gary_klein's picture
Senior Scientist, MacroCognition LLC; Author, Seeing What Others Don't: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights
The New Age Of Anxiety

The Edge Question this year is to identify new worries, but I was not aware that we were running short of things to worry about. Just the reverse—I think we already have too many threats to keep us up at night. And that's what worries me. It seems like we have entered a new age of anxiety. If the problem was internal it could be treated with anti-anxiety drugs. Unfortunately, the problem is external in the form of the ever-expanding list of fears that science is able to generate and the media are happy to amplify. Bad news sells. We listen more carefully to news reports about a possible blizzard than to a forecast of mild and sunny weather. And so the Science/Media complex is happy to feed our fears with all kinds of new threats.

I worry that the number of things we need to worry about keeps growing. The Science/Media complex is highly inventive at discovering all kinds of threats to our food and our water supplies. They are delighted to warn about the deterioration of the environment, declining fertility rates, new carcinogens, physical and mental health issues, and so on. The more novel the threat, the better because new dangers avoid any tendency we have to habituate to scare stories after they've been broadcast for awhile. Very few old worries get retired. A few diseases may get conquered, such as smallpox. But even there the Science/Media complex is able to keep us worried that terrorists might get hold of smallpox samples or recreate the disease in a lab and wreak havoc on a world that no longer gets smallpox immunization, so our vulnerability to smallpox may be increasing, not shrinking.

I worry that the shrillness of worries keeps increasing. In a sea of worries, a new worry can only stand out if its consequences are almost apocalyptic. If it doesn't threaten our civilization it won't get much air time. The pressure is on scientists and media specialists to show that the new issue is not only dangerous, it is highly dangerous. It cannot be merely contagious. There has to be a possible means for it to mutate or perhaps attach itself to a common vector, posing the threat of a deadly new plague. And shrillness isn't only about the consequences of the threat, it is also about the necessity of acting immediately. To command our attention, the Science/Media complex has to show that this new problem needs to jump to the top of our priority list of worries. The threat has to be close to reaching a tipping point, beyond which it will become uncontrollable.

And I worry about the proposed remedies for each new danger. To be worth its salt, a new threat has to command rapid and extreme reactions. These reactions have to start immediately, eliminating our chance to evaluate them for unintended consequences. The more over-the-top our fears, the more disproportionate the reactions and the greater the chances of making things worse, not better.

I hesitate to raise the issue because I'm just adding to the problem but I do think it is something worth worrying about and I don't see any easy way to counter this new age of anxiety. The Science/Media complex keeps ramping up, continually finding novel dangers. It keeps finding more threats to keep us up at night—and then we have to worry about the consequences of sleep deprivation. It never stops.