Fear

Two years ago a Boy Scout in Utah strayed onto the wrong trail and was lost for four days. He scrupulously followed all the advice that had been given him, and it nearly killed him. He stayed on the trail, which was good advice. But he'd also been told never to talk to strangers, so any time a rescue party came near, he would hide in the bushes. Finally, common sense got the better of caution, and he revealed himself to a rescuer.

Tony Flanders
Telling a child never to talk to strangers is a terrible thing. Yes, there's a tiny handful of malevolent strangers out there. But for every stranger who will hurt you, there are a thousand who will help you. Sometimes even, as in this case, save your life. Caution is fine, but that's a matter of judgment — just the opposite of a blanket injunction.

What does this have to do with astronomy? Quite a lot. One of the most striking changes in the U.S. since I was a child in the 1950s and 60s is the flowering of fear. When I was an 11-year-old in New York City, my parents let me go anywhere I wanted alone (within reason, of course). That was pretty much the norm then, though a few parents were more cautious. But parents who were considered comically overprotective in the 50s and 60s would be judged reckless by today's standards. In the intervening years, America became a deeply fearful society.

Tony Flanders
People often ask if I'm not worried when I travel to distant sites (or not-so-distant parks in my own city) to observe the night sky. City dwellers think I should be afraid of wild animals, country folk think I should be afraid of wild humans, and suburbanites are scared of everything. Nobody ever asks about the real danger of driving to a remote site at night, which is traffic accidents. That's particularly a worry on the drive back late at night, when the proportion of drunk drivers is highest, the likelihood of hitting a deer or moose is greatest, and I'm close to falling asleep at the wheel. The U.S. experiences about 40,000 traffic fatalities every year, compared with fewer than 10 people killed by all kinds of wild animals combined — and most of those in Alaska. Yet wild animals evoke far more fear than cars.

Mind you, I'm not trying to blow the danger of traffic accidents out of proportion. Considering how liberating cars are (or can be, anyway), the risk of crashes is well worth accepting. I'm trying to make it clear just how tiny — really utterly negligible — the threat of wild animals is. And frankly, in most places, human attacks aren't much more of a hazard. There are about 1/3 as many homicides as traffic fatalities — a modest number though not negligible. But well over half of those are by acquaintances or family members. Murder by random strangers in the street, the kind that everybody worries about, is rare, and largely confined to impoverished urban and rural areas where "respectable" people never go.

Moreover, the homicide rate is just about the same today as it was fifty years ago! And accidents from cars and other causes have declined significantly. Few places have ever been as safe as America today, yet we're perhaps the most fear-ridden society that the world has ever seen, outside of major war or pestilence. What's going on?

Tony Flanders
Partly, no doubt, it's the commercialization of fear by television, tabloids, lawyers, and insurance companies. And since ancient Greece, politicians have always known that there's nothing like fear and hatred to rally people behind them. But I think it's also a real sea-change in society. In my parents' generation, there were real dangers to worry about. Large numbers of women died in childbirth, infants died of measles and scarlet fever, millions of people had just been killed in World War I, and millions more were about to die in World War II. Even the richest family was vulnerable to infectious disease. Nobody expected life to be safe and secure.

Only in my lifetime has the idea taken root that danger can and should be abolished absolutely, that life should be lived completely free of risk. But that's an illusion. The only way even to come close is to lock yourself in a box and cut off all contact with the world. Technology's not quite up to that yet, but most people's lives are increasingly confined to their home and backyard, their car and the mall. And then they end up with the diseases of civilization: obesity, arteriosclerosis, diabetes. In the long run, nature always takes its revenge.

Tony Flanders
Small wonder that people don't enjoy the wonders of nature — stars included. Small wonder that people want to make the outdoors just like the indoors, to pave it or plant it with well-manicured grass, to fence out all intruders, to light up every square inch so that night is turned to day. Small wonder that 90% of people live where the Milky Way is obscured by skyglow — and that 90% of the remainder haven't seen the Milky Way either, because they're afraid to turn off their porch lights.

At an even deeper level, I've had a number of people tell me that the stars scare them. Frankly, I can sympathize with that sentiment. The stars are utterly alien, completely and forever beyond our control. Awe and fear are intimately related. And there's nothing wrong with that. Fear isn't the end of the world — unless you run away from it.

13 thoughts on “Fear

  1. Rob

    I grew up on the edge of suburbia and wandered the bush for hours with no concerns – now few experience such delights. And the sky was a wonder – you could still see the milky way and track the progress of the planets across the sky. I take these things for granted but they are special – my daughters boyfriend from Singapore had never see the milky way and was awestruck to see the rings of Saturn wobbling in my tiny telescope which my father bought for me in my teens now half a century ago. I regularly took Japanese students who stayed with us out of town to see a dark sky and many regarded it as one of the best experiences in their trips down under.

    Be in awe of nature – if we are not we are lost.

  2. Deborah Byrd

    Tony, cheer up. Sure, there’s fear in our American culture and in our world at large. There’s also courage, intelligence and hope. There are 6.6 billion people on Earth! There’s plenty of everything to go around.

