Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Science of Fear

Few recent reads have amazed me as much as Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear. Using scientific studies Gardner examines in detail how fear works in the human psyche and then often gets misapplied in our lives.

As a regular consumer of news and information, I’ve long been convinced we often fear the wrong things while ignoring real dangers. Gardner confirmed a lot of my suspicions.

His first best example is fear of flying after 9/11. In the year after the terrorists attacks Americans avoided flying. Airlines struggled to stay afloat. When we could, we drove rather than flew. Yet, flying, even when factoring in terrorism is safer than driving. A study compared flying and driving statistics and increases traffic deaths in 2002. It estimated that 1,595 people needlessly died on America’s roads because they drove rather than flew in the year after 9/11.

Why do we make such bad choices about danger?

When a plane filled with 200 people crashes, our gut reacts and the event is indelibly imprinted in our memory. But when traffic deaths mount in a slow dribble – 1 at the edge of town, 3 a hundred miles away, and so on, we hardly notice. Yet, at the end of the year, for every 10,000 people who flew vs. those who drove, more will die in their cars than in a plane crash. Fear of flying in the year after 9/11 actually made travelers less safe.

How about silicon breast implants? They can leak and make women sick, right? We all know it to be true. Yet, Gardner goes looking for proof and finds that not one single medical study has been able to prove it. You’d never know it by following the issue. There were endless, emotional news stories of women, with tears in their eyes and agony in their faces relating how a ruptured implant led to a connective tissue disorder. It must be true, right? Lawyers saw an opportunity and filed lawsuits. As newspaper, television and magazine stories of ruptured implants and sick women mounted, public perception was universal; they’re dangerous! Manufacturers were forced to establish a $4.25 billion fund to settle suits ($1billion went to attorneys).

Gardner’s conclusion: “Humans are good with stories and bad with numbers.”

What numbers got lost in all the emotional stories of suffering women? The rate of connective tissue disorder in women who’ve never had implants is exactly the same as it is in those who did. That’s why the FDA has once again approved implants.

Gardner explains (with the help of volumes of social science studies) how dramatic, emotional media stories create a recognizable narrative. When future stories appear that create the impression of a trend, they’re reported no matter how meaningless the related story might be, giving us an impression of a trend much bigger than it is. After Timothy McVey blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the media dramatically increased their coverage of militia groups filled with angry white men with guns, no matter how unimportant the story or minimal the threat. It was part of the ongoing narrative. 9/11 broke that narrative and replaced angry white men with militant Muslims. Now actual terrorism committed by angry white men gets far less media attention than simple charges or suspicions of Muslim extremists.

Needless fear also gets stoked when danger is presented without context showing how dangerous it actually is. Fears of both child abduction and West Nile virus are great examples of dangers presented without context.

In 1999 West Nile virus became an exotic new threat and spread through eastern states. Media outlets tallied the death count daily. Public health official issued daily updates. Public fear spread. Yet, only 1 in 150 people who contract West Nile actually suffer any serious symptoms, and far, far fewer die. But news reports rarely gave that context. They instead said things like, “West Nile claimed it’s 18th victim today.” And 18 was the grand total of deaths from the virus in all of 2002. They didn’t offer any context, like 875 Americans die in a typical year choking on food – that’s over 48 times the threat of West Nile.

Where’s our daily report on choking?

Still, a 2002 Pew survey found that 70% of American were closely following the West Nile story even though the chances of getting it were tiny, chances of suffering symptoms were rarer still, and the chances of dying from it were statistically miniscule. Only 7% more (77%) were following the build-up to war with Iraq.

Few things scare a parent more than the threat of child abduction. We have Amber alerts, we have Anderson Cooper specials about bizarre abductions, we finger print children and train them in self-defense. Yet, the odds of a child being abducted by a stranger and never returned are freakishly rare.

Gardner documents routine claims by law enforcement officials, child advocacy groups, and the media claiming “50,000- 75,000 children were stolen from their parent’s arms each year.” He goes looking for the original source of these numbers and can’t find it. The phantom numbers were caught in a feedback loop. One group used them, another group sited the first group’s use of the numbers, and on and on until newspapers and TV anchors are reporting, “Child advocacy groups claim that 50,000-75,000 . . .”

