Who’s afraid?


Simon Briscoe and Hugh Aldersley-Williams <em>Viking, 304pp, £18.99</

Aiming to counter our obsession with scare stories, the authors have conducted a reality check on the “endless catalogue of disasters that are supposed to await us”. These include the emergence of killer stress levels, uncontrollable nanotechnology and death from dangerous art objects.

While the media and the public have always loved calamitous copy, the authors argue that our ability to assess risk is now being impaired by modern life itself. Health scares such as Sars are sometimes blamed on our affluent lifestyles, “a modern dressing of anti-capitalism”. Rising levels of worry are “people’s first uncertain response to greater technological and political freedoms”.

Consider fears that the earth will be hit by a large asteroid. Until recently we did not know enough about asteroids to worry. Now, say the authors, there is more danger from the potential panic spread by misleading reports of collision predictions than from an actual asteroid. Analysing reports that a bird-flu pandemic is “overdue”, the writers argue that a non-outbreak does not make a future outbreak more likely. The virus is put in stark perspective – it has killed fewer than 300 people worldwide, while winter flu quietly claims roughly 12,000 lives in England and Wales alone each year.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn