Panicology, by Simon Briscoe & Hugh Aldersey-Williams

What's the panic?
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The Independent Culture

Anyone old enough to have watched the 1970s sitcom Dad's Army, about life in the Home Guard, will never forget the shouted advice from elderly Corporal Jones: "Don't Panic, Captain Mainwaring!" It was funny because it was only Jones who was panicking, and he was panicking at the idea of panic. So much for 1940 and the imminent threat of a German invasion. The thesis of Panicology is that there is now more panic going on than ever, about everything from new diseases to terrorist attack, immigration to sea levels, asteroid strikes to global warming – but that there need not be.

The book's avowed purpose is to shoot down the scare stories with which, the authors contend, our world is increasingly filled. It is offered as a guide to modern fears, and how seriously they should be taken, "for anyone who watches the news, listens to the radio, reads a newspaper or more generally lives in our present age of anxiety". Its reach is broad, dealing with 40 recent alarums, or alleged ones, including some not all might recognise as actually constituting panics: underpopulation, the death of cinema and of minority languages. Are people grabbing bread off the supermarket shelves because of the declining numbers of Breton speakers?

The major modern fears are all treated, however, from climate change to rising violence. Yet in its stated aim of rationally guiding us through them, the book fails lamentably. Its problem is that it cannot arrive at a cohesive and reasoned assessment, using the same criteria, of how justified they are. It is instructive to compare Panicology with its obvious precursor, Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001). The Danish statistician's assault on the green movement never wavered from its principal contention: environmentalists' assertions that life is getting worse were simply wrong, and sometimes untruthful. You could attack him, and waves of green campaigners did, but you couldn't say he was not logical and consistent (and backed up with 2,900 references).

The argument of Briscoe and Aldersey-Williams is all over the place. They say some fears, such as alien abduction, are clearly exaggerated. With others, such as climate change, they say there may have been exaggeration, but there is also justification. There is no clear message. Often they infuriatingly fall back on the formula: on the one hand, on the other hand. We are promised judgement, and we get documentary.

Favourite phrases are "it seems" and "apparently". There is no original research, just a mountainous assemblage of newspaper articles. The judgements we are given, at the end of each section, consist of three sets of nauseatingly twee icons: a headless chicken, a pair of dice and a clenched fist, representing how much panic there has been, how real the threat is, and how much we can do about it – in each case, out of five. There is no indication of how the authors gave a particular threat four chickens, three dice and two fists, say, other than by pulling the numbers out of a hat.

This uncertainty is reflected in the tone. Is this a serious book about risk, or are the authors, in the modern phrase, having a larf? They can't make up their minds. The larf is on anyone who shells out for it.

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