How to hide 40 million airplanes, and how I kind of won the Nobel Peace Prize 

Blood All Over the Floor

On October 7, 1975, I was plastering a patient’s arm when an assistant nurse burst through the door and announced that a plane had crashed and the wounded were coming in by helicopter. It was my fifth day as a junior doctor on the emergency ward in the small coastal town of Hudiksvall in Sweden. All the senior staff were down in the dining hall and as the assistant nurse and I searched frantically for the folder of disaster instructions, I could already hear the helicopter landing. The two of us were going to have to handle this on our own.

Seconds later a stretcher was rolled in, bearing a man in dark green overalls and a camouflage life jacket. His arms and legs were twitching. An epileptic seizure, I thought; off with his clothes. I removed his life jacket easily but his overalls were more problematic. They looked like a spacesuit, with huge sturdy zippers all over, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t find the zipper that undid them. I had just registered that the uniform meant this was a military pilot when I noticed the blood all over the floor. “He’s bleeding,” I shouted. With this much blood, I knew he could be dead in a matter of seconds, but with the overalls still on, I couldn’t see where it was coming from. I grabbed a big pair of plaster pliers to cut through the fabric and howled to the assistant nurse, “Four bags of blood, O-negative. Now!”

To the patient, I shouted, “Where does it hurt?” “Yazhe shisha … na adjezhizha zha …” he replied. I couldn’t understand a word, but it sounded like Russian. I looked the man in his eyes and said with a clear voice, “все тихо товарищ, шведскaya больницa,” which means “All is calm, comrade, Swedish hospital.”

I will never forget the look of panic I triggered with those words. Frightened out of his mind, he stared back at me and tried to tell me something: “Vavdvfor papratarjenji rysskamememje ej …” I looked into his eyes full of fear, and then I realized: this must be a Russian fighter pilot who has been shot down over Swedish territory. Which means that the Soviet Union is attacking us. World War III has started! I was paralyzed by fear.

Fortunately, at that moment the head nurse, Birgitta, came back from lunch. She snatched the plaster pliers from my hand and hissed, “Don’t shred it. That’s an air force ‘G suit’ and it costs more than 10,000 Swedish kronor.” After a beat she added, “And can you please step off the life jacket. You’re standing on the color cartridge and it is making the whole floor red.”

Birgitta turned to the patient, calmly freed him from his G suit, and wrapped him in a couple of blankets. In the meantime she told him in Swedish, “You were in the icy water for 23 minutes, which is why you are jerking and shivering, and why we can’t understand what you’re saying.” The Swedish air force pilot, who had evidently crashed during a routine flight, gave me a comforting little smile.

A few years ago I contacted the pilot, and was relieved to hear that he doesn’t remember a thing from those first minutes in the emergency room in 1975. But for me the experience is hard to forget. I will forever remember my complete misjudgment. Everything was the other way around: the Russian was Swedish, the war was peace, the epileptic seizure was cooling, and the blood was a color ampule from inside the life jacket. Yet it had all seemed so convincing to me.

When we are afraid, we do not see clearly. I was a young doctor facing my first emergency, and I had always been terrified by the prospect of a third world war. As a child, I often had nightmares about it. I would wake up and run to my parents’ bed. I could be calmed only by my father going over the details of our plan one more time: we would take our tent in the bike trailer and go live in the woods where there were plenty of blueberries. Inexperienced, and in an emergency situation for the first time, my head quickly generated a worst-case scenario. I didn’t see what I wanted to see. I saw what I was afraid of seeing. Critical thinking is always difficult, but it’s almost impossible when we are scared. There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.

The Attention Filter

None of us has enough mental capacity to consume all the information out there. The question is, what part are we processing and how did it get selected? And what part are we ignoring? The kind of information we seem most likely to process is stories: information that sounds dramatic.

Imagine that we have a shield, or attention filter, between the world and our brain. This attention filter protects us against the noise of the world: without it, we would constantly be bombarded with so much information we would be overloaded and paralyzed. Then imagine that the attention filter has ten instinct-shaped holes in it—gap, negativity, straight line, and so on. Most information doesn’t get through, but the holes do allow through information that appeals to our dramatic instincts. So we end up paying attention to information that fits our dramatic instincts, and ignoring information that does not.

