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.

Time and time again, we see evidence that our fears are inordinately disproportionate to the actual risks. Other research we have conducted indicates that the public assesses risk in a hierarchical fashion. Situations in which the victim has no control — such as a home invasion, a child being kidnapped — invoke greater fear than, say, rising crime in an adjacent neighbourhood, an exposure you can choose to avoid. Threats that are invisible are considered more hazardous than those that can be seen. Finally, any kind of invasion of our internal workings, where we have absolutely no control, presents the biggest perceived danger of all. It is not difficult, then, to see why a mysterious respiratory ailment such as SARS, which has killed 10 in Canada, would be at the top of the fear hit parade. The fact that many more Canadians die each week of cancer (more than 1,200) or in traffic accidents (about 45) has little bearing on our assessment of the risk of infection.

Ancient fears were largely rooted in superstition and ignorance. But now there is evidence that irrational fears have actually grown as we have become better educated and cast superstition aside as a vestige of an uncivilized time. Our faith in the ability of science and reason to answer all questions — and give us the power to control our environment — leaves us rudderless when it becomes apparent this faith is misplaced. A risk for which there is no scientific explanation or solution — as with SARS — shakes the foundation of our belief system.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 are another example of events that assault our rationally based sense of order. Asymmetrical war, in which 19 individuals can challenge the most dominant civilization in history, flies in the face of our rational beliefs. When rationalism fails, the response is to retreat to the irrational.

This growing tendency of the Western world to be afraid of the wrong things has been well documented by University of Southern California sociologist Barry Glassner. In The Culture of Fear, he writes that at the same time as the respected Los Angeles Times was blaring the headline, “Road rage has become an exploding phenomenon across the country,” the American Automobile Association was reporting that fewer than one out of 1,000 traffic-related deaths could be attributed directly to that cause. Prepare your will before getting on an airplane? The facts show that the entire history of airline travel accounts for only 13,000 deaths — only slightly more than one-quarter of the number of people who die each year on North American highways.

Yes, SARS is scary. Prudence and reason suggest we should learn as much as we can about the virus, avoid high-risk encounters and attend to any possible symptoms. But perhaps in recognizing that we live in a culture of fear we can sleep peacefully, knowing the chances are very good that there is no bogeyman under the bed.