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WHAT MEN FEAR DE WITT STETTENJR.* In the years immediately preceding World War II, thoughtful people in the United States were tense and anxious. There was a feeling that at any moment all hell might break loose. Probably it was this attitude which contributed to the extraordinary reaction to the voice of Orson Welles coming over die radio one night to announce that the metropolitan area ofNew York was being invaded by Martians. The program had been clearly labeled as fiction. Nonetheless, large numbers of New Yorkers were apparently quite ready to give credence to the announcement . Many got into their cars and left the city as rapidly as possible in order to evade this strange and unknown menace. The event was a striking but by no means unique example of a mass panic reaction to a hazard which was nonexistent. There are, ofcourse, examples ofdie converse situation also—namely, the failure of many persons to fear a hazard which has been clearly demonstrated. One may cite, for instance, the experience ofthe past 20 years with cigarettes. Whereas the evidence is remarkably complete, implicating the use of cigarettes in carcinoma of the lung, coronary heart disease, and emphysema, the use of cigarettes by the citizenry of the United States continues to increase. It is true that many people have stopped smoking, but nonetheless the sale of cigarettes creeps upward each year. The best efforts of the surgeon general of the Public Health Service, supported by a number of voluntary health agencies and such organizations as the National Cancer Institute, have failed to convince very many Americans ofthe magnitude of the hazard. Likewise, a statement of the hazard printed on each package of cigarettes is largely disregarded. Here is an agent which increases the likelihood of carcinoma of the lung among its users by a factor of approximately twentyfold , which also contributes to other serious diseases, which has been "¦Deputy Director for Science, National Institutes ofHealth, Beuiesda, Maryland 20014. I have served as chairman ofthe Recombinant DNA Molecule Program Advisory Committee ofNIH since its inception. The views in this essay are mine and may not in all regards coincide with the official position of the NIH or of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Copyright is not claimed for this article. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine ¦ Summer 1978 | 515 estimated to contribute to the cause of 75,000 deaths each year in the United States, and toward which the population at large seems to be remarkably indifferent. The very existence of a Martian population becomes less probable with the passage oftime. At the very most, ifindeed there are litde green men up yonder, they must be quite shy since they remain beyond the horizons ofour Mars landers. On the other hand, carcinoma ofthe lung is extremely real, and most readers will know one or more victims ofthis frequently fatal disease. Why, then, is it so relatively easy to produce mass anxiety directed against a hazard which probably does not exist and so relatively difficult to generate a comparable anxiety against a hazard which is clearly with us? What is it which determines what men fear? Those primitive vertebrates, the elasmobranches, provide an instructive case. Virtually everyone, it seems, is deathly afraid of sharks. The shark is hostile, aggressive, equipped with formidable teeth and jaws, and subject to ferocious bloodlusts. The mention of sharks on a bathing beach will strike terror in the heart of virtually every swimmer, and the sighting of a shark will drive swimmers out of the water and up the beaches as fast as they can move. They will dien walk to the parking lots, enter their cars, and hurry home to have a quick drink to celebrate their narrow escape from thejaws of a sea monster. I was dimly aware of the relatively low frequency of attacks upon humans by sharks and had heard estimates that there were fewer than 100 attacks per year in the world. Further inquiry revealed that over a 27-year period a total of 225 attacks were recorded in waters of the United States. This comes to 8.3 attacks per year, ofwhich it is estimated that approximately 50 percent are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 515-523
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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