The media can’t waste time on stories that won’t pass our attention filters.

Here are a couple of headlines that won’t get past a newspaper editor, because they are unlikely to get past our own filters: “MALARIA CONTINUES TO GRADUALLY DECLINE.” “METEOROLOGISTS CORRECTLY PREDICTED YESTERDAY THAT THERE WOULD BE MILD WEATHER IN LONDON TODAY.” Here are some topics that easily get through our filters: earthquakes, war, refugees, disease, fire, floods, shark attacks, terror attacks. These unusual events are more newsworthy than everyday ones. And the unusual stories we are constantly shown by the media paint pictures in our heads. If we are not extremely careful, we come to believe that the unusual is usual: that this is what the world looks like.

For the first time in world history, data exists for almost every aspect of global development. And yet, because of our dramatic instincts and the way the media must tap into them to grab our attention, we continue to have an overdramatic worldview. Of all our dramatic instincts, it seems to be the fear instinct that most strongly influences what information gets selected by news producers and presented to us consumers.

The Fear Instinct

When people are asked in polls what they are most afraid of, four answers always tend to turn up near the top: snakes, spiders, heights, and being trapped in small spaces. Then comes a long list with no surprises: public speaking, needles, airplanes, mice, strangers, dogs, crowds, blood, darkness, fire, drowning, and so on.

These fears are hardwired deep in our brains for obvious evolutionary reasons. Fears of physical harm, captivity, and poison once helped our ancestors survive. In modern times, perceptions of these dangers still trigger our fear instinct. You can spot stories about them in the news every day:

• physical harm: violence caused by people, animals, sharp objects, or forces of nature

• captivity: entrapment, loss of control, or loss of freedom

• contamination: by invisible substances that can infect or poison us 

These fears are still constructive for people on Levels 1 and 2. For example, it is practical, on Levels 1 and 2, to be afraid of snakes. Sixty thousand people are killed by snakes every year. Better to jump one too many times when you see a stick. Whatever you do, don’t get bitten. There’s no hospital nearby and if there is you can’t afford it.

A Midwife’s Wish

In 1999, I traveled with a couple of Swedish students to visit a traditional midwife in a remote village in Tanzania. I wanted my medical students from Level 4 to meet a real health worker on Level 1 instead of just reading about them in books. The midwife had no formal education, and the students’ jaws dropped when she described her struggles, walking between villages to help poor women deliver babies on mud floors in complete darkness with no medical equipment and no clean water.

One of the students asked, “Do you have children of your own?” “Yes,” she said proudly, “two boys and two daughters.” “Will your daughters become midwives like you?” The old woman threw her body forward and laughed out loud. “My daughters! Working like me?! Oh no! Never! Ever! They have nice jobs. They work in front of computers in Dar es Salaam, just like they wanted to.” The midwife’s daughters had escaped Level 1.

Another student asked, “If you could choose one piece of equipment that could make your work easier, what would that be?” “I really want a flashlight,” she answered. “When I walk to a village in the dark, even when the moon is shining, it is so difficult to see the snakes.”

On Levels 3 and 4, where life is less physically demanding and people can afford to protect themselves against nature, these biological memories probably cause more harm than good. On Level 4, for sure the fears that evolved to protect us are now doing us harm. A small minority—3 percent—of the population on Level 4 suffers from a phobia so strong it hinders their daily life. For the vast majority of us not blocked by phobias, the fear instinct harms us by distorting our worldview.

The media cannot resist tapping into our fear instinct. It is such an easy way to grab our attention. In fact the biggest stories are often those that trigger more than one type of fear. Kidnappings and plane crashes, for example, each combine the fear of harm and the fear of captivity. Earthquake victims trapped under collapsed buildings are both hurt and trapped, and get more attention than regular earthquake victims. The drama is so much stronger when multiple fears are triggered.

