Risk was too risky and fear was too common even before September
11, and the growing obsession with avoiding danger may threaten
our society's future, scholars said at a recent Washington conference.
"Most human experiences come with a health warning, continually
reminding us that we cannot be expected to manage the risks we face,"
said Frank Furedi, a professor at the University of Kent in England.
"A powerful culture of precaution works to estrange the public
from the ideals of risk taking, innovation and experimentation."
Policy-making has become more arbitrary, driven by "what if?"
questions, said Mr. Furedi, author of "Politics of Fear: Beyond
Left and Right," speaking last week at the American Enterprise
A disaster occurs, some kind of meaning is attributed to it, someone
is blamed and policy is implemented or changed with safety as the
ultimate goal, he said. Social policy, as a result, is focused on
reassuring people that they are safe, but what they get instead
is the illusion of safety while losing autonomy and control over
their own lives, he said.
"Nobody gets criticized for being safe," Mr. Furedi said.
"What is irresponsible is taking risks."
Last week's conference, "Panic Attack: The Precautionary Culture,
the Politics of Fear and the Risks to Innovation," was co-sponsored
by AEI in cooperation with the Institute of Ideas, a British think
The conference focused on exploring the impact risk aversion has
on many aspects of life, ranging from education to business. It
also focused on the power that the precautionary principle -- a
loose term that calls for precaution to the point of risk avoidance
in innovation, human relationships and anything humans do -- has
on Western culture.
Such is the politics of fear, Mr. Furedi said, that children, women
and the elderly are labeled as "vulnerable" -- about 80
percent to 90 percent of the population.
The corporate "social responsibility" movement, initiated
by some advocacy groups, pressures businesses to avoid risk, said
Jon Entine, an adjunct fellow at AEI and scholar in residence at
Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
"Business leaders are increasingly paralyzed by caution ...
reacting rather than leading," Mr. Entine said.
The benefits of most innovations are unseen, while the risks are
made public, said James K. Glassman, a resident fellow at AEI. If
one person is harmed from the side effects of a medication that
helped many others, the media tell the story of harm, he said.
"Bad news gets attention," Mr. Glassman said. "In
other words, forget the science; just ban it."
The media generate an exaggerated sense of danger, said Ronald
Bailey of Reason magazine.
"The media regularly fan the flames of fear of new technologies,"
he said, citing fear-mongering accounts of the dangers of cell phones,
chemicals, in-vitro fertilization, population growth and genetically
In the legal world, risk focuses on the lowest common denominator
-- the few people who may be displeased by a product, said Philip
Howard,vice chairman of the law firmof Covington & Burling inNew
York. For fear of lawsuits, he said, some playgrounds have been
stripped of climbing ropes or jungle gyms, businesses do not give
employment references, and products have warning labels that nobody
"Our leaders lost authority in themselves," Mr. Howard
Judges, he said, no longer believe they have the authority to dismiss
fraudulent cases. As a result, people can sue for almost any reason,
"There needs to be a major revolution in the way judges perceive
their jobs," Mr. Howard said.
Excessive fears extend down to the cradle. Though American children,
with few exceptions, are mentally and emotionally sound, many adults
regard them as fragile and vulnerable, Christina Hoff Sommers said.
Adults try to insulate children from the remote possibility of getting
hurt or injured or enduring a slight to their self-esteem, including
from any kind of competition, even in sports, said Ms. Sommers,
a resident scholar at AEI.
Psychologists state that, though the message has not reached the
public, children need self-control, not bolsters to their self-esteem,
"Today's children are the most overprotected in history. They're
also the most overpraised," Ms. Sommers said, adding that some
adversity is necessary. "We shortchange them," she said.
published in the Washington Times, 21 February 2006