Thursday, March 19, 2020

Risk Assessment and Fear

So schools, bars, restaurants, theaters, concert venues, casinos, etc. in Maryland have been ordered to close, and gatherings of more than fifty people are forbidden. Both of the cons I was scheduled to attend this spring have been canceled, sadly but inevitably. While of course we'll obey the official edicts and exercise prudence in daily life, I can't help thinking some reactions are overkill. The panic-buying, for instance, aspects of which baffle me. Bottled water stripped from store shelves, when there's no threat to the drinking water supply? We have electricity, running water, heat, and cable and aren't at risk of losing them. Major retailers reassure us that there's no long-term shortage, only a distribution problem that will clear up rapidly if people stop panic-buying. If everybody would just buy what they require for a week or two at a time, the stores could keep up, and we'd all be able to get what we need.

It's a familiar truism of human psychology that we overestimate rare dangers and underestimate common ones. The extraordinary threats draw attention BECAUSE they're rare. Here are two short pieces on that tendency:

Jared Diamond on Common Risks

Drawing the Wrong Lessons from Horrific Events

As is often pointed out, we're far more likely to get into a car accident driving to the airport than to die in a plane crash. We're more at risk of injury or death in traffic on the way to the big-box store than of exposure to the coronavirus (in this region, at least). The population of Maryland is about six million. Our county has a population of 573,000. As of Monday, there are 37 confirmed cases in Maryland, only two in this county. Since members of our family haven't traveled abroad lately or come into contact with anyone who has, our individual risk of crossing paths with the virus is near zero. Yet the daily deluge of breaking news still makes me anxious (mainly, on a personal level, about being unable to restock the items we need for daily living), and to stop brooding over it takes real effort.

Psychologist Steven Pinker has a section on phobias in his HOW THE MIND WORKS. He notes that almost all phobias (irrationally exaggerated fears) fall into a few categories, derived from things that threatened our prehistoric ancestors. Hence our common fears of spiders and snakes, even though most species encountered in urban areas of North America are harmless to humans. "Fears in modern city-dwellers protect us from dangers that no longer exist, and fail to protect us from dangers in the world around us." Instead of spiders and snakes, we should be afraid of "guns, driving fast, driving without a seatbelt, lighter fluid, and hair dryers near bathtubs." While we may exercise sensible caution about such things, most of us aren't terrified of them (although driving-phobic people do exist, and transportation assistance is available for those who can't force themselves to drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland). For every freeway-phobic person, large numbers suffer from fear of flying, despite the greater safety of the latter mode of travel.

In C. S. Lewis's THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, senior devil Screwtape reminds his nephew Wormwood that "precautions have a tendency to increase fear." When standard precautions become routine, however, "this effect disappears." (Think how blase we've become about airport security lines. I remember when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and non-flying companions could accompany departing travelers right up to the gate.) Screwtape advises Wormwood to keep the "patient" obsessing over all sorts of extra things he can do "which seem to make him a little safer" and can be developed into "a series of imaginary life-lines" in response to imagined potential developments. (Accumulating a hoard of bottled water even though there's no threat to the public supply?) Earlier in the book, Screwtape points out that "real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible."

One of my favorite Lewis quotes comes from an essay he wrote in answer to the question, "How are we to live under the threat of the atomic bomb?" It's a longish passage, but I think it's worth reproducing here:

"In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. 'How are we to live in an atomic age?' I am tempted to reply: 'Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.' . . . .

"In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things - praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts - not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds."

As a last resort, we could reread Daniel Defoe's A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR, Stephen King's THE STAND, or Connie Willis's DOOMSDAY BOOK and remind ourselves our current plight isn't nearly so bad as that, nor is it likely to become so.

In case you have time to watch a video of about six minutes, here's a calming message from a layman of our church—with a Maine Coon. Cats make everything better:

Jeff Conover

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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