Yet here’s the paradox: the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe.

Fears that once helped keep our ancestors alive, today help keep journalists employed. It isn’t the journalists’ fault and we shouldn’t expect them to change. It isn’t driven by “media logic” among the producers so much as by “attention logic” in the heads of the consumers.

If we look at the facts behind the headlines, we can see how the fear instinct systematically distorts what we see of the world.

Natural Disasters: In Times Like These

Nepal is one of the last Asian countries left on Level 1, and in 2015 it was hit by an earthquake. The death rate is always higher when a disaster hits a country on Level 1, because of poorly constructed buildings, poor infrastructure, and poor medical facilities. Nine thousand people died.


How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?

A: More than doubled

B: Remained about the same

C: Decreased to less than half

This number includes all fatalities from floods, earthquakes, storms, droughts, wildfires, and extreme temperatures, and also deaths during the mass displacement of people and pandemics after such events. Just 10 percent of people picked the right answer, and even in the countries that did best on this question—Finland and Norway—it was only 16 percent. (As always, the full country breakdown is in the appendix.) The chimpanzees, who don’t watch the news, got 33 percent as always! In fact, the number of deaths from acts of nature has dropped far below half. It is now just 25 percent of what it was 100 years ago. The human population increased by 5 billion people over the same period, so the drop in deaths per capita is even more amazing. It has fallen to just 6 percent of what it was 100 years ago.

The reason natural disasters kill so many fewer people today is not that nature has changed. It is that the majority of people no longer live on Level 1. Disasters hit countries on all income levels, but the harm done is very different. With more money comes better preparedness. The graph below shows the average number of deaths from natural disasters per million people over the last 25 years, on each income level.

Thanks to better education, new affordable solutions, and global collaborations, the decrease in death rates is impressive even among those who are stuck on Level 1—as shown in the image on the next page. (We look at averages of 25-year periods because natural disasters don’t occur at an even rate each year. Even so, just one event, the heat wave in Europe in 2003, was largely responsible for the fourfold increase in the death rate on Level 4.)

Back in 1942, Bangladesh was on Level 1 and almost all its citizens were illiterate farmers. Over a two-year period it suffered terrible floods, droughts, and cyclones. No international organization came to the rescue and 2 million people died. Today, Bangladesh is on Level 2. Today, almost all Bangladeshi children finish school, where they learn that three red-and-black flags means everyone must run to the evacuation centers. Today, the government has installed across the country’s huge river delta a digital surveillance system connected to a freely available flood-monitoring website. Just 15 years ago, no country in the world had such an advanced system. When another cyclone hit in 2015, the plan worked and the World Food Programme flew in 113 tons of high-energy biscuits to the 30,000 evacuated families.

In the same year, vivid images spread awareness across the world of the horrific earthquake in Nepal, and rescue teams and helicopters were quickly deployed. Tragically, thousands were already dead, but the humanitarian resources that rushed to this inaccessible country on Level 1 did manage to prevent the death toll from rising even further.

The UN’s ReliefWeb has become a global coordinator for disaster help—something earlier generations of disaster victims could only dream of. And it is paid for by taxpayers on Level 4. We should be very proud of it. We humans have finally figured out how to protect ourselves against nature. The huge reduction in deaths from natural disasters is yet another trend to add to the pile of mankind’s ignored, unknown success stories.

Unfortunately, the people on Level 4 paying for ReliefWeb are the same people we asked about the trend in natural disasters. Ninety-one percent of them are unaware of the success they are paying for because their journalists continue to report every disaster as if it were the worst. The long, elegantly dropping trend line, a bit of fact-based hope, they think is not newsworthy.

Next time the news shows you horrific images of victims trapped under collapsed buildings, will you be able to remember the positive long-term trend? When the journalist turns to the camera and says, “The world just became a bit more dangerous,” will you be able to disagree? To look at the local rescue crew in their colorful helmets and think, “Most of their parents couldn’t read. But these guys are following internationally used first-aid guidelines. The world is getting better.”

