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Friday, October 8, 2010

8 Things we fear too much (and what we should fear instead)

Fear is unique in our emotions in that it is the only one that serves no purpose.  It is designed to overwhelm our sense of rationality and get us the Ford out of Dodge when danger might be near, but as soon as our rationality evolved to outpace our fear, it knew when danger was afoot and was in a perfect position to avoid it.  When faced with real danger the worst possible decision is to give into your prehistoric panic.  Any survival expert will tell you that in a life threatening situation, the longer you stay rational, the longer you live.

I'm not sure if this is a picture of
irrational or fear.

This fight or flight remnant that kept our ancestry around is now confused and misplaced and our expressions of it are exceedingly irrational.  The real world is fraught with dangers that didn’t exist even two generations ago and thus our genetic markers are struggling to keep up.  We fear things almost at random now.  We confuse poor hotel patrons who think that the fourteenth floor will be on the fourteenth floor.  We allow animals one-ninetieth our size to freak us out.  You want a few more examples?  How about…

 1) Flying 

Flying consistently ranks toward the top of people’s phobias and no safety record is going to sway us from this fear.  We all know the statistics about the drive to the airport being more dangerous than the flight, but that doesn’t seem to stop the palms from sweating as we walk down that causeway.  There’s just something about the notion of plummeting to the earth, hoarse from screaming as the cruel earth rises up to meet us that just gets at the mammalian core of the brain.

So great is our fear that the airline industry placates us with redundant and mostly useless safety procedures, demonstrated with a forced smile and occasionally an $8 ounce of liquor.  Even the safety procedures at the airport, which delay commuters for hours and limit us to single use supplies of shampoo and shaving-cream are largely inefficient theatrics.

I don't care what that metal detector says,
this old bastard is up to something.

What we should fear instead…


Forget about the drive to and from the airport for a second.  Every day you are in one of the most dangerous contraptions ever conceived and your traveling at up to 65 miles per hour within several feet of other similar contraptions traveling at similar speeds.  Airplanes are all by themselves most of the time and their pilots aren’t changing their pants while texting as they cruise the wild blue yonder.

"Damn fender benders..."

 2) Terrorists 

How can you not fear terrorists?  I mean, that’s the whole point.  They’re terrorists and if you weren’t afraid of them they wouldn’t be doing their jobs at all.  But at what point does a fear of terrorism become irrational?  Keep in mind that we don’t need to fear something in order to fight against it.  Fearing, in fact, often leads to panic and when we panic we do stupid things.  We exaggerate the scope of the danger we’re in.  We keep running long after the bee stopped chasing us.

So what are the odds of being killed by a terrorist?  Well, that will obviously depend on where in the world you live and in some places the fear is more justified than others.  Averages mean very little in this instance because single events can be unspeakably tragic.  Still, the lifetime chance of an American being killed by a terrorist are still far lower than their chances of being killed by an avalanche or a volcanic eruption. 

What we should fear instead…

 Our Families 

You probably already expected there was something up with your cousin Stan, but he’s not the only one you need to fear.  Homicide rates rise and fall, of course, but in recent years there have been about 16,000 murders a year in the US and somewhere around 22% of those are committed by a family member.  If nothing else, this statistic should be good to get you out of a few family reunions.

Statistically speaking, at least one of them is a serial killer.

 3) Genetically Modified Foods 

This is one of those fears that almost seems rational until you put some serious thought into it.  How could it be good for scientists to go poking around and altering the genes of our food?  How could that not eventually lead to some kind of unforeseen zombie wheat?  If you Google “Dangers of Genetically Modified Foods” your paranoia will not be assuaged.  Dozens of websites will warn you about the lax FDA regulations, the few cases of gene-splicing leading to unexpected allergens, the difficulty of predicting what toxins might appear in genetically modified plants.

"Well then you shouldn't have
complained about the worms!"

What they fail to mention is that they also save lives.  And we’re not talking about some obscure disease that we were able to cure with some weird toxin that Dr. Frankenstein discovered one night in the devils Petri dish.  We’re talking about famine.  And we’re not talking about a few people, we’re talking about billions

The fear mongers love to talk in “mights”, “maybes” and “presumablys” (or is that presumablies?).  While there have been a few isolated instances of unintended and unforeseen illnesses arising from these foods and even a few indirect deaths, there has yet to be any serious health risk isolated.  And even if there was it would have to be weighed against the countless lives that have been saved and improved by the Herculean wheat we’ve managed to concoct.

