Scared to Death

The last twenty years have seen a succession of media scare stories, which have all followed a remarkably similar trajectory.  They start with a scientific fact, or observation, or conjecture.  They are picked up by the media, whose job is to create exciting stories.  So they are hyped and exaggerated.  The extreme end of the range of forward projections gets headlines.  Then various pressure groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth get in on the act: they need constantly to up the ante in order to maintain their profile, their funding and their jobs.  Close behind them come scientists and researchers and self-publicists, keen to build a public profile and to secure a reputation and research funding.
The fusillade of media coverage naturally raises public concern, and generates letters to parliamentarians.  Politicians are risk-averse, with many committed to the EU’s dangerous “precautionary principle”.  So they take the hype at face value, and look for public policy responses.  Sadly, they jump at any solution which will grab headlines, not at proportionate and affordable responses (see for example the current EU Commission proposal to reduce carbon emissions from motor vehicles, which in terms of cost-per-ton of CO2 saved is an order-of-magnitude more expensive than other less glamorous options).
The result, all too often, is a vastly expensive and wasteful policy response, long after the original cause of concern is consigned to history.
This sorry tale is set out in gripping terms in a new book by Christopher Booker and Richard North, “Scared to Death”, which despite its nearly 500 pages and detailed footnotes and references is nonetheless a vivid read.   The authors take us through the débâcle of Edwina Currie’s “salmonella in eggs” scare, which inflicted huge damage on egg producers for a scare ultimately shown to be entirely without foundation.  They go on through bird flu, DDT, asbestos, passive smoking, speed cameras (which actually seem, on the evidence, to be increasing road casualties), vCJD, the Millennium Bug (remember that one?), and finally of course the grand-daddy of all media scares, global warming, which is still running, and where public policy responses will do far more damage to our economies than any foreseeable change in climate.
Everyone who has ever worried about the latest scare, and anyone keen to understand the damage being done to our economy by this culture of scares, should read this book.
“Scared to Death”,  Christopher Booker and Richard North; published by Continuum UK; ISBN 0-8264-8614-2

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