This piece first appeared in the Washington Times.
Scares regarding chemicals in plastic -- bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthlates -- are only the latest manifestation of a deeper problem. But the problem is not "our toxic environment" or the evils of industrial civilization. The problem is a pervasive unease and anxiety that feeds upon itself and searches for danger, at which point reason, along with common sense and skepticism, tend to be tossed aside.
Americans are bombarded with an array of warnings and reassurances, stop and go signals, regarding health, environmental hazards, and lifestyle. This deluge of unsettling and conflicting information has contributed to a climate of fear, which people respond to in a variety of ways, including denial, worried searches for reliable information, and crusading zeal to banish danger and uncertainty.
I suggest five factors contribute to the current culture-wide anxiety:
(1) We live in a rapidly changing society and world economy. Globalization, economic dislocation, job insecurity, new technologies, terrorism, and challenges to traditional values and beliefs lead all of us to scan the news for potential threats. The stresses of change and information overload lead some to irrational and counterproductive modes of thought. Snap judgments, and the search for villains and panaceas, may hamper our ability to make rational and practical choices.
(2) Our society must face and resolve some very real environmental and health problems. But we need to differentiate real and imaginary dangers.
(3) A big hurdle in trying to identify real dangers lies in the complexity of scientific research on health and environmental problems. We're aware that we're not experts, but don't know what information is reliable.
(4) The media provide us with an abundance of information but create biases and distortions of their own. Bad news is big news. Good news is taken for granted. This makes it difficult to gain a balanced view of supposed threats.
(5) The emotional consequences of overload and uncertainty lend themselves to exploitation. Confused and frightened people are easy prey for quacks, crusading politicians, and agenda-driven activists.
Fear has its price. It exerts its negative effects through paralyzing our capacities for judgment and consideration of alternatives. For example, who can measure exactly the costs of disease, disability, suffering, heartbreak, and lost opportunity when a child falls ill to a disease preventable by a vaccine that parents refused because of unrealistic fears of the vaccine itself? And fear often increases demands for poorly thought-out policy, like a stampede resulting from someone shouting "Fire!" Fear -- even disguised as a cautious desire to "err on the safe side" -- can cost us heavily by leading us to reject valuable new technology, and chemicals with hard-to-pronounce names or rare but sensational risks.
Another all too common side effect of fear -- one that makes it difficult to discuss problems -- is the impulse to regard others as potential foes.
In scientific controversies, there will inevitably be disagreement. If "the other side" in such a disagreement is automatically vilified, there is little hope of recognizing that maybe, just maybe, there is a grain (or more) of truth in what they say.
In the case of the chemicals in plastic mentioned above, certain responses to scientific evidence showing there's nothing to fear have become just about inevitable: How can we be sure? What if there's a risk we haven't detected? Why trust scientific authorities? Are corporations hiding the truth? Won't someone think of the children who might be in danger?
These are natural questions. But they're also the sort of responses that can turn just about any controversy, even one manufactured out of whole cloth, into cause for alarm. In such a climate it's easy to forget that our life span, supposedly drenched with lethal danger, has increased hugely in the last 100 years, and that the incidence of many cancers and other environmentally sensitive diseases has decreased.
Science and technology contribute to making our world safer, easier to control, and in many ways more predictable. It's time to let that fact sink into our troubled psyches.