“Is life today more dangerous than it used to be? It certainly seems that way,” Anne Applebaum wrote in yesterday’s Washington Post. “Between Alar in apples (remember that one?), acrylamide in crackers and trans fats in just about everything, our food has become inedible.” Actually, Applebaum argues, these threats are all smoke and no fire. Unfortunately, our society has become inept at calculating relative risks.
Applebaum cites unwarranted fears of mad cow disease to demonstrate her point:
In 1996 British scientists claimed, on fairly flimsy evidence, to have established links between mad cow disease in cattle, the human consumption of hamburgers and a fatal brain disease called CJD in humans. “We could virtually lose a whole generation of people,” one scientist infamously intoned, predicting a CJD epidemic of “biblical proportions.”
In response, the British government slaughtered millions of innocent cattle. The costs were astronomical; the economy of the countryside was devastated; British agriculture has never recovered. Yet there were only 20 cases of CJD in Britain in 2000, 17 in 2002. So far, this year there are 12. At the same time, more than 1,000 people in Britain will die this year from falling down stairs. More lives would probably have been saved, in other words, if the British government had simply banned the construction of two-story houses.
Applebaum suggests that “people are disproportionately frightened by things they read about in the newspaper.” That’s probably true. But warnings that “we could virtually lose a whole generation” to mad cow disease don’t magically appear in the newspaper all by themselves. Someone has to say them. And when it comes to food fears, newspapers count on a cabal of activists to supply them with terrifying stories. See for yourself how activists were responsible for bringing mad cow fears to America. And find out who was behind the latest mad cow scare this summer.
To mad cow disease, we might add a few more examples of food fears where wild-eyed activists are constantly attempting to terrify the general public, even though they have no actual examples of harm — and the respectable scientific community concludes that the risks are incredibly low:
“Life is far safer and lasts much longer for the average American than” at any time in human history, Applebaum concludes. “Now that we’ve eliminated most of the things that the human race once feared, we’ve just invented new ones to replace them.”