The Culture of Fear and an Abundance of Caution
This is not really a higher ed post. Here in Florida the stories are common. Swimmer goes to the beach and instead of getting some sun and sand, the person gets bit by a shark. Here in Florida, it is almost always a blacktip shark, and the injury is limited to a few bites on the lower leg. Certainly, alarming but almost never fatal or even more than a few stitches and a great story. Yet, when surveyed one in four Americans say that a fear of a shark attack has kept them from going into the water. And Florida is the capital of Shark attacks. Each year Florida accounts for 30% of all global shark attacks and nearly 60% of such attacks in the U.S. And it makes sense. We are famous for our beaches. Each year nearly 70 million people flock to one of our beaches and every Floridian lives within 75 miles of a beach. It is the best! But the news stories and the fear result in about three beach closures a year from a shark attack. You know, out of an abundance of caution.
If you really want to find something to catch your attention, then you should be on the lookout for stinging jellyfish. Each year over 200,000 jellyfish stings are treated on Florida beachgoers. It is by far the biggest risk when you go. This is followed, by getting caught in a rip current. But rarely do you hear folks worried about a jellyfish or rip currents. By the way, I have been stung by a jellyfish and caught in a rip current in my life, but I have only seen a shark once, ever at the beach while swimming. The jellyfish sting is not a joke, it hurt, and the rip current is a scary moment. But here I am, blogging to you fine people.
In 1999 Sociologist Barry Glassner wrote a book that I return to over and over called The Culture of Fear. This book took at a look at statistical probabilities and how fear plays a part in fearing the wrong things. He pinned this on several factors but what he really posited was that the Culture of Fear is usually perpetuated by two things, the first is Americans are bad at math and understanding probabilities, and second, the media does not help at all. Since there is no value unless it is sensational, we often look for stories that confirm or perpetuate fear because they are far more interesting. For example, when I was a kid the kidnapping of Adam Walsh from Hollywood, Florida was a sensation. Afterall it was scary. Kid is snatched and later found dead. The case prompted his father John Walsh to start an abduction network and then eventually famous as the host of America’s Most Wanted. Almost all our parents outfitted us with whistles, would not allow us to go to the mall unsupervised, and generally freaked out. But the numbers tell another story. The odds of being kidnapped in your lifetime are about 1 in 300,000 and over 75% of kidnappings are perpetrated by someone you already know like a family member or love interest. However, the odds of dying in an automobile accident in your lifetime. 1 in 608.
Recently I have been at odds with odds when it comes to COVID-19. Nothing has turned on the Culture of Fear light like COVID. And I must admit, I was scared as hell for some time. Think about it, a death fog was floating in the air just waiting to suffocate you. It is terrifying. But then you start to understand this virus and the odds, and you realize what we have done is create a Culture of Fear in all directions. In addition, we take the spotlight off who really needs to be protected, the elderly. The odds a person under the age of 50 will die if infected with COVID-19 is about 1 in 2,000 or about .0005%. As a person under the age of 50 I am 27 times more likely to die from practically anything else than from COVID. On the other hand, if I am over the age of 75 then my chances of dying from COVID if infected was about 1 in 10. This is a massive swing of risk. And while we did prioritize older folks in this fight what we failed to do is showcase the relative low risk for those under 50 and stress mitigation over abstinence. If you watched the news, you figured COVID was a death sentence. This prompted a group who advocated for Zero COVID and this kept schools shut down and many other efforts that have low probabilities for transmission. The fear was getting it, but we rarely understood what that meant.
Now, the pendulum has swung. The Culture of Fear is on the side of those wary of the new COVID vaccines that are available. About 30% of Americans say they are almost certain or certain they are not going to get the vaccine. Many cite a fear of the side effects, a fear that its some sort of government conspiracy, or that they are young and healthy so no need. And they are citing news reports that blood clots from two major vaccine producers as proof this is dangerous. But here we are, looking at math again. So far about 7 out of 7.6 million vaccinations had resulted in the blood clots feared. Of these 7, 1 has died. So, as of this blog post, the odds of dying from the vaccine in the US is about 1 in 7.6 million. And for the age group this problem is showing up in, well they are in the under 50 crowd and thus have a 1 in 2,000 chance of dying from COVID. Look at the odds.
And I am one of those progressives who really blame media for the concern. The headlines are vague, the reporting spotty, and the news sensational. It sells clicks but fuels fear. Early it was playing off the fear of those who did not want to get the virus for fear of dying when they really should not get the virus for fear of giving it to grandma. Now it is percolating a fear of a vaccine that is our best chance to get back to normal. If you are given two paths, one results in death once in 7.6 million and the other is once in 2,000 I know which path you will take. Sure, neither is perilous. But what if I told you the path that leads to one in 7.6 million is also the same path that helps keep grandma at the dinner table next Thanksgiving? And that is the point. When we fear the wrong things, we forget to fear the right things and then take action to stop that thing from happening. Boy, I have never been a fan of mandatory stats for all Americans. Its time we learned to stop the Culture of Fear.