Gardner instead found a 1999 study that finally laid out the actual numbers. That year 797,500 people under the age of 18 were reported missing. If you take that number, subtract the runaways and the family abductions (one parent or other family member taking a child in a custody dispute), and then subtract the 18 year old boyfriends who drove their 16 year old girlfriends across state lines, and concentrate on just stereotypical kidnappings of children under the age of 14, you’re left with only 90 cases.

But then the personal stories of those 90 kidnappings get reported over and over along with unfounded numbers, “50,000-70,000” thrown in for effect. Without the context we’re left thinking our children are in terrible danger. What are the real odds your child will be kidnapped? 1 in 608,696. But an American child is 2.5 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool and 26 times more likely to die in a car crash.

So why is there so much fear in our world and why do we spend so much energy fearing the wrong things and ignoring real dangers? Gardner states it pretty well; “We are safer and healthier than ever and yet we are more worried about injury, disease, and death than ever. Why? In part, it’s because there are few opportunities to make money from convincing people they are, in fact, safer and healthier than ever – but there are huge profits to be made promoting fear.”

Friday, February 10, 2012

Moving and Changing

We so often avoid change. Yet, it almost always does us good.

On my first day of kindergarten I avoided change I with a vengeance.

I was the youngest of four children, separated from the nearest sibling by three years, so I’d had my mother’s undivided attention a lot. The idea of going off to school like the big kids didn’t sound at all appealing.

To put it simply, I was not going.

Kindergarten was held in the basement of the Methodist Church four blocks from our house in the tiny Indiana town where we lived. On the appointed day my mother drug me out the door.

We progressed awkwardly down the sidewalk like a push-pull toy - her pushing, me trying to pull away. And finally I did. Halfway there I tore loose and ran home. Inside the living room, I slammed the front door and watched out the window. When my mother came onto the porch I turned the lock, then sat on the stairs listening to her angrily pound on the door and call my name.

I saw her shadow pass the side windows as she headed for the back door. I beat her there, locked it, then ran upstairs and sat on the top step, listening.

If you’ve ever done something impulsive, out of shear desire, or fear, knowing every step of the way that all hell would break loose, you know how I felt. I could hear my mother calling out, trying to reason with the five-year-old that I was. She laid out a simple case: Of course this couldn’t go on forever. My brother and sisters would come home from school, followed by my father from work. And he had a key. I imagined all five of them pounding on the door.

Reluctantly, I unlocked the door and was pulled, not doubt with tears and snot and dirt on my face all the way to the basement of the Methodist Church.

Once I got done crying and shrieking and pleading not to be left there, I had an absolutely wonderful time. It turns out I loved kindergarten. Who knew it was so much fun?

When my mother came for me at noon, I cried because I didn’t want to go home.

Three years later as I reached third grade my parents announced we were moving. A nicer, bigger house had been bought in the nearby nicer, bigger town without us children being told. There was work to do to get the new house ready, so we would live in our old house while work was being done on the new one. I don’t recall how I felt about it at first, but I clearly remember the first day of school.

On that first day my mother drove us to the new town. As we drove the streets of the only neighborhood I had ever known, our car passed my friends walking to school – my old school, without me. I was going off to the unknown.

Our new house was a block from the new elementary school. I arrived to a classroom full of strange children who studied me, the new kids, like I was an alien.

I had never felt so alone.

At lunch the principal, Mr. Tresch, a little banty-rooster of a man with a stern voice and a face like a clenched fist came to every table and made each child take a bite of each item on their plate. I was forced, in a horrific moment of terror to eat a brussel sprout.

If you’ve never eaten a steamed brussel sprout – and I hope to God you never have, don’t do it. It is as vile and repulsive as any vegetable that ever passed my lips. There was more red-faced gagging involved than I dare describe, lest I trigger the involuntary vomiting reflex in the reader, as it was quite nearly triggered in me.

My mother had told me to walk the block to our new house when school was out and wait for her. When school let out, children gathered at the street in front of the old brick school building. Four older kids with orange sashes laid across their chests stood on either side of the street holding long polls with bright read flags hanging from the ends. I walked on down the sidewalk away from the group, figuring I would cross at the next corner alone.