When the journalist says with a sad face, “in times like these,” will you smile and think that she is referring to the first time in history when disaster victims get immediate global attention and foreigners send their best helicopters? Will you feel fact-based hope that humanity will be able to prevent even more horrific deaths in the future?

I don’t think so. Not if you function like me. Because when that camera pans to bodies of dead children being pulled out of the debris, my intellectual capacity is blocked by fear and sorrow. At that moment, no line chart in the world can influence my feelings, no facts can comfort me. Claiming in that moment that things are getting better would be to trivialize the immense suffering of those victims and their families. It would be absolutely unethical. In these situations we must forget the big picture and do everything we can to help.

The big facts and the big picture must wait until the danger is over. But then we must dare to establish a fact-based worldview again. We must cool our brains and compare the numbers to make sure our resources are used effectively to stop future suffering. We can’t let fear guide these priorities. Because the risks we fear the most are now often—thanks to our successful international collaboration—the risks that actually cause us the least harm.

For ten days or so in 2015 the world was watching the images from Nepal, where 9,000 people had died. During the same ten days, diarrhea from contaminated drinking water also killed 9,000 children across the world. There were no camera teams around as these children fainted in the arms of their crying parents. No cool helicopters swooped in. Helicopters, anyway, don’t work against this child killer (one of the world’s worst). All that’s needed to stop a child from accidentally drinking her neighbor’s still-lukewarm poo is a few plastic pipes, a water pump, some soap, and a basic sewage system. Much cheaper than a helicopter.

40 Million Invisible Planes

In 2016 a total of 40 million commercial passenger flights landed safely at their destinations. Only ten ended in fatal accidents. Of course, those were the ones the journalists wrote about: 0.000025 percent of the total. Safe flights are not newsworthy. Imagine:

“Flight BA0016 from Sydney arrived in Singapore Changi airport without any problems. And that was today’s news.”

2016 was the second safest year in aviation history. That is not newsworthy either.

This graph shows plane crash deaths per 10 billion commercial passenger miles over the last 70 years. Flying has gotten 2,100 times safer.

Back in the 1930s, flying was really dangerous and passengers were scared away by the many accidents. Flight authorities across the world had understood the potential of commercial passenger air traffic, but they also realized flying had to become safer before most people would dare to try it. In 1944 they all met in Chicago to agree on common rules and signed a contract with a very important Annex 13: a common form for incident reports, which they agreed to share, so they could all learn from each other’s mistakes.

Since then, every crash or incident involving a commercial passenger airplane has been investigated and reported; risk factors have been systematically identified; and improved safety procedures have been adopted, worldwide. Wow! I’d say the Chicago Convention is one of humanity’s most impressive collaborations ever. It’s amazing how well people can work together when they share the same fears.

The fear instinct is so strong that it can make people collaborate across the world, to make the greatest progress. It’s so strong it can also remove 40 million noncrashing aircraft from our field of sight each year. Just like it can erase 330,000 child deaths from diarrhea from our TV screens. Just like that.

War and Conflict

I was born in 1948, three years after the end of the Second World War, in which 65 million people died. No one pretended that another world war could not come. And yet, it did not come. Instead came peace: the longest peace between superpowers in human history.

Today, conflicts and fatalities from conflicts are at a record low. I have lived through the most peaceful decades in human history. Watching the news, with its never-ending flow of horrifying images, it is almost impossible to believe that.

I do not seek to trivialize the horror that undoubtedly remains. I do not try to understate the importance of ending current conflicts. Remember: things can be bad, and getting better. Getting better, but still bad. The world was once mostly barbaric and it is now mostly not. But for the people of Syria, these trends are of course not comforting. There it is barbaric right now.

The Syrian conflict will most likely prove to be the deadliest in the world since the Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998 to 2000. We don’t know the total fatalities yet and we don’t know if the conflict will spread. If fatalities end up being in the tens of thousands, the conflict will have been less bloody than the worst wars of the 1990s. If the death toll reaches 200,000, this will still fall short of the wars of the 1980s. This is no comfort whatsoever to those living through this horror, but the fact that battle deaths are falling decade by decade should be some comfort to the rest of us.