What we should fear instead…

 Our Crappy Diets 
This is the 1st picture Google images
finds when you type "The American Diet"

Why devote your time to dangers that may or may not one day be discovered when there’s so much stuff that can kill us right now?  Bad diet is not only the leading cause of death in this country, in many ways it’s several of the leading causes of death in this country.  Fried cheese wrapped in bacon is bad no matter what.  You would have to do some seriously Dr. Moreau type stuff to make a radish as bad for you as a Twinkie.

 4) Halloween Candy 

Halloween is all about fear.  If you’re not scared on Halloween, you just aren’t doing it right.  Maybe that’s why we cling to the bizarre “candy inspection” ritual every year.  We cast out any candy that looks as though it might have been opened with or tampered with and God forbid the nice old lady down the street made candied apples for all the kids and painstakingly wrapped them in cellophane with a ribbon and a card.  Surely it would be filled with razor blades.
A killer at work

Never mind that stuff like this literally never happens.  There has yet to be a case in the US of a razor blade or rat poison or any other deadly trap put into a piece of Halloween candy and then given to a random child... once or twice with a family member (didn’t I say you couldn’t trust them?), but never just some random trick-or-treater.  If you have even the slightest suspicion that any of your neighbors are that evil, get your kids the hell out of that neighborhood immediately (as soon as you finish this blog and pass it on to all your facebook friends, of course).

What we should fear instead…


Not to harp on the “we eat crap” theme here, but we’re probably arming our children for failure when we reward them with chocolate-coated, marshmallow-infused, sugar-fortified wads of artificial coloring (which is also nowhere near as bad as it’s made out to be).  Sadly, the only way to combat this on Halloween is to trust the razor blade wielding geriatrics that give out homemade stuff.

 5) Home Invasion 

Fears usually begin rationally.  They have to be measured like psychological disorders.  Where is the line between clinically obsessed and just wanting to have clean hands?  As a nation, America is way on the clinically obsessed side when it comes to home invasion.  In reality it’s exceedingly unlikely and the crooks are usually trying to catch the place when you’re not home.   Now granted burglars don’t usually get the brightest minds in the applicant pool, but that only excuses so much fear.

It doesn’t help when we see this enacted graphically in TV commercials.  We’ve all seen the Rockwellian family moment where mom and the kids are baking cookies and suddenly the burglar appears at the door dressed all in black.  He snarls from behind his ski mask as he breaks through the patio door with a tire iron.  Luckily for the hapless family in the ad, the ADT security system springs to life and saves them, but you don’t have an ADT security system… do you?

What we should fear instead…

 The ADT Security System 

In real life, burglars don’t wear all black cat-burglar outfits and walk around carrying lug-wrenches.  It makes them look kind of suspicious to the neighbors.  They also don’t get scared off by ADT alarms.  Any crook worth his salt knows that the average response time on these things is somewhere in the 30-45 minute range.  He could steal your wall-to-wall carpeting in less time.

This sign is cheaper than ADT
and just as effective.

Of course, a cop does come eventually.  Remarkable when you consider that more than 97% of these things are false alarms.  Police officers are devoting more and more time to listening to drunken husbands trying to slur “I FORGOT THE CODE!” loud enough to be heard over the wailing siren.  Obviously this means that the police can spend less and less time doing important things like keeping an eye on those family members of yours.

 6) High School Football 

Football just looks barbaric.  People are running into each other, people get knocked down, people get crushed under piles of 350 pound linebackers while linemen secretly try to gouge out their eyes quickly, while the ref can’t see.  We largely overlook the gruesome nature of this gladiatorial sport on the professional level, but it’s different when you’re talking about kids, right?

Now, no right-minded person would tell you that football isn’t dangerous.  Any activity that requires a helmet is definitely dangerous.  But to keep it in perspective you have to compare the risks of football with the risk of other sports.  And if we define dangerous in terms of likelihood of injury and/or death (and I can’t imagine how else you would define it), high school football ranks well behind high school soccer or lacrosse.  Even sports we wouldn’t think to freak out about like gymnastics and horseback riding are more likely to hurt a teenager than football.

