But, natural and necessary fear can be corrupted too. There are very interesting data suggesting that rats and mice infected with the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii, are driven to take insane risks, exposing themselves to hungry cats, who eat the rodents, thus allowing completion of the parasite's life cycle. The parasite in the rodents inhabits the amygdyla, which is believed to be the region of the brain primarily responsible for the fight-or-flight response.
An interesting aspect of fear is that it can be conditioned to a nonspecific response. I cite the example of a study of dubious ethics called the "Little Albert Experiment" from the 1920s. In summary, an 11 month old infant was trained to fear a white rat and this paranoia was generalized to other white furry objects, such as dogs, rabbits and even balls of cotton. Thus demonstrating that irrational fear can be learned, and it can be generalized.
Fear can be paralyzing. It can be dangerous. It can cause people to hate. It can cause missed opportunities. Fear allows people in power to exploit us. Even the most superficial look at history shows how power can exploit fear. In the middle ages it was dangerous to contradict the king, or the church. Thinkers in medieval Europe who had the temerity to question the dictates of church and state were accused of witchcraft and heresy and were rewarded for their independent thought with persecution, torture and sometimes death.
And you don't have to look very far in modern times to see irrational fear operating. Look at the anti-vaccine movement, which, based on fraudulent data, has resulted in the death of many innocents and a weakening of herd immunity. Another example is the old fear of fluoridation of the water supply, which is one of the great victories of modern public health. This meme seems to have started as part of anti-communist paranoia, is still evident today. I love this quote from Wikipedia, "Specific antifluoridation arguments change to match the spirit of the time," which reminds me of Carl Sagan's comparison of demon possession (often in the form of succubi and incubi in the middle of the night) which has now morphed into a modern form of possession: alien abductions.
Fear is certainly not confined to the politics of ancient history, it is easily found in modern politics too. Look at how the Bush administration exploited the post-9/11 paranoia and the mysterious non-existent "Weapons of Mass Destruction" to hoodwink the press and public into a 5 trillion dollar war resulting in the deaths of over 4,000 Americans, hundreds of thousands of civilians, and a legacy of wounded that will cost untold psychological suffering and monetary costs that will last decades. All for the sake of fear, and all in the name of "freedom," whatever that means.
So, what is the antidote to infectious, paranoid fear?
They say that the best disinfectant is sunlight. And, although I suspect this is just a metaphor, I believe it is apt. Information. Data. Science. All of these things bring truth to power, and truth can be humbling. It is no surprise that the first victims of the fascists are the intellectuals. Intellectuals of all stripes; journalists, scientists, artists, linguists. In short, people who dare to think. So, although I'm publishing this a day late, in commemoration of Memorial Day I ask you to do the following: think. Think, not only about the fallen heroes, but think about how we can avoid the fallen heroes of the future. Ask questions. Question authority. Question everything. Are GMO foods really dangerous? Is the "War On Terror" really worth the casualties of our civil rights? Is "our" God really better than their God? Is "God on our side?" Is global climate change unavoidable? Thinking is, in my opinion, is an act of patriotism. Exercising your rationality is your right. It is your duty. It is your obligation. It is the skeptical, logical, right, thing to do. So, I ask you, from the Do Ya Think Blog headquarters: Do you?
Below, I have posted a couple of videos from the World War II era that I ask you to review while you think about thinking.
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