Dan Gardner's concerned about how we handle fear. In North America, of course, a single event, the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon generated a new level of fear in the population. So unexpected and abrupt was use of commercial aircraft in a terrorist assault that an avoidance of flying was the immediate and widespread reaction. Gardner, however, wants to consider the event and the reaction in a more rational perspective. He notes at the outset of the book that the chance of dying in auto incidents is far higher than that of flying. As the statistics proved - since nearly 1600 additional auto deaths - about half of those lost at the World Trade Centre - were added to the annual total in the following year. Gardner taps into psychology and the field of risk assessment in this fascinating study of how we deal with fear. We aren't doing a very good job of it.
For millions of years animals relied on quick responses for survival. Reaction to potential danger or a possible meal left no time, nor need, for reflecting. Act fast or expire. That kind of brain is now called the limbic system, or "lizard brain". Evolution granted humans a chance to build on that foundation to produce a "thinking" part of the brain. The limbic system is still in place, however, and issuing commands we are rarely aware of. Psychologists, says Gardner, call these System One and System Two. The author, in the best journalist's style, calls these The Gut and The Head. The Gut reacts to crisis situations quickly and effectively. The Head follows along later at a more deliberate pace - if it gets any voice at all.
Gardner is eager to have us understand how these Systems work. He contends that we are carrying a reaction system founded on our ancestors' time on the African savannah. Our brains haven't adapted to the fast-paced, high technology world around us. We are reacting almost entirely with The Gut, and we are making serious mistakes as a result. Are we truly under threat from the things we claim to fear? He cites numerous cases, from the fear of "man-made" chemicals through the spectre of cancer to the possibility of our children being assaulted by strangers. Each of the topics is introduced with our given views - usually captured by polls, then carefully assessed by examining the real odds. In every case, the important things to consider almost certainly haven't been. The breast cancer campaigns have uniformly overlooked the role of age in determining the likelihood of its occurrence.
The calculations leave little doubt that we are far too often looking at threats with little consideration of their true nature. Why are we reacting so readily with The Gut instead of with The Head? In no small part, Gardner argues, media, politicians and industry play a significant part. Media, anxious to sell its products, emphasizes the violent, the extreme and the bizarre. The result, of course, is that's what captures our attention. The bombardment of such stories, often unthinkingly repeated by politicians, is a reinforcement of The Gut's reaction to this kind of information. Never seeing a rational analysis of such news, we lose any sense of proportion about what is truly important. We rarely find the opportunity to consider an issue rationally before the next one is upon us.
Gardner is not simply playing a new form of "scare" journalism. Various scholars have researched each of the topics. Their tests are well described and the analyses are carefully explained. These examples provide the book with a sound foundation, making this book something to consider carefully. As a conclusion, the author reminds us that we haven't taken into account the benefits our time enjoys when compared to even the recent past. Childhood diseases, such as diphtheria, have been removed as a threat to our families and society. We should remember that and remind ourselves to use The Head when events are trying to drive The Gut to dominate our thinking. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]