Misled by Fear: Guns vs Germs

(Dallas, 2006)

Fear has been a semi-helpful guide throughout history. It saved some of our ancestors from falling off cliffs on windy days, but it also led to some of them being killed for witchcraft. While the world today seems slightly less mysterious, fear remains an imperfect guide for making sensible decisions.

For example, the emerging COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak is showing the shortcomings of the world’s public health systems as they attempt to recognize and respond to a potential pandemic. It should come as no surprise. Public health experts have been warning government officials for years, yet funding has not been proportional to the threat.

The US National Institute of Health is the world’s largest funder of health research, yet it’s budget is about 1/25 the size of the US military budget and politicians regularly propose increasing military spending at the expense of other programs. Granted, some US military spending goes towards bioterrorism research, but the US government clearly allocates funding as though other humans were far more threatening than disease.

This would be a reasonable policy if backed by data, but in the first decade of this century (which included the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) about 10,000 Americans died from terrorism or war. During the same time period, about 25 million Americans died of other causes — mostly disease and accidents. Although terrorism and disease may seem incomparable because disease risk increases with age, almost 2,000 American children die every year from cancer and the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 16 and 23 is car accidents. According to Our World in Data, just over 91 percent of all deaths worldwide in 2016 were caused by diseases (including infectious and nutritional diseases) and the remainder were mostly accidents and suicide. War and terrorism together accounted for about a quarter of one percent of all deaths. These statistics suggest that we need armies of biomedical scientists, health care workers, humanitarian aid providers, and safety engineers, not soldiers.

A primary reason for this state of disproportionate funding is that terrorism is relatively rare and frightening, so it gets extensive media coverage that encourages a cognitive bias of inflated risk that is difficult to overcome. Fatal car accidents and heart attacks happen every day. The sheer numbers and regularity of such deaths render these events invisibly mundane. It is easier to convey the tragedy in a few rare personal stories than in common catastrophes that must be relegated to statistics.

This disconnect in risk perception is not surprising. People tend to fear bad events by the emotions the events evoke rather than in proportion to their probability (the inconsistent response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been a good example of emotional risk assessment). One reason military spending has gotten priority in the past is because the violence of other humans is a threat both scarier and easier to imagine than statistically more dangerous but faceless events such as epidemics or extreme weather.

There is a well-known overproduction of biomedical scientists in the US. This isn’t because we don’t have enough medical problems to solve, but because we don’t fund enough scientists who want to stay in the field and cure diseases. The military–industrial–congressional complex would have us believe that more military is better, but we passed the point of diminishing returns long ago. With a military budget about three times more than any other nation, the US is in an expensive arms race against no one. Some argue that a large military budget prevents violence and protects economic interests, yet other countries with robust economies and higher indicators of well-being generally spend less on military. Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, a decorated Army general, said it best in 1953, “This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

It would be far better to focus taxpayer money on the greatest dangers we actually face, not just the ones we fear the most.

Exploring the intersection of science, technology, and society • Dangerous Science ➜ https://doi.org/10.5334/bci

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