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The Irony of Fear


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The Irony of Fear
Topic: Science 3:29 pm EST, Feb  3, 2007

Marc Siegel is a doctor, so he talks about disease, but the logic is universal.

America has its killer bugs, but Americans don't, as a rule, express great concern about them: Pneumonia, which killed 63,000 Americans in 2000, draws little public comment. Until 2003, when the flu deaths of 20 U.S. children early in the season were widely publicized, Americans didn't worry much about influenza either, despite the tens of thousands of deaths attributed to that disease each year.

In comparison, relatively minor threats are widely feared.

We live temperature-controlled, largely disease-controlled lives.

And yet, we worry more than ever before. The natural dangers are no longer there, but the response mechanisms are turned on much of the time. We implode, turning our adaptive fear mechanism into a maladaptive panicked response.

One wonders if Turner will be sued for the medical expenses of Boston-area residents who suffered traumatic stress at the hands of the Mooninites.

At a time in history when true scourges are quite rare, the population is controlled by fear. Rather than enjoy the safety that our technological advances have provided us, we feel uncertain.

Worry about the wrong things puts us at greater risk of the diseases that should be concerning us in the first place.

For more recent coverage specifically on the ATHF case:

In the statute, "hoax device" is defined as an object that someone could "reasonably" believe to be an "infernal machine" intended to cause death, injury, or property damage by "fire or explosion." Assistant Attorney General John Grossman argues that the devices resembled bombs, and that this constitutes intent. The men face up to five years in prison if convicted.

However, Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor at the NYU School of Medicine and author of "False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear," warns that the word "reasonably" may be close to meaningless in this context.

While the "hoax device" argument might not hold up in court, TBS is still open to a civil case ...

"We need to realize that emotion is running amok here. The risk of terrorism is not zero, so it makes sense that we have a system in place for reacting to perceived threats. However, this kind of event makes it necessary to assess if we over-react routinely," Siegel says, "and what it costs us psychologically and financially." For one thing, he adds, "you can put a lot more effort into identifying the risk before you shut down the city."

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino isn't deterred.

In 2005, Siegel's book on fear, False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear, was adapted for an article in Scientific American.

Bob Kerrey reviewed this book for Publishers Weekly, calling it "a terrific and groundbreaking book":

To put alarmist tendencies in perspective: over 58,000 soldiers died or were missing in action in Vietnam; on average over one million people are killed annually — and another 50 million injured — in traffic accidents around the world. In the United States, traffic accidents remain the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 35. Though it is little consolation to anyone understandably concerned about their loved ones in today's climate, it is nonetheless true that the likelihood of being involved in a terrorist incident is remarkably low. One is more likely to get killed crossing the street.

... His thorough research illuminates the biological, political, psychological and sociological facets of this important topic, and offers an alternative to the current landscape of perpetual high drama and pathological fear. I enthusiastically endorse his efforts, and urge readers to take his message to heart.

The Irony of Fear

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