5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)


Crowds are stupid. People panic over every "end of the world" theory they read about on the Internet, forward each other emails claiming Barack Obama is building concentration camps and they repeat urban legends without taking five seconds to verify them on Snopes.

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But everybody can get taken in sometimes. Just look at these panics that seemed to draw in lots of well-educated types right along with the rubes. Like...

Swine Flu

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

Cough. Within 30 seconds, someone in your office will ask if you have Swine Flu. If you say you do, you will be quarantined by a crowd bearing pitchforks and torches.

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

That scene is repeating itself all over the globe, to varying degrees. In Japan, they're selling a suit that makers claim can repel the H1N1 virus. In the Middle East, Iranian officials have banned their devout from going on Pilgrimage to Muslim holy sites, including Mecca, to avoid contamination. Saudi Arabia is requiring that pilgrims coming to Mecca provide proof of vaccination. For the very few of our readers who aren't devout Muslims, that's like canceling Christmas and making Aunt Ethel stand out in the snow until she shows you her small pox scar.

Why It Sounds Rational:

It's Swine Flu! Didn't the news say that this shit had the potential to kill like 100-million people?


And the news is never misleading.

And look at the response! The U.S. is preparing to vaccinate half the freaking population in under a year. That's never even been attempted before. Not even with Polio.

If you don't speak the language of local and cable news, allow us to translate: THIS IS AN EMERGENCY, PEOPLE! Get in your Swine Flu bunkers before it's too late!

Why It's Not:

The current pandemic of Swine Flu has claimed less than 3,000 lives. Well... that's still pretty bad, right? After all, that's like a flu-caused 9/11. Then again, the ordinary flu, that gives us the sniffles every year? That one kills several hundred thousand people around the world.

The reason for the early panic is that they believed this virus was a descendant of the 1918 Spanish Flu that wiped out a jaw-dropping 50-million people. And while it was obviously not as deadly, the fear was that it would eventually mutate into something like its apocalyptic ancestor.

Also, it's got a scary name.

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

Swine Flu mascot briefly considered by the CDC.

It hasn't lived up to it. Even the World Health Organization is describing this as a "moderate" outbreak. Their advice? Same as with the regular flu. Babies and old people should get vaccinated. The rest of your should wash your hands and stay away from sick people.

The World Health Organization would also like to remind everyone that it's safe to go back to eating your pork rinds, as there is no proof that pork causes Swine Flu and you cannot believe everything you read on fucking Twitter.

Killer Asteroids

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

Giant killer asteroids aren't just something Michael Bay dreamed up so he'd have an excuse to flatten Paris on the big screen. Stephen Hawking just made headlines around the Web by proclaiming that the biggest reason intelligent life doesn't develop on planets is because they get wiped out by huge fucking space rocks before they have the chance.

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

Asteroids could have stopped this.

Experts have conferences on how to orchestrate a "planetary defense" against such threats and magazines like Popular Science do articles every year on the asteroid menace.

Holy shit!

Why It Sounds Rational:

It's true that asteroids and comets are everywhere. Scientists guesstimate that somewhere between 18,000 to 84,000 meteorites bigger than 10-grams hit Earth every year. Our planet's crust is pock marked with proof that meteorites have slammed into Earth time and time again.

Why It's Not:

We're not disagreeing with Mr. Hawking here. It's that people tend to take what experts like him say and extrapolate it into, "WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE AT ANY MOMENT" because that makes such a better headline. For instance, the story linked above got sent around the Internet with the headline, "Stephen Hawking: Asteroid Impacts are the Biggest Threat." As if he was saying we should be more worried about asteroids than global warming or curing cancer.


He wasn't. He was saying that it takes millions of years for life to evolve and if you wait millions of years, eventually a big-ass asteroid will hit.

To be ranked as a planet killer, an asteroid has to be pegged as a 10 on the Torino Impact Hazard Scale. Currently, scientists can only find one asteroid near Earth that ranks even a one on that scale, never mind a 10. Everything else is a zero.