All I'm saying is some people were
dumb way before the concussions.

What we should fear instead…

High School Cheerleading

Of all athletic activities engaged in high school (that the teachers know about), cheerleading is the most dangerous.  And not just by a little bit.  Cheerleading accounts for nearly half of all athletic injuries in high school.  If you’re thinking that these are less serious than the football related injuries, let me assure you that they are not.  In terms of concussions, broken limbs and even deaths, cheerleading dwarfs every other sport.  It’s amazing that we don’t realize we should worry about the scantily clad girl being tossed in the air with nothing but the popular girls to break her fall more than the burly dude in pads and a helmet who is usually firmly planted on the gorund.

Kinda makes the football players look like a bunch of wussies, huh?

 7) Sharks 

I suppose an irrational fear of sharks is worth it if that’s the only way we could get to watch Jaws.  I think we can all agree that Jaws is awesome.  But being afraid of sharks is just silly.  First of all, you’re at the computer.  Secondly, the odds that you will ever encounter a shark that isn’t surrounded by an aquarium are so small that you’re almost as likely to be killed by Steven Spielberg.

Even if you encounter one, odds are about a million to one in favor of you not getting mauled, dismembered or killed.  The US is the world’s leading exporter of shark related fatalities, but in the whole of recorded American history there have only been 49 shark deaths out of slightly over 1000 total attacks.  That’s more than three centuries worth of statistics.  This means that your odds of being fatally wounded by a shark are more than 30 times less than your odds of being struck by lightening.

These little guys, however, can't be trusted.

What we should fear instead…


That’s right, pooches.  In the US, dogs are the leading cause of death when it comes to animal attacks.  In fact, the number of fatal dog attacks in this country in 2009 was greater than the number of nonfatal shark attacks worldwide.  Obviously we run into a lot more dogs than sharks so it’s an unfair comparison, but next time you see a cute puppy whimpering from behind a pet store window think of the 300,000 people a year that his cuddly kind sends to the emergency room every year.

 8) Vaccines 

Forgive me if I get a little preachy on this one.  Vaccines might be the most important discovery in the history of medicine, which would put them high on the running for the most important discovery of all time.  Numerous horrible diseases have been all but eradicated which means that billions of people have been spared painful, protracted deaths.  But then along came Jenny McCarthy.

Puzzled by the recent rise in autism diagnosis, her and a group of likeminded kooks got together and decided on the thinnest shreds of contrived evidence that vaccines were to blame.  Of course, there was no real mystery in the rise of autism diagnosis because it coincided with a broadening of the definition of autism.  In other words, doctors agreed to call a wider spectrum of disorders “autism” than they used to.

But the “Anti-Vaxers” as they call themselves could not be dissuaded by mere reason or undeniable scientific fact.  They demanded more and somehow got media attention to go along with it.  For some reason, thousands and thousands of people chose to ignore the advice of the overwhelming majority of the medical profession on the word of a washed up Playboy model.

Perhaps she wears a PhD cup...

What we should fear instead…

 Jenny McCarthy 

The coolest thing about vaccines is that even the unvaccinated benefit from them.  Diseases can’t survive if a high enough percentage of the population is immune to them.  They simply cannot spread because they won’t encounter enough vulnerable hosts.  This phenomenon is called herd immunity and because of the anti-vaccination movement, it is starting to disappear.  Diseases like measles and whooping cough are making a comeback all over the country.

And it’s not just the Jenny McCarthys of the world that are getting whooping cough.  That would just be poetic justice.  Many of the people that aren’t vaccinated are allergic and need that herd immunity to protect themselves.  A far greater number can’t take certain vaccines because they are too young. 

There is a body count associated with the fraudulent science that started this nonsense and the majority of the victims are babies.  That’s more than enough of an excuse to get preachy for a few paragraphs.

Aaron Davies

Help fight stupidity.  Pass the blog along to all your facebook friends.


  1. Excellent! Three stars! Two thumbs way, waaay up!
    These are all points I have been making to everyone I could buttonhole for many years. You're getting better and better with your blog. They have always been entertaining ( well, maybe with the exception of the calendar blog) but they are becoming increasingly informantive as well.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Awesome blog post, just a little correction; iirc Amanda Peet came out against the antivaxers, she defintely doesn't agree with JMcC