked around the fallen trees and looked both ways before crossing the street, but the children of this generation clearly live in a much more dangerous world than did its parents, and we need to protect them.

Or maybe a previous generation was simply better at calculating risks than this one is. Consider this: In 1996 British scientists claimed, on fairly flimsy evidence, to have established links between mad cow disease in cattle, the human consumption of hamburgers and a fatal brain disease called CJD in humans. “We could virtually lose a whole generation of people,” one scientist infamously intoned, predicting a CJD epidemic of “biblical proportions.”

In response, the British government slaughtered millions of innocent cattle. The costs were astronomical; the economy of the countryside was devastated; British agriculture has never recovered. Yet there were only 20 cases of CJD in Britain in 2000, 17 in 2002. So far, this year there are 12. At the same time, more than 1,000 people in Britain will die this year from falling down stairs. More lives would probably have been saved, in other words, if the British government had simply banned the construction of two-story houses.

It’s pretty easy to laugh at British hysteria, especially when it concerns something called mad cow disease. But are we any better? After Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of people in this country swore off airplanes and began driving cars, apparently believing that cars are safer. In fact, the number of deaths on U.S. highways in a typical year — more than 40,000 — is more than double the number of people who have died in all commercial airplane accidents in the past 40 years. To put it differently, the odds of being killed in a terrorist incident in 2002 were one in 9 million. In that same year, the odds of dying in a traffic accident were about one in 7,000. By taking the precaution of not flying, many people died.

There are, I concede, some clear psychological explanations for some of this. It is a fact, for example, that people fear man-made disasters (terrorism, pesticides) far more than they fear natural disasters (hurricanes, snowstorms), even when the latter are more dangerous. It is also a fact that people fear unfamiliar things, such as SARS, far more than they fear familiar things, such as pneumonia, even though the latter kills a lot more people than the former. Indeed, thousands refused to fly to Asia for fear of catching SARS, but people didn’t quit smoking in similarly large numbers, even though the chances of dying from smoking-related diseases were, and remain, a lot higher.

Although it is equally illogical, people are also more afraid of things they do not control, which is why driving a car does feel safer than flying in an airplane. When I am driving, I am behind the wheel. When I am in an airplane, someone else is driving, and for all I know he might be ill, or drunk, or incompetent, or flirting with the stewardess, or absent altogether.

Finally — although I have no proof — I’ll also hazard a guess that people are disproportionately frightened by things they read about in the newspaper. By contrast, they are disproportionately willing to discount the evidence of their own experience. If you look around your neighborhood, you’ll notice that the water is clean — which it wouldn’t necessarily have been 100 years ago — and that the food isn’t rotten or stale. Most children aren’t dying young. Most adults aren’t dying in middle age.

Life is far safer and lasts much longer for the average American than it ever has for just about anybody at any other time in human history — and maybe that explains the ludicrous precautions that city officials and federal bureaucrats and teachers and doctors and everyone else feels obligated to take nowadays to satisfy the public’s demands. Now that we’ve eliminated most of the things that the human race once feared, we’ve just invented new ones to replace them.