“The only thing to fear…” is actually how poorly we evaluate risks

Evolution can be a fickle thing. Evolutionary processes that maximized our fitness did so for an environment drastically different than the one we live in. In some ways this doesn’t matter, in some ways it is good, and in a lot of ways it is bad (e.g., we crave sugar, fats, and salt because our bodies need a lot of these, but they exist in an over-abundance now while tens of thousands of years ago they were scare; we crave bad food for good reasons, but that doesn’t reduce obesity, heart attacks, etc.).

Like all organisms we react to threats, and like some animals we do so through fear responses. Here again, evolution screwed us. We are most likely to fear things that are least likely to harm us, and least likely to fear things that are most likely to harm us. Two mechanisms are at play here. The first is simply that we evolved a fear response to an environment that was much more dangerous. The second is habituation. When we are familiar with things, like driving cars, walking up and down stairs, climbing ladders, etc., we tend regard them as minimal risks. When it comes to catastrophic events (which are rare, or at least relatively rare) or unfamiliar potential risks, we lack this habituation/familiarity and the first mechanism kicks in, over-estimating the actual risk and responding with unwarranted fear (sometimes with drastic results, such as the DDT ban or how much time, media coverage, government response, money, etc., we’ve devoted recently to the irrational and groundless fear over an outbreak of Ebola in the US instead of trying to help curb the spread at the origin where there already is an outbreak and lots of people have died).

Fear and risk are interesting topics in part because they are the subject of research in multiple fields. Evolutionary psychologists study fear to understand the cognitive mechanisms by which we evaluate threats, only they do so largely through untestable speculation, while cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists do pretty much the same kind of experiments the just do so without making up “just-so” stories to explain how the mechanisms might have evolved. Economists study risk in an entirely different way, but they also study fear (or risk in terms of fear) and here again we find a lot of the same kind of research, just different concerns (such as how people are likely to react to reports of impending catastrophe in ways that impact the economy, or how Malthusian thinking dictates economic decisions on a macrolevel. Other social scientists study fear and risk in terms of things like law (e.g., Phantom Risk: Scientific Inference and the Law), groupthink, self-organized criticality, escalation and catastrophe theory, responses to media, fear of crime, fear of terrorism, etc. Then there is the medical literature which covers health scares and cost/risk/benefit analyses. Nor are these always separate. For example, the study “Mad cows, terrorism and junk food: Should public policy reflect perceived or objective risks” was published in the Journal of Health Economics, an interdisciplinary journal for interdisciplinary study (much like “Risk, fear, bird flu and terrorists: A study of risk perceptions and economics”, published in Journal of Socio-Economics). If you read the paper The Topology of Fear (Journal of Mathematical Economics) but didn’t know the name of the study or the journal, the only thing that would indicate you weren’t reading some study from social neuroscience, cognitive psychology, or a similar field would be the mathematical models.

In the end it comes down to this: we’re irrational but we think we aren’t, we react like idiots, and I sometimes think its a miracle we’re still around.- until I remember that evolution has kindly provided me with a cognitive bias towards thinking in terms of disasters like the extinction of the human race due to stupidity.

Nor are scientists immune. In a journal (Futures) I’ve never read apart from a special issue Human Extinction, the articles are devoted to the ways in which we the human race is most likely to perish. While all the scenarios involve fancy mathematics and lots of citations and all the trappings of good scientific research, you’d have better luck predicting stock market changes by flipping a coin.

This research is much in line with Malthus’ thinking and the work of Paul Ehrlich, who for some reason people continued to listen to even though is most infamous work, The Population Bomb (1968), claimed “the battle to feed humanity is already lost, in the sense that we will not be able to prevent large-scale famines in the next decade or so”. Unless I know a lot less about modern history than I think, these large-scale famines he predicted would happen around ~1980 never occurred. However, just to make sure, we have
Lam, D. (2011). How the world survived the population bomb: Lessons from 50 years of extraordinary demographic history. Demography, 48(4), 1231-1262.

Despite his monumental errors in his continual doomsday publications, he became something of a celebrity while contrary research received little to no attention- and still doesn’t:
“Available data and the economic logic show that the Malthusian fear of overpopulation and resource depletion is irrational. The improving of living conditions has accelerated even in countries like China and India, countries with a significant population growth. The advance of human knowledge, research and technology represents the main source of mankind prosperity. Thus, the population growth and the improving of standard living can go hand in hand.”
Mursa, G. C. (2012). Scarcity and Population. A Non-Malthusian Point of View. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 62, 1115-1119.

Of course, there are things we do need to worry about, like climate change. However, a majority of proponents (especially among the public) for taking action are also against one of the best solutions: nuclear power. Why? Biased fear response:
“Why are people so concerned about the risks of nuclear power, when many experts tend to believe that the risks are quite low – lower, in fact, than the risks from competing energy sources, such as coal-fired power plants, which produce relatively little public objection?”
Sunstein, C. R. (2005). Laws of fear: Beyond the precautionary principle (Seeley Lectures Vol. 6). Cambridge University Press.

“Although there is no solid proof regarding the causal relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, neither is there any evidence to reject the inference. By contrast, the extent to which the present renewable technology alone is not mature enough to sustain our economic activities and energy demands is extremely high. Therefore, it is not adequate to discuss the fate of nuclear power by isolating it from the other critical issues such as global warming, climate change, and energy security.
Due to the nuclear fear, nuclear power by itself may never be able to earn enough legitimacy and become a socially acceptable energy source. Yet, it is the only available and affordable energy source that can buy us more time for inventing and exploring better substitutes to replace our current means of electricity generation.”
Han, C. C. (2014). Demarketing fear: Bring the nuclear issue back to rational discourse. Energy Policy, 64, 183-192.

“The Three-Mile Island accident had significant adverse effects on nuclear power in the United States for a long period, even though a blue ribbon panel concluded that the expected number of lives lost was less than 1”
Sunstein, C. R., & Zeckhauser, R. (2011). Overreaction to fearsome risks. Environmental and Resource Economics, 48(3), 435-449.

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