This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, August 18, 1999

August 18, 1999 - Culture of Fear

I'm always amused by educators who think we should teach "critical thinking skills" to our young. I agree the skill is important, even very important. But where are we going to find any adults who can demonstrate it?

For instance, this seems like a simple enough question. Are things getting better, or worse?

Let's start with teen pregnancy. According to Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, "It was not many years ago in this country when it was not common for thirteen year-olds and fourteen-year-olds to be having children out of wedlock."

That deserves three responses. First, it's not "common" now. Second, the age of menarche -- the onset of menstruation -- has dropped from age sixteen a century ago to age thirteen now, and sometimes as early as nine. Nobody knows why, but it's probably related to nutrition. So biologically speaking, an earlier menarche might be expected to result in earlier teen pregnancies. But third, guess when the highest rate of teenage births occurred in this country? It was during the 1950's, era of "Father Knows Best." Between 1991 and 1996 alone, the teenage birth rate declined by nearly 12 percent.

How about crime? In 1997, more than half the respondents to a public survey disagreed with the statement, "This country is finally beginning to make some progress in solving the crime problem." But the crime rate had fallen for a half dozen consecutive years, and continues to fall.

What about drugs? A majority of adults rank drug abuse as the greatest danger to America's youth. Nine of out ten believe the drug problem is out of control. But in the late 1990s the number of drug users had decreased by half compared to a decade earlier.

Or as Barry Glassner, author of The culture of Fear: why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things, puts it, "Give us a happy ending and we write a new disaster story."

Glassner's book, a closely reasoned, impeccably researched analysis of popular culture, dissects broad areas of utter false alarms. In large part, The Culture of Fear is a collection of news stories from the most prestigious journalistic institutions of our country. These stories -- and the appalling disregard of context behind them -- make for reading that is alternately sidesplitting ("flesh-eating bacteria") and sobering (the rise in whooping cough deaths after scares about DTP vaccines).

Clearly, a big cause of American's panic about almost anything is the media. There is far more violence in the evening news than anything on prime time. News executives follow a simple dictum: "If it bleeds, it leads." Moreover, it's just catchier to run a story about an "epidemic" than an isolated instance -- whether the topic is moms who kill their children, crack babies, or people who believe they have been abducted by aliens.

But another cause is what we might call "innumeracy," an ignorance of what various numbers signify. The biggest confusion is between the terms of incidence and rate. So one might note with accuracy that the incidence of plane crashes has increased. That makes some people feel that it's more likely. But the rate has dropped sharply. In other words, despite an increase of millions of flights each year, the number of crashes per 1,000 is dropping. Flying is safer this year than last, and in any case, far safer than driving.

Frankly, I don't have much hope that The Culture of Fear will turn things around. Alarmism sells. Newspaper people, TV reporters, televangelists, and even our politicians make gobs of money preying on our fears, however misguided they might be.

But you'll find a copy of the book at your local library anyhow. Don't be afraid to check it out.

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