No matter how often, and with what force, our public health officials assure us that we should not panic in the face of the SARS outbreak, their message is bound to fall on skeptical ears. That is because the basis for fear has little to do with rationality or reason, and instead appears embedded in deep cultural anxieties that have become a central part of the modern, Western world.

Of all the questions I have posed in polling throughout the years, perhaps my favourite is: “If someone told you something was safe and someone else told you it was unsafe, which one would you believe?” A very small minority (10 per cent) reported they would believe that this (undefined) something was safe, and 22 per cent had the common sense to declare that it would depend on who was doing the telling and what they were talking about. But the vast majority — fully 68 per cent — would accept the message of doom and gloom. That gives us a penetrating insight into the nature of fear and our reaction to the possibilities of exposure to risk.