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Chicken Little or Paul Revere?

Updated on December 14, 2012

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday in 1959, a federal official announced that the nation’s supply of cranberries was contaminated with a cancer causing pesticide. The alarm spread quickly as the public reacted to widespread reports on television, radio and in the newspapers. Cranberry sales plummeted and millions of families went without the traditional dish.

The alarm was unjustified. A few weeks later, scientists explained that laboratory rats had been given megadoses of Aminotriazole, amounts equivalent to a human eating 15,000 pounds of cranberries a day for many years. The public apologies came too late for an industry nearly ruined by the bureaucratic decision to save the public from an exaggerated hazard.

When the hysteria faded, one thing had become crystal clear. Our ability to disseminate information exceeded our ability to assess its accuracy. And our capacity for alarm exceeded our ability to assess risk. We had taken our first steps into a vast unexplored region, into a wilderness without signposts or landmarks, into a chasm between what we perceive as the truth and what is true.

It was not the first time that the media delivered bad news. But we had learned of its new found efficiency and its ability to spread fright and hysteria. In print and broadcast, the media astonish us each day with news of great wonder and even greater peril. Amid this chaos of information each of us must struggle with the difference between fact and theory, between certain knowledge and conjecture. Between the truth and what we are told to believe. Between fact and spin.

The search for truth is never easy, of course, and there is a flood of opinion, with proof to support every reasonable option. We know that lines finely drawn to be disputed interminably. Yet here, the truth is critical. Amid a chaos of danger we have to struggle with the difference between genuine dangers and false alarms.

We have to decide what to think and what to do. What foods are safe to eat? Are the children safe in public school? Can we afford a vacation or should we save for the coming recession? What career will sustain me for years to come? Will we be able to save our home? Should I carry an umbrella or a picnic basket or a handgun?

In a larger world, before the speed of electronic communications and jet transportation, we were sure of ourselves. Guidance came from our parents, the church, the school, the government and the family doctor. The accomplishments of the past were highly valued. Communities, institutions and people grew respectably old while their traditions were beacons to guide young and old alike. In most families, values were little altered between generations. We could rely on the truth that came from previous generations because for most there was little change between our circumstances and those of our parents and grandparents.

But the values of the past can lose their gleam under a constant flood of alarming new information. In the last half of the twentieth century, change occurred at the speed of light. Social values, expectations, scientific discovery, even the nature of our relationships were transformed from day to day. Then reversed again.

Now there are dangers for which history and tradition offer no defense. Even if some alarms are not new, they were never so widely broadcast. The morning newspaper and the evening news now bring reports of more horror and danger than mankind has ever had to acknowledge in a single day: From genocide to rape to violent murder. From war to mass casualty disaster. From dangerous weapons to deadly chemicals. From environmental accident to social shipwreck. From natural disaster to intentional destruction.

Our secure past is poor preparation for the dangers in the daily news. We cannot keep up. There are too many critical choices to be made involving our safety and happiness. Faced with a world of dangerous change, what direction should we take? Should we hide in fear, stand up courageously, or kneel and pray? Can we survive?

We are challenged to navigate this Sahara without the guidance of a star, without reference points or perspective. We live in a desert of information and fabrication that is blown by the winds of public perception and drifted over by the sands of complexity.

It may seem odd to search for signposts in a children’s fable. But then it would be a mistake to think that the stories we know as children’s entertainment were meant only for children. To adults and children, fairy tales often reveal aspects of human nature that have changed little through the centuries. For example, our response to danger is like that of the barnyard animals illustrated in the tale of Chicken Little. A false perception of disaster, the falling acorn perceived as the sky, followed by hysteria passed on to her barnyard friends leads to their eventual demise in the den of Foxy Woxy.

Although we have the same nature as those who lived in simpler times, our communications industry has changed the world. Now the danger is greater than a wolf at the door or a fox at the gate. It is a toxic pesticide; a terrorist group run amok, an automobile that bursts into flame after a minor accident, a dangerous disease spreading from continent to continent or a thousand other perils. The world is smaller and the acorns are falling more frequently.

There is one exceptional danger among all that are advertised in our time. It is called unreasonable fear. It is the same emotion that sensitizes a child, home alone at night, to imagine every sound a dangerous intruder.

The future becomes truly dangerous when we abandon our good judgment and allow such an emotion to rule our lives. Whether the alarm is true or false, fear levies a costly tax on our individual lives and our society. It starts a slow death in which we spend unreasonably of our wealth and energy to protect ourselves instead of living and enjoying our lives.

Fear limits our freedom to choose. Afraid that public schools cannot be made better; those who can afford it send their children to costly private schools. Afraid that city streets are too dangerous at night, law-abiding citizens hide indoors while their neighborhoods become playgrounds for gangs. Afraid that no food is safe to eat, we diet excessively. We become enslaved by danger and our fears, unable to risk and denied its rewards.

If little harm could come from our reactions to danger, we could continue to ignore our nature. We could live in barnyard bliss, reacting to every acorn that falls and every alarm as if it were the last. However, Foxy Woxy and his kind still await. We are fast becoming their victims.

For society, one of two results is possible: first, we may stagger along, lost, without direction or aspiration. Or, second, we may be controlled by forces that do not share our values or our best interest. When we are victims of fear we may become over regulated and over controlled, unable to gain power over our lives. Or we may hand opportunity to tyrants. The end is the cave, hiding in total security, or the grave.

To save ourselves we must learn to ignore Chicken Little and make our own reasoned decisions about danger. That is still possible, but it must be without the fears being marketed by special interests of every stripe: zealots, advocates, lobbyists, regulators, politicians and editorialists. It must be without their frequently distorted statistics and exaggerated alarms, without their faulty premises and self-serving conclusions. Without their spin.

We are confronted by Chicken Little and Paul Revere. One warns of falling sky, the other of genuine danger. How do we know which is which? Common sense tells us that nothing is ever as good as they say, more important, never as bad. And few things are ever as dangerous as they say, or as safe.

Although the Chicken Little fable is not new, in our information and alarm rich environment it is a human nature paradigm that we cannot afford to ignore as a mere fairy tale. It is not just for children. It is timely imagery, the mirror in which the reasons for our own behavior may become clear, and perhaps the star we need to guide our voyage.

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