Monday, November 10, 2014

What Are You Afraid Of?

A couple of weeks ago USA Today ran a summary of the results of a Chapman University survey asking people what they were afraid of on a personal level.  The top 5 were:  walking alone at night, becoming the victim of identity theft, safety on the Internet, being the victim of a mass/random shooting and public speaking.  They went on to point out that “crime was rated at the high levels of fear, despite the fact that violent crime has been on the decline in the past 20 years.”  When it comes to fear we are often not rational.

Take Ebola as an example.  This article from one day later tells of the Ebola panic spreading across the nation.  This based on just four cases and one death, but driven by the “increased media spotlight."  The scientific term for this is Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon referring to “how once we learn about something new, we start thinking that we see or hear it everywhere.”  People are more fearful of Ebola than they are of the more common diseases like the annual flu that kills about 30,000 Americans per year and leads to untold amounts of economic loss as adults miss work and children miss school. 

Meanwhile they shun the flu vaccine for reasons based on rumors and personal beliefs rather than on any real science.  Many just refuse to be vaccinated:  “Flu vaccine coverage in the 18- to 64-year-old group in November 2013 was estimated at about 34%, compared with about 41% in children and 62% in those 65 and older.”  In 2013 it was found to be 61% effective and this year’s estimate is 70% to 90%.  A shot that people skip for various reasons, many unfounded, can keep most of us healthy.

But the media attention (along with Twitter and Facebook) focuses on Ebola (just as it did on ISIS in September, unaccompanied minors from Central America in July, and Russia invading the Crimea before that – remember the Crimea?).  When are we going to stop trusting the media, and rightly expect them to over-hype each crisis as it comes along?  They’ve got news to sell; balanced information is just a rare byproduct.  When are we going to stop making medical decisions based on undocumented evidence and opinions on social media?  They have no more expertise than we do, often just a friend or relative who tried a weird cure and got better – sometimes it just happens, but it’s not science and it may not even be safe.

We must start thinking for ourselves, doing the research and being skeptical.  I couldn’t look for a better endorsement of this than one from John McWhorter, Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University, as he writes about what languages do and don’t tell us about the people who use them.  “(Skepticism) is certainly a keystone to sophisticated thought.  It would not be inappropriate to even state, for general purposes, that skepticism – that is applying one’s mind to taking the measure of things before coming to judgment – is the heart of intelligence.”  (Source: The Language Hoax, p. 41.)

If we do the homework we will find not only what we should be scared of and what are figments of our own or other people’s imaginations, but also what we should be doing to avoid the real dangers.  The CDC lists below the top five causes of death in the US and what behaviors will help us reduce the risk of each.

"Modifiable risk factors are largely responsible for each of the leading causes of death:
  • ·      Heart disease risks include tobacco use, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, poor diet, overweight, and lack of physical activity.
  • ·      Cancer risks include tobacco use, poor diet, lack of physical activity, overweight, sun exposure, certain hormones, alcohol, some viruses and bacteria, ionizing radiation, and certain chemicals and other substances.
  • ·      Chronic respiratory disease risks include tobacco smoke, second-hand smoke exposure, other indoor air pollutants, outdoor air pollutants, allergens, and exposure to occupational agents.
  • ·      Stroke risks include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, overweight, previous stroke, tobacco use, alcohol use, and lack of physical activity.
  • ·      Unintentional injury risks include lack of seatbelt use, lack of motorcycle helmet use, unsafe consumer products, drug and alcohol use (including prescription drug misuse), exposure to occupational hazards, and unsafe home and community environments."
Fear is a powerful emotion.  It can affect our health and overall wellbeing.  It can lead to foolish decisions.  As technology and communication get more sophisticated, they can either work for us or against us.  Not trusting everything you read is much safer than marching in step to the drumbeat of the news or social media.  What a waste it is to be afraid of the wrong things because we fail to do the research and to think for ourselves.

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