Blog 70. Emergencies, Disasters, and Fears

The headline reads, “Americans Unprepared for Natural Disasters.”  The article is not sensational journalism.  It appeared last November in the sedate weekly newsletter, called EOS (Earth Ocean Space) of the American Geophysical Union, the association of some 63000 persons, mostly earth and space scientists.

The EOS article cited a survey by social scientists at Chapman University, in which Americans were asked about what things they feared and how well they were prepared for natural disasters.  It seems that major fears are
* personal safety (such as walking alone at night),
* one’s personal future (job, illness),
* the internet, surveillance, identity theft,
* criminal victimization (murder, mass shooting),
* government and/or immigrants,
* pollution, natural disasters, and man-made disasters.

The EOS review of the survey focused only on the fear of natural disasters, highlighting the fact (also found by the Federal Emergency Management Agency) that there is no relationship between how much a person fears a disaster and how prepared that person is.  In the midwest, northeast and south, only 19%-26% of the people keep an emergency kit.  In the west, some 35% keep emergency supplies.  Perhaps the image or doctrine of rugged self-reliance still exists in the sagebrush society.

Why don’t we all keep emergency kits?  Well, as the EOS article reported, a different study following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 found that most people think bad things will happen to others, not themselves.  About one-third of respondents in a follow-up of the Chapman survey thought some emergency services would help them.  I’m reminded of the images of people waiting for help day after day at a central facility in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, while reporters came and went.  Could the affected folks have walked out?,  Apparently, that option was not in the shared mindset.  Without preparation, it’s difficult to see oneself as empowered to act when in a disaster.

So we’re unprepared, physically or mentally, for the disasters we fear.  What about the other fears listed above?  Why are people afraid?  The Chapman researchers developed fear factors.

Two big personal characteristics correlate with the fears:
1) Low education; and 2) high frequency of TV watching.

Especially talk TV and true crime TV.

Other factors also correlate with fears.  Republicans tend to fear today’s youth, the government, and immigrants.  Fears of personal safety, pollution, and man-made disasters rank higher among Democrats.  Across the population, people believe crime is rising.  The statistics show crime is decreasing.

So what are we to make of the fears?
It’s ok to fear a real threat.  Those who have low education and live in inner-city poverty experience more income insecurity, and more personal crime, while being less empowered to protect themselves.  Those seem like real fears, encouraged by low income and excess of TV.  However, across the population, unrealistic fears are also stoked by the combination of idle time and spectacular TV.  What’s needed is a better capacity for critical evaluation—for everybody.  A comment on the Chapman fear-factor web page offered this analysis:
“My advice is to unplug from the 24-hour Amygdala Alarm Stimulation System.
“It is designed and perfectly tuned to push every alarm button in the brain, . . . Alarm coded colored graphics that move; big, serious talking heads speaking in somber tones; musical and sound cues that have an alarming nature about them; breathless on-the-scene reporting of rumors; file footage of dead and dying patients, doctors in moon suits.
“The whole system is designed to take advantage of the fact that our brain’s amygdala (alarm center) cannot distinguish a rational fear of an event next door . . . and word of a similar event 2000 miles away.”

The way out.
The prevalent propagation of fear in media, in politics, and in social networks is a strong argument for science education—that is, critical reasoning.  Critical reasoning empowers a person to evaluate circumstances and to act as needed.  As my father once said, “Give a kid money and you’ll spoil him; give him an education and nobody can take it away.”  Well, Dad didn’t have any money to give, but I’m thankful for that education in critical reasoning.  An education including science.