A rational examination of popular fears—revealing that government and the public have the wrong safety priorities. [ Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death? credits: Executive Producer: Victor Neufeld/ Journalist: John Stossel/ 50 min/ Documentary-Educational/ Anti-Regulation, John Stossel, Junk Science]
We live in a dangerous world: rising crime, toxic chemicals in our food, pollution in our air, and so on. These things are all dangerous. But are they as dangerous as we think? This is the question ABC’s John Stossel examines in Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?
He finds that the media exaggerate danger for the sake of viewership and that government then reacts to the resulting public hysteria or even anticipates it by passing laws to eliminate risk, at great cost. (Much to his credit, Stossel even admits his own role in this mess by showing several clips in which he, as a consumer issues reporter, overemphasized trivial public health hazards.)
To demonstrate the gap between actual and popularly perceived risk, Stossel ranks various dangers according to actuarial estimates of the number of days each would be likely to reduce an average life. Surprise, surprise, the things people most fear (e.g., crime, industrial chemicals, flying) are actually far less dangerous to human life than more mundane dangers (e.g., smoking).
Most interesting is his observation that simple poverty is the biggest killer of all. This ties in with his skepticism of risk-eliminating regulation, because regulation is expensive, destroys jobs and thereby increases poverty. It is therefore likely, he argues, that some of the very regulations intended to save lives are in fact among the biggest killers. Of course, economists have made this point before, but never has it been presented by the mainstream press in such a persuasive and well-organized way.
The only objection to this argument is that in some cases actuarial risk may appear low because of precautions taken to avoid the risk. For example: old people perceive themselves to be frequent victims of crime but really aren’t; nonetheless, that doesn’t mean they should be less afraid of crime, as Stossel seems to suggest. In part, they are rarely victims of crime because they fear it and therefore take extraordinary precautions.
This slight qualification aside, Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death? is a very interesting and intelligent documentary. Stossel treats the subject with an evenhandedness that has become his trademark and which is rarely found elsewhere.