So how dangerous is that level one asteroid? It has about a one in 3,000 chance of hitting the Earth 40 or 50 years from now, and it's one-hundredth the size of the one they think killed the dinosaurs.

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

Again, we're not saying it can't possibly happen. It's that the odds are overwhelming that you will die of something else long before it does.


5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

Let's face it: There is not a single movie in the history of science fiction where cloning has turned out well. It's no surprise that when scientists in the 90s managed to clone a sheep named Dolly, the news media lost their shit.

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Even the most enlightened, forward-thinking guy you know will hesitate to eat a steak that he's been told was cloned, and that guy will react even worse if his parents tell him they're going to clone him a little brother.

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

In fact, in 2008, the European Union called for a ban of all cloning for commercial purposes, meaning that no cloned critter bits could be brought into the European market and would prohibit everything from T-bone steaks to leather fetish gear being made from clones.

Why It Sounds Rational:

There just seems like so, so many ways this could go wrong. Science takes a few cells, bakes them in their magic E-Z Bake Ovens and produces an animal that was not conceived in any natural way. Then along come the venture capitalists, pie-eyed with dreams of cloning pets at exorbitant prices and filling private zoos with extinct species. The next thing we know we're all living in Jurassic Park without a dinosaur expert in sight.


Why It's Not:

First, what scientists are trying desperately to do is clone cells, as there are all sorts of medical breakthroughs that can happen if we learn how to grow certain kinds of cells at will. But cloning whole creatures is also in the cards, and fears about that seem to break down like this:

"Imagine a future of identical, soulless clones! All respect for human life would be ruined!"

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

It would be a shame if people started trivializing human life.

They're not talking about building a machine that spits out fully-grown human photocopies. They're talking about cloning embryos and letting them grow up normally. You can still think they're unnatural and weird, in the sense that you are also free to think identical twins are unnatural and weird. But if you treat them as less than human, you're the dick in that situation.

"The cloning process will produce horrific deformed cloned babies!"

The manufacture of grotesque flipper-babies for our amusement is probably already illegal where you live and if it's not, it soon will be. No one is in favor of that.

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

"It's playing God! And who can predict the effect such tinkering would have on the ecosystem?"

Actually, we've been "cloning" living things for thousands of years. We're talking about plants here, and farming depends on it. The result has been better plants that produce more food for everyone, without a single sentient man-eating plant to be found (though we probably tried).

It should also be noted that this is one of those technologies people assume is way further along than it actually is. Possibly because some publicity-seeking mad scientist comes along every few years and makes an outrageous claim about cloning humans or something else equally sure to get him headlines. Said scientist always proceeds to offer zero evidence, and then quietly slips back into obscurity, never to be heard from again.

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

Real scientists have managed to clone about a dozen species... almost all of which immediately die. Remember Dolly, the cloned sheep? Professor Wilmut, the scientist behind that project, has abandoned cloning as a technique. A team in South Korea that had claimed massive breakthroughs in the field turned out to be frauds.

What we're saying is we're much closer to a robot dinosaur rampage than a cloned dinosaur rampage, and urge scientists to put their efforts there instead.

Genetically Modified Foods

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

Hey, speaking of sentient man-eating plants...

If there's one thing worse than cloning something, it's genetically modifying it. After all, cloning is all about just making copies, right? But freaking genetically modified food? The fact that they're "modifying" it is right there in the word!

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

The future of corn?

The mistrust of mutated munchies runs so deep that Zambia opted to freaking starve its own people rather than accept deliveries of genetically modified food. The country refused more than 27,000 tons of transgenic food aid and set off riots when some genetically modified grain was handed out by accident.

Venezuela and Hungary followed suit, both banning GM food and seed imports in the last five years.

Why It Sounds Rational:

This is damned mad scientist stuff, only they're asking us to eat their mutations. It's akin to chowing down on the three-eyed catfish caught in your local nuclear power plant's cooling ponds.

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

Shark man is delicious, though.

