Merchants Of Doom

Fear Mongering Playbook

Such examples seem to have these elements in common1:

  • The source of the supposed danger must be something universal, to which almost anyone in the population might be exposed, such as eggs or beef, asbestos or climate change.

  • The nature of the danger it poses must be novel, a threat that has never appeared in this form before.

  • While the scientific basis for the scare must seem plausible, the threat must also contain a powerful element of uncertainty. It must in some way be ill-defined, maximizing the opportunity for alarmist speculation as to the damage it might cause.

  • Society’s response to the threat must be disproportionate.

The seven basic attributes of a scare are1:

  1. A real problem becomes exaggerated, often by extrapolating from it to include something else.

  2. The threat must be universal. [For example,] it is impossible to generate a full-blown scare around a specific named product, such as a brand of chocolate.

  3. It must contain a strong element of uncertainty. The supposed threat must be in some way new and mysterious, providing an opportunity for almost unlimited speculation as to its disastrous consequences (e.g. avian flu). [...]

  4. The threat must seem scientifically plausible. [...] For this it is necessary that some scientists or ‘experts’ are seen to endorse it, and to produce seemingly convincing evidence as to why it should be believed. [...]

  5. The scare must be promoted by the media. [...] Journalists and the ‘experts’ thus develop a symbiotic relationship. [...]

  6. The crisis arrives when the threat is acknowledged by government. [...] Ministers and officials invariably [...] overreact. Their regulatory response creates social and economic havoc, at enormous cost. Having misdiagnosed the problem in the first place, they have now been panicked into producing ‘remedies’ which are irrelevant. [...]

  7. Finally the truth emerges.


1: Christopher Booker and Richard North. Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares are Costing Us the Earth. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. [x]