The Year In Fear: Fright Or Fallacy? From runaway Toyotas and toxic oil dispersants to "Frankenfish" and tainted eggs, 2010 was a year of big fears -- and some big overreactions. But what kind of risk was actually involved in some of the news stories that scared us the most?
NPR logo The Year In Fear: Fright Or Fallacy?
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There has been plenty to worry about in 2010. It's been a year of runaway cars, toxic oil dispersants, Frankenfish and tainted eggs, among other scary stories. They all got lots of media attention, even though some of them didn't present much of a risk.

NPR's John Hamilton looks back at the Year in Fear and says we should all be more worried about much more real dangers.

JON HAMILTON: Remember that Toyota Prius hurtling down a California freeway while its terrified driver spoke to a dispatcher from the Highway Patrol?

Unidentified Woman: What's going on? Is your accelerator stuck?

Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman: Yes?

Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible). Yeah, yeah.

HAMILTON: That incident in early March became the face of allegations that Toyotas were accelerating on their own, out of control.

David Ropeik is a former journalist and an instructor at Harvard, and the author of "How Risky Is It, Really?" he says the Toyota scenario tapped into our most primal fears.

Dr. DAVID ROPEIK (Director, Risk Communication, Harvard Center for Risk): Lack of control scares us. And so the nature of the risk - the cars doing something that I can't do something about - feels extra scary.

HAMILTON: In this case, though, the facts didn't seem to support the fear. Toyota spokesman Mike Michels pointed that out at a press conference after the company tested the Prius.

Mr. MIKE MICHELS (Spokesman, Toyota): Toyota believes there are significant inconsistencies between the account of the event of March 8th and the findings of this investigation.

HAMILTON: And when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began checking out runaway Toyotas, they found that in most cases, the driver had been pushing on the accelerator, not the brake.

Ropeik says Toyota screwed up, not by building bad cars but by appearing unresponsive to the problem.

Dr. ROPEIK: They failed to recognize how it would feel to us. And the company's mishandling it is why it really blew up, I think.

HAMILTON: Another scary story involved chemical dispersants used to break up the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told NPR's Melissa Block why that made sense.

Ms. LISA JACKSON (Administration, Environmental Protection Agency): Although these are chemicals, they are less toxic than the oil, and we have millions of gallons of oil being released out there.

HAMILTON: Ropeik says those words were unlikely to reassure the public.

Dr. ROPEIK: Just the word chemicals in your listeners' minds is currently setting off a little organ in their brain called the amygdala, which is the 24/7 radar in our brain that says - is there danger in that data?

HAMILTON: And the amygdala is saying yes because the word chemicals carries a stigma. Ropeik says we associate it with things that are toxic, or even deadly. So even though the oil itself posed a greater threat than dispersants, the chemicals generated more fear.

We're not usually afraid of salmon, unless we find out theyve been genetically modified by scientists.

Unidentified Man #2: We are fish food.

(Soundbite of screeching, screaming and crashing)

HAMILTON: Then Ropeik says they become Frankenfish.

Dr. ROPEIK: It's human-made, end of the story. Emotionally, human-made risks are way scarier than natural risks.

HAMILTON: Which is why we got really worried about a company that wants to make salmon grow faster by changing their genes. Ropeik says if the company, Aqua Bounty Technologies, had done the same thing through breeding, it is unlikely there would have been any outcry.

Of course, some scary stories this year pointed out real risks that are often overlooked. One of these stories involved egg farms in Iowa that poisoned nearly 2,000 people with salmonella.

Austin DeCoster, who owns one of the companies, appeared before a congressional subcommittee in September.

Mr. AUSTIN DECOSTER (Owner, Wright County Egg): We apologize to everyone who may have been sickened by eating our eggs. I have prayed several times each day for all of these people for improved health.

HAMILTON: Ropeik says the incident was a reminder that every year, millions of Americans are poisoned by something they eat, and thousands of them die.

Dr. ROPEIK: But a chronic risk doesnt ring our alarm bells the way a catastrophic, all-at-once one does. Because it concentrates the mind to see a bunch of the tribe all whacked at once.

HAMILTON: Ropeik says that rarely happens, so we tend to downplay chronic risks like car accidents, diabetes, heart disease and the flu. He says the problem is in our brain.

Dr. ROPEIK: We use a risk-perception system that evolved in simpler times, when the risks were bad guys with clubs, and the dark, and wolves. It's quick. But quick isn't necessarily the best for the complicated stuff we face in modern society.

HAMILTON: So Ropeik says we need to acquire a new fear - the fear of getting risk wrong.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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