Readers — Oh my god, this is a BRILLIANT essay by security expert Bruce Schneier. He’s a guy who thinks a lot about terrorism, but his words will make sense to all of us who are concerned with the difference between real danger (which we’d like to guard against) and “worst-case thinking,” which over-reacts to unlikely scenarios. Listen to this Schneier-ism:
There’s a certain blindness that comes from worst-case thinking. An extension of the precautionary principle, it involves imagining the worst possible outcome and then acting as if it were a certainty. It substitutes imagination for thinking, speculation for risk analysis, and fear for reason. It fosters powerlessness and vulnerability…”
Just like people who assume if their kid goes out to play, she MAY be kidnapped, so she probably WILL be kidnapped, so why take that awful risk? That’s the kind of worst-case thinking that leads folks to believes they can never let their (soon to be preyed upon) kids out of their sight. And listen to this:
Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it’s only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes.
So true! The “cost” of a child going outside is never measured against the cost of staying in. In other words: “Why risk my sweet child’s safety?” is never countered by, “What does my child GAIN by walking to school, and playing outside, and becoming street-smart and self-reliant,” etc. etc. And then there’s this!
Of course, not all fears are equal. Those that we tend to exaggerate are more easily justified by worst-case thinking. So terrorism fears trump privacy fears, and almost everything else; technology is hard to understand and therefore scary; nuclear weapons are worse than conventional weapons; our children need to be protected at all costs; and annihilating the planetis bad. Basically, any fear that would make a good movie plot is amenable to worst-case thinking.
And that’s the only point I disagree on. Because if a fear would make a good television plot, it works, too.
Finally, regarding our inflated sense of doom, regarding our kids (and everything else):
…worst-case thinking validates ignorance. Instead of focusing on what we know, it focuses on what we don’t know — and what we can imagine.
And then he quotes the venerable Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting (a seminal book in my house):
“Worst-case thinking encourages society to adopt fear as one of the dominant principles around which the public, the government and institutions should organize their life. It institutionalizes insecurity and fosters a mood of confusion and powerlessness. Through popularizing the belief that worst cases are normal, it incites people to feel defenseless and vulnerable to a wide range of future threats.”
Thank you to so many readers who sent this in. The essay really puts everything in focus: When we jump to the worst case scenario AND assume that because we can PICTURE it, that’s proof enough it could happen, we are living in a nightmare.
And thank you to Bruce Schneier for helping to wake us up. — Lenore