“There Has Never Been a Better Time to be Alive” – Review of Dan Gardner’s “Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear”

According to Dan Gardner, bad news easily outsells good news. He should know, having worked within the newspaper industry for his entire career. Gardner has first hand experience of seeing the way papers are driven by a need to report shocking headlines. Popular writing excites the senses and there is no quicker way to make something a "thrilling read" than to use fear. That's great when it comes to writing fiction or even an exciting event in history, but when it comes to reporting events that seem to have direct and real effect on our lives this becomes an altogether more serious affair. However, the media are not alone. As a species the human brain is still best suited for times when we were being chased by sabre tooth tigers. We are hardwired to deal with the immediate dangers of pre-civilization not the hi-tech and high information world of today.

Dan Gardner feels that irrational fear has damaging consequences and the resulting panic after the 9/11 terrorist attacks are proof of this problem. After the attacks road traffic accidents and deaths skyrocketed. Gardner crunches the figures and reveals that even if the US suffered one air terrorist attack a week, you would still be far safer flying than driving by car. This subject is handled in the book's prologue and our disproportionate fear of terrorism is covered in the later chapter, "Terrified of Terrorism".

It is by using hard figures and common sense that Gardner provides a very optimistic view of living today. Why is the rise in death by cancer a good sign? Because the overwhelming main cause of cancer is old age. Thus we are living older. Why the rise in infant cancer? Because before then children were being killed by diseases that have either been eradicated or are no longer considered to be life threatening.

Another key area Gardner returns to is the way the brain assesses new information. This is the study of evolutionary psychology. Gardner explains how the modern brain evolved throughout the Palaeolithic era. Natural selection during the thousands of years our ancestors spent in Africa is perhaps responsible for many common phobias, such as a fear of snakes and spiders, as well as many other far more universal fears. Through pre-agricultural times – when we were purely hunter gatherers living off and trusting fast instincts – we first developed System One or "Gut". This is the part of our brain that is most closely referenced by people in my industry – self protection.

A work considered to be a virtual bible on the subject is Gavin de Becker's "The Gift of Fear". In this, his most famous work, de Becker makes a very convincing case for a theory of intuition. It's a book I regularly recommend when I am teaching straight self protection courses. However, science is a continuous ongoing process and I am always open to new research. I bought Gardner's book and also Ben Sherwoods' "Survivor's Club" on the recommendation of combatives expert W. Hock Hocheim. Hocheim cited them as more "in-depth" publications and also praised the amount of reference material mentioned.

The truth is de Becker's book is still a useful civilian self defence soft skills book, but it should be read in conjunction with "The Science of Fear" (UK name "Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear") to understand the other side of the intuition story. System One may be a very effective survival tool. It might be our most important, but it is also woefully flawed. Luckily we also came out of the Palaeolithic era with System Two or "Head", conscious thought. Its inherent flaw is that it is comparatively slower than System One. Reliance on it would spell certain doom in high risk situations. However, without it we jump to irrational conclusions and expend unnecessary energy. So, why do we still jump to irrational conclusions anyway? Gardner explains that the problem with "Head" is that despite its rational and calculating nature, it has to be educated first. So, if it doesn't understand the complex information being fed to it today – information such as detailed figures or the fact that "correlation does not prove causation" – it is more likely to rely on the impulsive first reaction offered by "Gut". Gardner goes into detail how "Brain" will often try to rationalize the irrational decision made by "Gut".

I look at this book as a vital resource for the instruction of self defence. The chapter "Fear Inc." reveals how the whole personal protection industry trades off fear along with politicians. It is vital for the integrity of our service that we be guided by facts and science rather than be lured into manipulating our clients through fear-mongering. I know far too many instructors who inadvertently teach paranoia rather than a healthy sense of awareness. Knowledge from this book might help them get the balance right.

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