But halfway down the block I noticed the principal, Mr. Tresch (the brussel sprout Nazi), coming after me, calling my name. He grabbed me tightly by the back of the neck with one hand and pushed me, unnecessarily hard I might add, back to the crossing point with the crossing guards, forcing me to cross with the other children.

Other kids laughed and pointed as Mr. Tresch explained the proper, safe way to cross the street. I did as I was told and walked the block to the new house, my face hot with shame and wet with tears.

Once at the big brick house I climbed the porch steps of that strange place and let myself in through the big oak door. The massive, gloomy living room felt like a cavern. There was a gaping brick fireplace at one end, an endless expanse of oak floors that squealed and moaned when you walked across them, and a staircase at the opposite end. Feeling lonely, I called out for my mother, but she wasn’t there yet. I sat on the stairway, put my face in my hands, and cried.

For such a terrible start, things went better than I had any right to expect. In that neighborhood I made wonderful friends. I played Army in Dwight’s yard and home run derby in the street with Tom and Bill. Third and then fourth grade faded into middle school, which, whether you want it to or not fades into high school. In that town I would kiss my first girl, flip burgers at McDonalds, sing the lead in the school musical, and be student body president my senior year. I learned to love that old house that had seemed so lonely on that first day of school – learned to love the oak woodwork, the French doors, the wide, long, front porch that looked out over parades that marched down the street each summer.

And in my teens, when I passed the newly retired Mr. Tresch wearing Burmuda shorts and pulling weeds in his front yard, he didn’t look so menacing anymore.

After I got married and had children of my own, my children came to love that place as well. They spent weekends and holidays sleeping in the beds where I slept as a child, being spoiled by their grandparents, the same parents that I once thought so hard on me by making me move to this new house.

As the years passed there would be other moves; dorms, apartments and houses. Most came with eager anticipation. They weren’t forced, but chosen.

Sixteen years ago, when our oldest son, Cal was 7, my wife and I decided to move a block down the street from the first little house we restored in Noblesville. Now I was the one forcing a move. Though just a block away, it was a hard move for Cal.

Our house at 1242 Cherry Street was the only house Cal had ever known and when we moved to the new house he never mentioned being bothered. But a few weeks later the people who had bought our old home told us they often saw Cal in the alley behind their house. One day they saw him sitting on his bicycle, looking up at his old bedroom window with tears in his eyes. Being dear people, they invited him in and let him play video games on a computer in his old bedroom.

My wife and I have been separated for almost a year now. And we recently began moving back and forth between our houses so that our teenage daughter could stay in her familiar place – the only home she’s ever known. Twice so far, my wife and I have each loaded clothes and a few random personal items in our cars and traded houses. Our daughter goes about her life in one place. It’s the parent’s that move back and forth.

This business of moving and changing can be hard when you’re not ready for it, or when it’s forced, or a surprise, or when you simply can’t stay anymore. But we have a way of adapting, and remaking our lives, and things somehow take care of themselves. And we become something else, something we could not have guessed at. And that is usually a good thing.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Update on Lives in a Basket

Update on yesterday's post:

A friend who is an even bigger history nerd than I am did a little research on the Alexander family.

-The 1880 census shows Harry, aged 10 and his brother Alfred (Fred) living with their mother Lucetta (Lou), their grandmother, and two aunts. No address is given.

-The 1900 census shows Harry and Clara living at 148 S. 10 Street (their home, I believe was demolished by the City of Noblesville for their City Hall parking lot) with two children, Trent, listed as a 2-year-old son, and Ruth, a 1-month-old daughter. They had a live-in housekeeper. Harry is noted as an attorney.

-The 1910 census confuses things a bit. It shows Harry and Clara living at 154 S. 10th (also now demolished, I think) with 3 children. Harry's career is still law. This time their oldest child Trent is listed as a daughter, aged 12, Ruth was 9 and a third child, Joseph is aged 3. A fourth child that had died is also referenced. Strangely - a family with the exact same names are listed as living with Harry's mother Lou, and his brother Fred at 201 S. 10th.

-The 1920 census shows a Harry, Clara, Trent, Ruth, and Joseph Alexander living in Dane County, Wisconsin. It notes Harry as a traveling salesman.

-From 1920 to 1930, Lou lived alone on S. 10th St. She was 85 years old in 1930.