One of the most common responses I have had to my Ideacity talk last week is a question along the lines of: ‘Given the evidence that the world is less dangerous nowadays than in the past, why do so many people believe the opposite?’ It is a difficult question to answer, but below are three factors which I believe help to explain this phenomenon.
- Human psychology. Human beings do not reason like computers. Most of the time, they don’t collect all the evidence, compare it to various hypotheses, and then calculate which hypothesis best fits the facts. Rather they take short cuts (heuristics), such as reasoning by analogy, and they reason emotionally. Take just one example, the so-called ‘availability heuristic’. Humans will tend to put more emphasis on events which are easily retrieved from memory and will consider that such events are more likely to recur than events which are less easily available. Terrorist attacks are vivid and readily retrieved from memory. We tend, therefore, to consider them far more common than they actually are. Car crashes, by contrast, are fairly routine and not generally well reported, and so we underestimate their danger. We end up fearing terrorism more than car crashes, despite the fact that we are many, many times more likely to die from the latter than the former.
- Interests. The tendency to exaggerate dangers is compounded by the fact that powerful groups within society have an interest in generating fear among the general population. Fear justifies those groups’ budgets and allows them to expand their power. One has to be a little careful here, so as to avoid becoming a conspiracy theorist. The ‘Military Industrial Complex’ (the MIC), for instance, doesn’t exist in a concrete form: politicians, generals, spies, military industrialists, and think tankers, aren’t all sitting down in a secret conference room to work out how best to terrorize their fellow citizens and extort the maximum amount of resources from them. If the MIC were that organized, it would be much easier to counter. It is far more amorphous. But it is no less real for that. The benefits which the MIC derives from fearmongering are large and concentrated. By contrast, the costs are diffused, and thus the countervailing pressure is weak.
- The Media. As everybody knows, bad news sells. Stories of war, terrorism, and so on, are interesting in a way that stories about nothing very much happening are not. The media paints a distorted view of the world. There are other reasons why this is the case. Changes in the structure of the media mean that there are fewer and fewer professional journalists, while news agencies lack the resources to conduct in-depth research. Making matters worse, in the internet age, the need to produce news rapidly has led to less and less fact checking. Once a narrative has been established, media agencies flock to it and repeat it for fear of being left behind. Governments and other organizations can find it relatively simple to manipulate press coverage – as seen, for instance, by the ease with which the American government was able to get the press to spread uncritical stories about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
What can we do to counter this, people ask me. Sadly, I don’t know the answer. The factors above are very difficult to counteract precisely because they are so undeliberate. All one can do is keep telling the truth and hope that eventually people’s view of the world will catch up with reality.