The general trend toward less violence is not just one more improvement. It is the most beautiful trend there is. The spread of peace over the last decades has enabled all the other improvements we have seen. We must take care of this fragile gift if we hope to achieve our other noble goals, such as collaboration toward a sustainable future. Without world peace, you can forget about all other global progress.


The threat of a third, nuclear, world war was very real to me during my childhood in the 1950s and throughout the next three decades. It was real to most people. We all had images in our heads of the victims of Hiroshima, and the news showed superpowers flexing their nuclear muscles like bodybuilders on steroids, one test bombing after another. In 1985, the Nobel Peace Prize committee decided that nuclear disarmament was the most important peace cause in the world. They awarded the prize to me. Well, not to me directly, but to IPPNW, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and I was a proud member of that organization.

In 1986 there were 64,000 nuclear warheads in the world; today there are 15,000. So the fear instinct can sure help to remove terrible things from the world. On other occasions, it runs out of control, distorts our risk assessment, and causes terrible harm.

Eight miles underwater, on the seafloor of the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Japan, a “seismic slip-rupture event” took place on March 11, 2011. It moved the Japanese main island eight feet eastward and generated a tsunami that reached the coast one hour later, killing roughly 18,000 people. The tsunami also was higher than the wall that was built to protect the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. The province was flooded with water and the world’s news was flooded with fear of physical harm and radioactive contamination.

People escaped the province as fast as they could, but 1,600 more people died. It was not the leaking radioactivity that killed them. Not one person has yet been reported as having died from the very thing that people were fleeing from. These 1,600 people died because they escaped. They were mainly old people who died because of the mental and physical stresses of the evacuation itself or of life in evacuation shelters. It wasn’t radioactivity, but the fear of radioactivity, that killed them. (Even after the worst-ever nuclear accident, Chernobyl in 1986, when most people expected a huge increase in the death rate, the WHO investigators could not confirm this, even among those living in the area.)

In the 1940s, a new wonder chemical was discovered that killed many annoying insects. Farmers were so happy. People fighting malaria were so happy. DDT was sprayed over crops, across swamps, and in homes with little investigation of its side effects. DDT’s creator won a Nobel Prize.

During the 1950s the early environmental movement in the United States started to raise concerns about levels of DDT accumulating up the food chain into fish and even birds. The great popular science writer Rachel Carson reported her finding that the shells of bird eggs in her area were becoming thinner in Silent Spring, a book that became a global bestseller. The idea that humans were allowed to spread invisible substances to kill bugs, and authorities were looking away from any signs of the wider impact on other animals or on humans, was of course frightening.

A fear of insufficient regulation and of irresponsible companies was ignited and the global environmental movement was born. Thanks to this movement —and to further contamination scandals involving oil spills, plantation workers disabled by pesticides, nuclear reactor failures—the world today has decent chemical and safety regulations covering many countries (though still not close to the impressive coverage of the aviation industry). DDT was banned in several countries and aid agencies had to stop using it.

But. But. As a side effect, we have been left with a level of public fear of chemical contamination that almost resembles paranoia. It is called chemophobia.

This means that a fact-based understanding of topics like childhood vaccinations, nuclear power, and DDT is still extremely difficult today. The memory of insufficient regulation has created automatic mistrust and fear, which blocks the ability to hear data-driven arguments. I will try anyway. 

In a devastating example of critical thinking gone bad, highly educated, deeply caring parents avoid the vaccinations that would protect their children from killer diseases. I love critical thinking and I admire skepticism, but only within a framework that respects the evidence. So if you are skeptical about the measles vaccination, I ask you to do two things. First, make sure you know what it looks like when a child dies from measles. Most children who catch measles recover, but there is still no cure and even with the best modern medicine, one or two in every thousand will die of it. Second, ask yourself, “What kind of evidence would convince me to change my mind?” If the answer is “no evidence could ever change my mind about vaccination,” then you are putting yourself outside evidence-based rationality, outside the very critical thinking that first brought you to this point. In that case, to be consistent in your skepticism about science, next time you have an operation please ask your surgeon not to bother washing her hands.

