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The fear factor: how should we deal with alarmist health reporting?

Dec 2nd, 2017 by

We are fed a constant diet of medical scare stories that often seem to contradict each other. Which ones should we believe?

Our brains are constantly sweeping the environment for threats. Is that stranger friendly or a mugger? Might this cloud of dust poison me? Will I fall under a train if I stand here? Without even thinking about it, the survival instinct is for ever on, which is why, says Brunel University’s James Carney, a Wellcome Trust fellow in the medical humanities, we are suckers for scary headlines about health. You know the ones: “Processed meat gives you cancer” or “Toxic plant killer could give you Parkinson’s disease.”

“Bad news yanks at our attentional biases,” says Carney, “and it sucks us into its orbit like a cultural parasite on our tendency to look for bad things so we can avoid them.” It’s the same reason people rubberneck at car crash sites; we are hungry for details, to fully get the measure of this enemy. However, threat monitoring is an exhausting business and our brains jump on cognitive shortcuts – such as voices of scientific authority – at every opportunity. The trouble with scary health studies is that they are too numerous and complex for concerned, busy laypersons to keep up with, or attempt to fathom their true significance. Anxiety, guilt at inaction or fatalism ensue.

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