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What is there to worry about in the 21st century?

May 13, 2009 |  1:38 pm

Panicology---Jacket-ArtThink about it. What is there to be afraid of in the 21st century? Everything? [Scaredy cat]. Nothing? [Fatalist]. There must be some happy medium, right?

Simon Briscoe and Hugh Aldersey-Williams take on the media, scare tactics and worldwide causes for panacea in their new book "Panicology: Two Statisticians Explain What’s Worth Worrying About (And What’s Not) in the 21st Century" (Skyhorse Publishing).

They take a hard look at the numbers, and basically measure what is worth our emotional fear and what just isn’t. Bird flu? Swine flu? Nuclear warfare? American obesity? Who is the biggest, baddest wolf of them all in a modern world filled with constant stories of terror, disease, natural disaster and general social mayhem?

In short, they say, bird flu, flying and terrorism might not be worth so much of your time. However, driving an automobile and global climate changes are probably worthy of your attention. The book also comes equipped with "A Skeptic's Toolkit" to help readers approach news with a greater sense of balance. The authors lay out buzz words to question and how to decipher surveys.

Briscoe, statistics editor for the Financial Times in the U.K., and Aldersey-Williams, science book author and writer, make a skeptical team. Together they break through the panic, laying out the hot topics and then putting them to task.

We chatted with the two writers in their U.K.-based offices about the book and what we’re all so afraid of:

LAT: You open your book with: “We live in a complex world and we don’t want to die.” Based on this premise alone, is that why media outlets are able to create panic throughout the public?
Briscoe: Yes. It’s just complex. It’s more complex than that. We also love these stories. You don’t have to wait very long before a book or a movie comes out. Towering inferno, killer bees, the perfect storm. The line between entertainment and serious news has been blurred. I think media outlets have veered toward entertainment to keep their figures.

We have to take personal responsibility. There has been something called the death of common sense. If every viewer made a little more demand as to whether this really is a threat. If we did that, we would spend a lot less time worrying about things that aren’t worth worrying about.

LAT: What is it about our collective psyche that makes us worry about topics like nuclear warfare and SARS? In general are we all a bunch of scaredy cats? Or just gullible?
Briscoe: There are certainly a lot of gullible people around. Nowadays you have to make many more decisions for yourself than there were a few generations ago. And if you are very gullible, you won’t be doing yourself any favors in the struggle to live a longer, happier life.

LAT: “Journalism is industrialized gossip” is also a quote from the introduction. Is this true? Do you think there are accurate stories out there?
Briscoe: I would like to think you and I work at organizations that are at the responsible end of this. My entire day job at the Financial Times is to make sure we are accurate.

But now there are lots of free newspapers. And we have 24-hour media, which requires people who are not experts to comment on events that they know very little about.

There’s also the Internet. Your organization and mine work much more with the Internet now. That doesn’t mean you have to lose your standards. But not every organization is as responsible as yours or the FT’s.

LAT: Why do we love to be scared?
Briscoe: I think it's pure entertainment. I mentioned "The Perfect Storm." It’s a fantastic film. But, for me, that is very obviously entertainment.  But there are people and organizations that will take that and try to use it to cause fear.

Aldersey-Williams: It’s titillation really. It’s a thrill. It’s something to talk about. It’s how we learn to deal with things. We deal with things in our head in case we need to deal with them in fact.

LAT: What should we actually be afraid of? Driving a car?
Briscoe: You’re absolutely right. I wish newspapers could have a little dial showing the number of people dying from car accidents versus people dying from swine flu. The problem with traffic accidents is that people think they are in control. If it was only drivers of cars dying, I wouldn’t worry so much. I would guess, though, that in the U.K. three-fourths of the people dying are passengers.

Aldersey-Williams: We should worry less. Worry can have no practical effect on actual fear. It is silly to worry about the ones you can’t do anything about.

LAT: Anything else beside car accidents that people should fear?
Briscoe: Debt and the housing market were highly rated. I have no doubt though that the panic has made things worse.

LAT: How can people read the news without panicking?
I think it’s quite difficult. We give people a few tips at the end of the book. It’s very difficult. I think with swine flu, I think World Health authorities were far too fast to move this to a level 5 crisis.

Aldersey-Williams: Well, carefully. Skeptically. Selectively. The advice is not to always believe everything you read. There are tricks and ticks to look for. When people are presenting half the statistics. They give you a figure, but nothing to oppose it.

LAT: Let’s go topic by topic. So let’s talk about swine flu. This topic isn’t in the book, but is the latest worldwide panic. How afraid of it should we be?
Aldersey-Williams:Well, I think they should be more worried about it than bird flu. Unfortunately, it has come after bird flu and SARS, so there is sort of a cry-wolf feeling. Unlike bird flu, though, this is a human-to-human transmittable virus.

On one hand this gives us license to dismiss it as a regular flu. On the other hand, because it came across in this scary pandemic sort of way, it has possibly made us pay more attention to the regular flu as a real problem.

LAT: Obesity in America?
Aldersey-Williams: It’s a difficult one, like a lot of the scares we talked about — one scare runs into another. Some worries are often interconnected. I don’t know enough about how exactly America covers obesity, but it's gaining attention here. The remedies, as we know, are simple. Eat less, exercise more.

LAT: The “marriage squeeze.” The idea that there are not enough available partners out there?
I don’t know that’s still being written about. It sort of worked itself out. People are getting married later.

A few years ago it was certainly exaggerated like crazy in the papers and in sitcoms and soap operas on the telly.

LAT: Bird flu?
Aldersey-Williams: I suppose scientists would say bird flu is still out there. It still has potential to become a human transmittable virus.

LAT: The credit crunch and the housing crisis?
Aldersey-Williams: If you’ve lost your job, it’s obviously affected you badly. Some people have done reasonably well out of it though. Mortgage rates have dropped.

With all these things there is a sense of proportionality about it. When something happens you realize you can deal with it, and get through it, and go on. There are winners and losers.

LAT: Worldwide terror? We certainly haven’t let go of that issue since 2001.
Aldersey-Williams: Certainly in this country and in the U.S., as well. It suits governments because they can keep people acquiescent. They’ll issue a statement: “There’s a high state of alert. Stay vigilant.”
That’s actually useless information you can do nothing with. They don’t tell you what to stay vigilant for. So what it does is puts people in a state of flap.

-- Lori Kozlowski

Photo credit: Skyhorse Publishing