More than one thousand old people died escaping from a nuclear leak that killed no one. DDT is harmful but I have been unable to find numbers showing that it has directly killed anyone either. The harm investigations that were not done in the 1940s have been done now. In 2002 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced a 497-page document named Toxicological Profile for DDT, DDE and DDD. In 2006 the World Health Organization finally finished reviewing all the scientific investigations and, just like the CDC, classified DDT as “mildly harmful” to humans, stating that it had more health benefits than drawbacks in many situations.

DDT should be used with great caution, but there are pros and cons. In refugee camps teeming with mosquitoes, for example, DDT is often one of the quickest and cheapest ways to save lives. Americans, Europeans, and fear-driven lobbyists, though, refuse to read the CDC’s and WHO’s lengthy investigations and short recommendations and are not ready to discuss the use of DDT. Which means some aid organizations that depend on popular support avoid evidence-based solutions that actually would save lives.

Improvements in regulations have been driven not by death rates but by fear, and in some cases—Fukushima, DDT—fear of an invisible substance has run amok and is doing more harm than the substance is itself.

The environment is deteriorating in many parts of the world. But just as dramatic earthquakes receive more news coverage than diarrhea, small but scary chemical contaminations receive more news coverage than more harmful but less dramatic environmental deteriorations, such as the dying seabed and the urgent matter of overfishing.

Chemophobia also means that every six months there is a “new scientific finding” about a synthetic chemical found in regular food in very low quantities that, if you ate a cargo ship or two of it every day for three years, could kill you. At this point, highly educated people put on their worried faces and discuss it over a glass of red wine. The zero-death toll seems to be of no interest in these discussions. The level of fear seems entirely driven by the “chemical” nature of the invisible substance.

Now let’s move to the latest number one fear in the West.


If there’s one group of people who have fully understood the power of the fear instinct, it’s not journalists. It’s terrorists. The clue is in their name. Fear is what they aim for. And they succeed by tapping into all our primitive fears —of physical harm, of being trapped, of being poisoned or contaminated.

Terrorism is one of the exceptions to the global trends discussed in chapter 2 on negativity. It is getting worse. So are you right to be very scared of it? Well, first of all it accounted for 0.05 percent of all deaths in the world in 2016, so probably not. Second, it depends where you live.

At the University of Maryland in the United States, a group of researchers has collected data about all terror events recorded in reliable media since 1970. The result is the freely available Global Terrorism Database, containing details of 170,000 terror events. This database shows that in the ten-year period from 2007 to 2016, terrorists killed 159,000 people worldwide: three times more than the number killed in the previous ten-year period. Just like with Ebola, when a number is doubling or tripling, of course we should be worried and look closer to see what it means.

Hunting Terrorism Data

In this part of the book, all the trends finish in 2016 because 2016 is the last year of data in the Global Terrorism Database. The researchers carefully study multiple sources to eliminate rumors and false information for each record they enter, which creates a time delay. That is good scientific practice, but I find it strange. Just like with Ebola, and as with the CO2 emissions I will discuss later, when something seems important and concerning, don’t we need up-to-date data as quickly as possible rather than perfect data? Otherwise how can we know whether terrorism is increasing or not?

Wikipedia contains articles with long lists of recent terror attacks from all over the world. Volunteers update them amazingly quickly, just minutes after the first news is out. I love Wikipedia and if we could trust these lists, we wouldn’t have to wait so long to see the trend. To check their reliability we decided to compare (English) Wikipedia with the Global Terrorism Database for 2015. If the overlap was close to 100 percent, we could probably trust Wikipedia to be quite complete for 2016 and 2017 as well, and use it as a good-enough source for tracking more up-to-date terrorism trends.

It turned out Wikipedia unintentionally presented a very distorted worldview. It was distorted in a systematic way according to a Western mind-set. Our disappointment was huge. More precisely, it was 78 percent. That’s how many of the 2015 terrorism deaths were missing from Wikipedia. While almost all the deaths in the West were recorded, only 25 percent of those in “the rest” were there.