    At Earth & Sky’s website (http://www.earthsky.org), we hear from lots of people who are amazed by the simple wonder of the night sky. Last week’s “blue moon” had many many people looking up. A conjunction of Venus and the moon not long ago brought in many dozens of comments from those who happened to glance up and witness this beautiful event. What’s more, the internet let all those people share that experience with each other, from widely varying parts of the globe.

    It’s not such a bad world. In many ways, it’s a more beautiful world than ever before …

    All the best

  3. Joel Cook

    Thank you for stating the truth about a fear based society so clearly.
    Fear is also exploited for purposes of marketing on a daily basis both for purposes of commerce and for political policy and the elective process..”Don’t miss the lowest price of the season”, “last opportunity at this price…”.

  4. Grant Miller

    Good post, as are most of yours. It is truly a shame that so few people get to experience a truly dark sky. Equally sad is that so few seem to care much or incorrectly believe that more light is always better and safer.

    Had I not grown up the son of a farmer in a rural area with(at that time) dark skies, astronomy and all the wonders it entails may never have grabbed me.

    Awe and appreciation are also intimatley related-I call it “awepreciation”. Psalm 19:1-2(NIV)

  5. Mark

    I seem to recall someone saying
    “The only thing to fear is fear itself”

    What has happened to the USA since those heady days?

    Whatever it is is is also happening in the UK.

    ———–

    Tony responds:

    A propos of “fear itself,” I was thinking of including that quote, with a picture of FDR.

    As for the UK — and Europe in general — yes, it’s changing. But in this case (as in many trends like light pollution, energy waste, and the throw-away society), Europe is blessedly far “behind” the U.S. Even today, it would be unthinkable in Europe to bring a lawsuit because your coffee was too hot.

  6. Brock

    To paraphrase Fuller: “…Mankind’s only true enemies are fear, ignorance, and greed.”

  7. Kris

    I would think that Sky and Telescope would focus on astronomy. Instead I find a society piece full of anecdotes and broad generalizations (“suburbanites are afraid of everything”). Could you possibly cite sociological or economics data on people’s attitude?

    Encountering mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and gang members on a regular basis hasn’t stopped I, or the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, from having a thriving community of amateur astronomers. Whose anecdote is more true?

    This article seemed rather disdainful of every group in our society. Earlier this year we read an article on this site disparaging religions. Are you trying to alienate everyone?

    How about articles trying to be inclusive of (instead of trying to isolate) non-astronomers? I come to Sky and Telescope for knowledgeable astronomy content. I go elsewhere for knowledgeable sociological commentary.

  8. Don

    Tony,

    I had to laugh when I read your blog and saw the accompanying photos. A couple of years ago, our suburban (near some deep wilderness) neighborhood had a black bear spend a couple of days raiding bird feeders and then took off. My next door neighbor put out a bright mercury vapor light, presumably to scare off the bear? and I haven’t been able to persuade her to turn it off. Even in the dead of winter in up state NY!

  9. Babak Tafreshi

    I do not agree with Kris idea of isolating Sky&telescope website with only pure astronomy topics. Today astronomy is finding it’s way to soul of our society, because of amateur astronomers with variety of professions, being a messenger of astronomy to public. So it’s a rewaridng idea to find where astronomy and star gazing is connected to general problems of our society. While I always appreciate science articles on S&T, I also enjoy reading Focal Point in the magazine any social astronomy-related topics here.

  10. Rod Mollise

    I’ve done my share of observing way, way out in the sticks, and while I don’t ncessarily advocate observing alone–there are plenty of reasons not to that don’t involve packs of rabid coyotes and psychotic killers–I’ve admittedly done that often and never had a problem.

    I do the lion’s share of my lookin’ from urban or heavy suburban sites these days, and the story is the same. I’ve never had a problem (other than an occasional visit from the cops).

    I’m always amused that country dwellin’ amateurs always remark that they’re surprised that I’m not “afriad” to observe in the city–all that gang violence, donchaknow. The amusement comes from the fact that my city dwelling astronomy friends often caution me about observing in the country less I fun foul of “all those craxy meth gangs.” :-)

  11. Tom Fleming

    I dont approach a remote observing event with fear but I have certainly been startled by encounters in the dark and even left one site in haste as whatever was out there didnt appear to be afraid of me.
    I think most of us have had some kind of adrenelin pumping encounters in the dark. It might be fun to hear some of the anecdotes.

  12. charlie g

    Thanks Tony, I often buy Sky&Telescope mag at bookstore(I live suburban,NJ), I gain from your writing OFTEN. Buttt…you minimize my Bergen Co. plight! The cops ‘nail you if your in the state park after dark’, many lowlifes will rip you of given a chance. In the dark, late night, you are ‘the only game in town’..even if only for curiosity from ‘beer party kids’! Like a lot of folks ( and please I hope the lady who ‘upstream in this blogs commented’ chimed in never goes alone to dark sites on parkland for pete sakes!) I go out alone to use my 6″F/5achro. But it’s not the traffic accidents I worry about. I lock my front door everytime I go from home to work, not out of fear. charlie g

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