Feb 10, 2009

The State of Fear

Several years ago, I read Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear. This novel got a lot of attention when it was published because Crichton took on environmentalists and challenged the validity of global warming using scientific data. 

The story is pretty far-fetched, as most techno-thrillers are, and I don't believe that global warming is a fraud, but Crichton struck a real chord with me with one of the themes of this book, which I submit is his real motivation for writing the novel.

One of the main characters, John Kenner, has a monologue in which he lays out a very compelling argument that elected officials, certain scientists and the media actively cultivate crises, and magnify minor issues to become major crises, in order to keep the public in a constant state of fear. This mass manipulation helps those in power to further consolidate that power and to maintain the existing social order and status quo. It's a win-win-win because the politicians set the policy agenda and can be seen as defending us, the scientists can get funding for research to solve the issues, and the media can sell us the stories to keep us informed. Crichton argues that his is a paradigm change from the old military-industrial complex that shaped public policy from the 1950's -1970's, but this cabal is no less insidious.

Ridiculous conspiracy theory? I find evidence of the State of Fear all over the place. Today's headline in the Star Tribune references President Obama's recent statements urging the Senate to pass the economic stimulus bill before "crisis turns into catastrophe". This statement clearly seeks to build support for his stimulus package through fear.  Obama's just the last in a long line to use the State of Fear to advance policy (Bush was a master at it). Before today's headline, we had bird flu, SARS, TSA's alert level system, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the war on drugs, Iran-Contra, acid rain, africanized killer bees and the domino theory of communism. 

I am not suggesting here that any of these problems were not real or don't exist. Rather, I submit that many, if not all of these, have been hyped well beyond their level of significance by the media, to the benefit of the politicians and scientists.

What can we do? Wake up to the possibility that we are being manipulated and weigh the evidence for ourselves. Get informed and then evaluate your true risk. Remember, risk is the probability of something happening multiplied by the consequence of that event happening, so high consequence but low probability stills means relatively low risk, and vice versa. And above all, reach your our own conclusions, don't just adopt someone else's position. 

And for those who dismissed State of Fear was an anti-environmentalist diatribe, I think the title says more about the message of the book than the plot does, and it's more subversive than most people seem to have caught on to.


  1. That was a powerful read for me. I also feel we are a society of people being snowballed, but we also seem to like being coddled.

  2. OOOH This is SO true! We;ve been kept like this since... a long time. It started BEFORE Bush, yeah? Then, it got worse after September 2001. It's kind of meaningless to me now. I pass the sign outside the airport every once in a while and it STILL says threat level Orange. WHATDOESTHATMEAN? EEEEEEEEEE! I wish someone somewhere would change it to say Threat Level Plaid.. or something like that. Yeesh. I think there are those who like having something, or someone to be scared of. I think we in the US have been living in the state of fear for so long, that it'd be strange to not have to.
    Now I want to read that book! Thanks for the great subversive blog post, Joe! It definitely makes one think!

  3. My theory is that we are going to be on threat level orange for the rest of our lives. Going to yellow would make us less tolerant of having to take our shoes off and surrender our full-sized toothpaste; going to red would crash the stock market.

  4. Since I gave up on TV a couple years ago, my general level of fear, anxiety, and divisive hostility toward dissenting opinions has receded. My main news now is NPR, which doesn't seem to be quite as fear-mongering as CNN, FOX, or any of the other networks.

    Regarding threat-level: plaid, +1

  5. Every once in a while I catch interviews on Charlie Rose or Bill Moyers shows. Conversation with people who share their knowledge in intelligent, concise dialog.

    Then there are the comedians and clowns who try to shout their opinions over each other, on comedy central and Fox News.

    The sad thing is that people are talking most about what they hear the clowns and comedians say, and not those who are actually involved in what's going on.

  6. p.s. I just read you previous post. I like the cronology of wearing helmets and the book, "State of Fear".

    A connection? 8>)

  7. Thanks, Midnight Rider. I never noticed that until now. I think you are correct - it's probably not a coincidence.