Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Anthrax and SARS and West Nile, Oh My!: A Review of Marc Siegel's False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear

Title: False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear
Author: Marc Siegel
Edition: Hardcover (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005)
Pages: 246
How I Came By This Book: Back when I was working on a book about blame in society (which didn't pan out, although I get tempted from time to time to go back and work on it again), I got this book out from the library.

About the Author: Marc Siegel, M.D., is a practicing internist, an associate professor at the New York University School of Medicine, and a Fellow in the Master Scholars Society at New York University. He is a columnist for the New York Daily News and Tribune Media Services, a member of USA Today's Board of Contributors, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, Family Circle, and the Washington Post. Siegel has appeared regularly on the Today show, The Early Show on CBS, FOX News Channel, ABC News, CNN, and NPR.

Synopsis: Life today for citizens of the developed world is far safer, easier, and healthier than for any other people in history. Modern medicine has all but wiped out may diseases that once were common killers. Science and technology have given us countless devices that protect our bodies from injury, secure our property, and warn us of impending disaster. And modern intelligence gathering can pinpoint threats to our domestic security as they arise. So why is an epidemic of fear sweeping America?

The answer, according to nationally renowned health commentator Dr. Marc Siegel, is that we live in an artificially created culture of fear. From the anthrax panic to the SARS "epidemic," from "official" rumors of bioterror to Orange alerts to West Nile virus--the media continually bombard us with breaking news of yet another super-bug, terrorist plot, or natural disaster that's about to wreak havoc. Most of the time the disasters never materialize. But even if they did, the odds that any of us would suffer harm from them is infinitesimally small--especially when compared to the much greater risks of dying in a car accident or from coronary heart disease.

In False Alarm, Siegel identifies three major catalysts of the culture of fear--government, the media, and big pharma. And, with the help of fascinating, blow-by-blow analyses of some of the most sensational false alarms of the past few years, he shows how those big three fearmongers manipulate our most primitive instincts--often without our even realizing it--to promote their political agendas, boost their ratings, and sell their products.

In his role as a dedicated healer, Siegel offers his prescription for inoculating ourselves against fear tactics. He shows us how to look behind the hype and hysteria and helps us to develop the emotional and intellectual skills needed to take back our lives from fearmongers.

Review: Unless you were in utero at the time or lived under a rock, you experienced the atmosphere of terror that characterized the years 2001-2008. You may have been one of those people who feared that you'd be the victim of a terrorist attack (despite living in North Dakota) or one of the ones who dutifully (and, pardon the insult, dumbly) slapped some Saran Wrap over your windows with duct tape because the monkey-in-chief President Bush told you to do so. Maybe you wore a surgical mask to protect yourself from SARS, West Nile, Bird Flu, or whatever the disease-du-jour was. Or maybe, just maybe, you actually sat back and said, "You know what? This is ridiculous. What the hell are we all doing?"

Written in 2005, False Alarm explains why we all should have been like that last group of folks. Much like The Culture of Fear, Siegel shows how various entities within our society perpetrate fear of dangers that are either virtually non-existent or are highly unlikely to affect us. He also highlights actual dangers that are downplayed by society (cigarettes, for example). He talks about things like 9/11 from personal experience and tells anecdotes about people he knew who were consumed by fear about things that they heard about in the media. He also discusses the danger of putting too much stock in what the government and pharmaceutical companies try to sell you as being real, imminent threats.

There was a lot about this book that was fascinating and useful information. I had a few quibbles, however, that I need to address. First and foremost, what is it with authors who don't cite their sources?????????? (Yes, all the question marks are necessary.) While he provides a list of sources in the back according to chapter, I would have loved to have known, via footnotes, what information came from what source. Secondly, as much as I appreciated some of the personal anecdotes, a lot of the time it felt like he was going, "This is what I did and I'm super-awesome and the best doctor ever. Cower before me mere mortals." Okay, so that last sentence is a bit much. But you get the idea.

As someone who counts herself among the group of people who looked at how crazy everyone was getting and said, "Woah, slow down there. Stop Saran Wrapping your house and start thinking for yourselves," I appreciate books like this, books that show the reader how little they know. I think that when a book makes you go, "Huh, so that's the real story, eh?" it brings people a step closer to being able to stare an incorrect story on the news in the face and say, "You're not fooling me." Despite it's flaws, False Alarm does that. If only people would pick it and books like it up, maybe we'd have a better informed public, one that is less inclined to believe hype and hyperbole.

I'm giving False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear four out of five Gabriels.



  1. Sounds like an interesting book, it always blows my mind how quickly some people leap to the crazy option, rather than thinking about thinking rationally and y'know not like a crazy person. Latest example I can think of is how many people worldwide were buying iodine pills after the tsunami and nuclear melt-down thingo in Japan last year.

    Totally agree about the sources thing too. There have been a bunch of books I've been reading for my Phd which are a little more informal (like this one sounds to be) and just stick sources in the back. The problem is it makes it very hard to look up single ideas that spark an interest.

    1. Most of the people that I know can be quite rational but there's a few that jump onto the crazy as soon as possible. It's so sad when you try to explain to them that they don't need to cellophane their windows or start down iodine pills and they don't believe you because you're not some "expert" on TV.

      The other thing is that most citation guides require you to cite things from the original source rather than the source you found them in. If you wanted to find a particular quote or idea that you found in a poorly-cited book, you'd have to look through 15 to 20 (or more!) sources until you found the right one.

  2. Watching the world lose their minds over things that are nearly statistically impossible is quite something isn't it? It's not that I don't feel fear but I suppose I'm a little bit more rational about it. Also, I live in Wisconsin..hardly a hot spot for attack.

    I need to read this one. I always wonder if people are really freaking out about things or if the media just WANTS people to.

    1. I remember when 9/11 happened, people at my school that day were all "Oh my God, we're gonna be bombed." They sincerely could not understand that we lived in the middle of abso-freaking-lutely nowhere and that we had no actual value to terrorists/bombers/foreign military personnel. It was ridiculous.

      This book and the other one, Culture of Fear, are both good in that regard. A lot of it really IS the media. Or the pharmaceutical companies. Or the powers that be wherever they may be. A lot of people freak out over nothing.