No matter how much I love Wikipedia, we still need serious researchers to maintain reliable data sets. But they need more resources so they can update them quicker.

However, while terrorism has been increasing worldwide, it has actually been decreasing on Level 4. In 2007 to 2016 a total of 1,439 people were killed by terrorists in countries on Level 4. During the ten years before that, 4,358 were killed. That includes the largest attack ever, the 2,996 people who died on 9/11 in 2001. Even if we exclude them, the death toll on Level 4 has remained the same between the two latest ten-year periods. It was on Levels 1, 2, and 3 that there was a terrible increase in terror-related deaths. Most of that increase was in five countries: Iraq (which accounted for almost half the increase), Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria.

Terrorism deaths in the richest countries—i.e., countries on Level 4—accounted for 0.9 percent of all terrorism deaths in 2007 to 2016. They have been decreasing through this century. Since 2001, no terrorist has managed to kill a single individual by hijacking a commercial airline. In fact, it is hard to think of a cause of death that kills fewer people in countries on Level 4 than terrorism. On US soil, 3,172 people died from terrorism over the last 20 years—an average of 159 a year. During those same years, alcohol contributed to the death of 1.4 million people in the United States—an average of 69,000 a year. This is not quite a fair comparison, because in most of those cases the drinker is also the victim. It would be fairer to look only at those deaths where the victim was not the drinker: car accidents and homicide. A very conservative estimate would give us a US figure of roughly 7,500 deaths a year. In the United States, the risk that your loved one will be killed by a drunk person is nearly 50 times higher than the risk he or she will be killed by a terrorist.

But dramatic terrorist incidents in countries on Level 4 receive widespread media coverage that is denied to most victims of alcohol. And the very visible security controls at airports, which make the risk lower than ever, might give an impression of increased danger.

One week after September 11, 2001, according to Gallup, 51 percent of the US public felt worried that a family member would become a victim of terrorism. Fourteen years later, the figure was the same: 51 percent. People are almost as scared today as they were the week after the Twin Towers came down.

Fear vs. Danger: Being Afraid of the Right Things

Fear can be useful, but only if it is directed at the right things. The fear instinct is a terrible guide for understanding the world. It makes us give our attention to the unlikely dangers that we are most afraid of, and neglect what is actually most risky.

This chapter has touched on terrifying events: natural disasters (0.1 percent of all deaths), plane crashes (0.001 percent), murders (0.7 percent), nuclear leaks (0 percent), and terrorism (0.05 percent). None of them kills more than 1 percent of the people who die each year, and still they get enormous media attention. We should of course work to reduce these death rates as well. Still, this helps to show just how much the fear instinct distorts our focus. To understand what we should truly be scared of, and how to truly protect our loved ones from danger, we should suppress our fear instinct and measure the actual death tolls.

Because “frightening” and “dangerous” are two different things. Something frightening poses a perceived risk. Something dangerous poses a real risk. Paying too much attention to what is frightening rather than what is dangerous—that is, paying too much attention to fear—creates a tragic drainage of energy in the wrong directions. It makes a terrified junior doctor think about nuclear war when he should be treating hypothermia, and it makes whole populations focus on earthquakes and crashing planes and invisible substances when millions are dying from diarrhea and seafloors are becoming underwater deserts. I would like my fear to be focused on the mega dangers of today, and not the dangers from our evolutionary past.


Factfulness is … recognizing when frightening things get our attention, and remembering that these are not necessarily the most risky. Our natural fears of violence, captivity, and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks.

To control the fear instinct, calculate the risks.

• The scary world: fear vs. reality. The world seems scarier than it is because what you hear about it has been selected—by your own attention filter or by the media—precisely because it is scary.

• Risk = danger × exposure. The risk something poses to you depends not on how scared it makes you feel, but on a combination of two things. How dangerous is it? And how much are you exposed to it?

• Get calm before you carry on. When you are afraid, you see the world differently. Make as few decisions as possible until the panic has subsided.





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