Environmentalist groups like Greenpeace are against it. And you can see why, considering some GM crops have been shown to be dangerous. One type of soybean had to be pulled off the market because they had spliced in genes from Brazil Nuts to make the beans more nutritious (they were used as cattle feed). At the testing stage they figured out that people who were allergic to Brazil Nuts would be allergic to the meat from the cattle.

Why It's Not:

Just as with cloning, you have to start with the fact that genetic modification of plants and animals has been going on for as long as man has been herding smelly beasts and shoving seeds in the ground. Seedless watermelon and your Aunt Nelly's yappy toy poodle have one thing in common: Nature had a lot of help in producing their modern incarnations.

There is the potential for bad results to slip through testing, just as there are with foods grown or bred the old-fashioned way (compare the number of people who have gotten sick from GM foods as opposed to good old-fashioned salmonella contamination from good old-fashioned poop). And so far, the World Health Organization says they've never found ill effects on human health from eating GM foods.

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

Now consider the benefits.

In 1970, Norman Borlaug won a Nobel Peace Prize for tinkering with wheat genes until he came up with bionic wheat, a plant that was better than it was before; growing more wheat which was better, stronger and faster. He introduced the wheat to Mexico, Pakistan and India, and is credited with preventing a billion people from starving to death as a result.

That's right. The genetic modification of a single crop saved a billion lives. We'll actually tolerate a few man-eating vines if it means a billion lives are saved.


5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

Everyone reading this remembers when America faced the dire threat of bioterrorism head-on, in Season Three of 24.

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

But before that, just after 9/11, there was an Anthrax attack where envelopes full of the stuff were mailed to targets around the country. Ever since then, the U.S. Post Office has been bombarding every piece of mail addressed to the White House, Congressional offices and federal government offices in the DC area with gonad shriveling levels of radiation in an attempt to destroy any potential pathogens.

2001 was also the year The Biowatch Program was created. Special filters were stuffed into previously existing air quality testing filters in 31 cities, and then monitored for signs of contamination. To date, the program has cost 500-million dollars and is still running--though so far the world's most expensive air filters haven't caught wind of so much as a Fed-Exed cold with a bad attitude.

Why It Sounds Rational:

Uh, we already were attacked this way. Duh. And it could happen again at any time, and maybe this time it will actually kill more people than if the culprit had just run around stabbing random dudes.

Why It's Not:

Wait a second. Why haven't we been attacked this way since then? Sure, it may be hard to get these deadly substances into the U.S. during the post-9/11 lockdown, but what about targets overseas? Why isn't it being used against the military in Afghanistan or Iraq?

Well, it turns out you can't just mix up this stuff in your basement. Creating and stockpiling biological weapons got outlawed by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and was signed by over 100 countries.

5 Irrational Fears (Even Rational People Have)

The only weapons convention Charlton Heston didn't attend.

Yes, we realize terrorists don't abide by treaties, but breeding killer germs is the sort of thing that's really, really hard to do under the table. Weaponized contagions sound terrifying, but they are also rare, insanely expensive to produce and harder to spread than cold butter on Wonder Bread. The ability to genetically alter or weaponize pathogens is complex, time-consuming and requires access to advanced laboratories and serious cash.

And even if you do it, the results aren't that great as far as terror attacks go. The Center for Disease Control only lists six pathogens as "Category A" Agents, meaning they are the select few that can actually cause a major public health problem if some terror mastermind unleashed it on the public: anthrax, smallpox, bubonic plague, tularemia, botulism and Ebola.

Vaccines, antitoxins and treatments exist for almost all of them in one form or another, and others (like Ebola) aren't very contagious (Ebola only spreads via bodily fluids, and has only been a threat in extremely poor countries with bad sanitation).

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Also, we would like to point out that tularemia is also called "rabbit fever." Seriously. We refuse to be afraid of damned Bunny Disease, especially since it's almost never fatal.

For more of Susan's work you can check out her blog at Capricia's Corner.

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For more "threats" we need to chill out about, check out The 5 Most Ridiculously Over-Hyped Health Scares of All Time and The 6 Most Over-Hyped Threats to America (And What Should Scare You Instead).

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