I’ve been interested forever in human perceptions of risk and culturally mediated fear. I got to work with some of the cook risk perception people at the Kennedy School of Government for a while (as a bystander), and as an archaeologist, I find the question of risk and fear important in human foraging (and other) decisions. For instance, humans can specialize or not as foragers, and they can include or exclude certain kinds of resources. Did early humans in southern Africa avoid dangerous bovid prey and prefer allegedly less dangerous antelopes? Did various groups that avoid fishing (East African pastorals and, of course the Tasmanians) do so for any reasons related to risk? And so on.

More locally, we’ve all seen the whole fear thing. This is what I like about Bowling for Columbine … Moore correctly identifies fear as an important component in the shaping of modern politics and society. I remember living in Boston during the worst year in a long time for homicides. there were about 360 homicides in 6 months. When they stopped happening, the clergy, the Mayor, the police chief, everybody got in line to take credit for having stamped out the crime spree. But what had really happened is this: A gang was forced (by then Federal Prosecutor William Weld, later, ironically, governor of Massachusetts) out of Queens New York and moved to various neighborhoods in Boston. They were mainly concerned with importation of drugs. They pushed out the local gangs, which involved a lot of shooting. It took six months, and the homicide rate looked like a very nice bell curve centering on about late December. It was an organic process, one that the police, mayor, others had very little to do with, yet they all used the ramping up of homicide for their own political purposes and took credit for it’s decline.

About a year later, I noticed this: A story from an FBI press release. “Americans fear of crime is on the increase.” A study by the FBI showed that people thought crime rates were up. Since crime rates were down (way down) this, rather than actual rising crime rates, had to be the stoyr.

Anyway, Barry Glassner has written a book called The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More. It’s a pretty scary book!!!! (LOL). Actually, it’s about the tangible meaning and effects of a culture of fear, and where that fear comes from. In particular, he documents the way in which fear has become a usable raw material for economic and political gain by a wide range of entities and institutions.

Barry, who is a sociologist, will be the primary guest on Skeptically Speaking THIS FRIDAY, and that will turn into a podcast that will presumably be available on Sunday.

The same installment of Skeptically Speaking will also feature moi, with a new installment of “Everything You Know is Sort of Wrong,” in which Desire and I discuss the falsehood: “Poor people have more babies…”

Comments

  1. #1 david ropeik
    July 29, 2010

    Greg,

    If you are interested in risk perception from more than Barry’s pop culture sociology view, you might want to read “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.” Risk perception has actually been well-studied by a number of diverse fields, from neuroscience to anthropology, psychology, economics…and the answers are far more profound than Culture of Fear comes close to. and if you do check it out, as the author, I’d love to know what you think.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2010

    David, as I noted in my post, I’ve taken a more than pop culture look at risk, both with economic modeling and in my research foragers.

    I’d love to have a look at your new book! It looks great. Shoot me an email and I’ll send you the address where I receive review copies.

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