Commentary: When Will We Tire of the Fear Mongers?

Published June 1, 2007

I have noticed throughout my life that there barely has been a day the news media was not trumpeting a foreboding event, an impending environmental danger, or some risky food or technological hazard clearly intended to generate fear.

Some of us are old enough to remember when cranberries were driven from supermarket shelves by a phony fear campaign. More of us remember the Alar apple scare. For a while we thought twice about putting a cell phone to our ear or passing beneath a power line.

Radon gas has yet to harm anyone, yet EPA still supports scary radio ads. Asbestos coatings on the pipes in our public schools never caused lung problems among our children, but all those coatings have been removed now. Asbestos levels in the schools remain unchanged.

Properly using insecticides in our homes never made anyone ill, but fewer are available to us today thanks to bans. Freon is gone from our aerosol cans and air conditioners but ozone levels above the polar regions thicken and thin with the seasons as always, and skin cancer rates depend, as they always have, on how far we live from the equator and our exposure to mid-day sun.

Babies were never sickened by TRIS, the fire retardant in their jammies. DDT never caused cancer or thinned a single bird egg. It did stop malaria in its tracks and saved millions of lives, but it is not available much any more. As a result, millions die or become sick each year.

Sea level may rise a foot this century, according to a new report from that font of unvarnished truth, the United Nations. But seas have been rising seven inches a century for at least the past 800 years. No one knows where former vice president Al Gore gets his scary 20 foot prediction for sea-level rise.

Moderate trans fat in our diets causes no harm, but lack of exercise does. Yet we are outlawing trans fat, I suppose because we cannot mandate exercise. You can no longer take Vioxx for your arthritis because folks with known heart disease might get their hands on it and minimally increase their chance of a heart attack.

Not one person has ever become ill from a genetically modified food or one irradiated to reduce bacteria, yet both of these healthful technologies are impeded by the fear mongers and their partners, the risk-averse bureaucrats.

Come to think of it, I cannot think of a single environmental or public health “crisis” that has ever proven to be true. They just fade away as time and reality wear them thin. Eventually they fall into the shadow of the next “fear du jour.”

I once was mistakenly confident that all this would change at midnight on December 31, 1999. I believed the merchants of fear had made the mistake every scam artist knows to avoid: predicting a specific event on a specific date. The advent of the new millennium, they predicted, would cause the world to shake and reverberate with the catastrophe brought about by our predicted inability to re-program our computers.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Yet, while we proved quite capable of solving the computer programing problem, we appear to have learned nothing from that false alarm or the alarmists who sounded it. We awoke the next morning and shook off the fact that the Earth remained in a smooth rotation around its axis.

I recognize now that we are all programmed to fear the unknown with unbridled conviction. I suspect this condition was passed down from our ancestors who once lived in caves, hiding from the wild beasts outside, which could readily devour them. Those cave dwellers who ventured out with little discretion often did not return to advance the human race with their progeny. Those who hid quietly in the cave, controlled by their fears, lived to bear children, who passed on their fear genes to their children and so on until, many generations later, we have them.

Geneticists are actually on track to locate those genes in our DNA, but it is not likely we will ever want to remove them. They play an important role in our survival, not to mention inclining most of us to heed our mom’s admonitions not to touch our tongue to a frozen pipe, or venture out onto thin ice, or touch the hot burner on a stove, and of course to look both ways when crossing the street.

But now that we are grown up, shouldn’t we be able to distinguish between real and unwarranted fears? Shouldn’t we notice that past environmental and public health “crises” never were true, and shouldn’t that realization lead us to stop over-reacting each time a new doomsday scenario appears in the daily newspapers?

Skepticism isn’t a bad thing when it comes to dealing with con men, telephone marketers … and environmentalists and “public health advocates.” Should we not, by now, know to wait until additional, more credible information comes our way?

There apparently are people who gain pleasure and often money from watching us cringe in fear of the unknown. When, if ever, will we show them we’re made of sterner stuff than that?

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.