Book Review: The Science of Fear

Daniel Gardner's The Science of Fear was published last July, but I've only just gotten around to reading it. That was a big mistake. It's a fantastic look at how how humans deal with fear: exactly the kind of thing I have been reading and writing about for the past couple of years. It's the book I wanted to write, and it's a great read.

Gardner writes about how the brain processes fear and risk, how it assesses probability and likelihood, and how it makes decisions under uncertainty. The book talks about all the interesting psychological studies -- cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, experimental philosophy -- that illuminate how we think and act regarding fear. The book also talks about how fear is used to influence people, by marketers, by politicians, by the media. And lastly, the book talks about different areas where fear plays a part: health, crime, terrorism.

There have been a lot of books published recently that apply these new paradigms of human psychology to different domains -- to randomness, to traffic, to rationality, to art, to religion, and etc. -- but after you read a few you start seeing the same dozen psychology experiments over and over again. Even I did it, when I wrote about the psychology of security. But Gardner's book is different: he goes further, explains more, demonstrates his point with the more obscure experiments that most authors don't bother seeking out. His writing style is both easy to read and informative, a nice mix of data an anecdote. The flow of the book makes sense. And his analysis is spot-on.

My only problem with the book is that Gardner doesn't use standard names for the various brain heuristics he talks about. Yes, his names are more intuitive and evocative, but they're wrong. If you have already read other books in the field, this is annoying because you have to constantly translate into standard terminology. And if you haven't read anything else in the field, this is a real problem because you'll be needlessly confused when you read about these things in other books and articles.

So here's a handy conversion chart. Print it out and tape it to the inside front cover. Print another copy out and use it as a bookmark.

  • Rule of Typical Things = representativeness heuristic
  • Example Rule = availability heuristic
  • Good-Bad Rule = affect heuristic
  • confirmation bias = confirmation bias

That's it. That's the only thing I didn't like about the book. Otherwise, it's perfect. It's the book I wish I had written. Only I don't think I would have done as good a job as Gardner did. The Science of Fear should be required reading for...well, for everyone.

The paperback will be published in June. But, amazingly enough, the hardcover is on sale for only $6 at Amazon. Buy two and give one to someone else.

Here's a link from Powell's, if you're boycotting Amazon.

Posted on April 20, 2009 at 6:16 AM • 30 Comments

Comments

Johannes BergApril 20, 2009 6:59 AM

At that price, it seems it would end up being cheaper to ship across the Atlantic... stupid.

Mario ChisariApril 20, 2009 7:42 AM

...and what about the crazy price of e-book format? 22.43$ for an Adobe Ebook???

ChuckApril 20, 2009 8:16 AM

The best price today on Amazon Marketplace was $2.06 plus, $3.99 for shipping---total $6.05. The seller was HorizonBB.

Chuck

uk visaApril 20, 2009 8:44 AM

Now I understand why people are boycotting Amazon! Amazon seem intent on making sure I cannot but anything from the USA.
Jeff Bezos isn't stupid so why does his company assume every Brit is?
On the positive side Bruce, we obviously respect your book reviews...

2Easy2Worry2MUCHApril 20, 2009 9:44 AM

RE conformation bias = connformation Bias:

Maybe Bruce is telling us that only in this case does Daniel Gardner use the standard terminology! Saves the rest of us wondering if so.

Clive RobinsonApril 20, 2009 10:40 AM

@ Bruce,

"It's a fantastic book at how how humans deal with fear"

For a person (me) who makes more typos than average, it's nice to see somebody elses for a change 8)

old guyApril 20, 2009 11:46 AM

@Clive

I think everyone ignores minor typo's these days. With Internet slang, who can tell the difference?

doctorkiwanoApril 20, 2009 11:53 AM

*grumblemutter* the public library here doesn't have it; now I actually do have to contemplate buying it :P

Tangerine BlueApril 20, 2009 12:15 PM

> Bruce doesn't make typos... it must be an encrypted message

That's what I used to think. I've been collecting Bruce's typos over the years, but so far they make no sense to me. Here's what I've got so far:

"nyyuhznafjvyyorfhow"

SeanApril 20, 2009 12:17 PM

I read the UK paperback edition a couple of months ago - it is indeed a great book.

Bruce SchneierApril 20, 2009 1:15 PM

"Maybe Bruce is telling us that only in this case does Daniel Gardner use the standard terminology! Saves the rest of us wondering if so."

Yes. That's the one time he uses standard terminology, which can be confusing because the rest of the time he doesn't.

BBApril 20, 2009 3:33 PM

"1 new from $5.95"

I just purchased what appeared to be the last new copy, and it still says "1 new from $5.95."

Hmmmm.

FrancesCApril 20, 2009 10:12 PM

@ doctorkiwano

Ask the library if they are going to buy the book. If yes, give them a little time to get it processed. If not, maybe they can get on interlibrary loan.

NostromoApril 21, 2009 1:06 AM

@Pete Austin and others:
Amazon UK has always been noticeably different from (and worse than) Amazon USA. Not only does it have higher prices, but also its search engine seems different (and inferior). But it isn't the only game in town. Try www.bookfinder.com, which searches multiple booksellers. I did, and it tells me that a UK company called Pickabook sells it for £6.02 plus £3.60 shipping. This is for the paperback. They have 18 in stock.

AlexApril 21, 2009 3:39 AM

I just bought a new copy from Amazon.co.uk for £5.39 including free delivery!

(http://www.amazon.co.uk/Risk-Science-Politics-Dan-Gardner/dp/0753515539%3FSubscriptionId%3D1NNRF7QZ418V218YP1R2%26tag%3Dbookfindercom01%26linkCode%3Dxm2%26camp%3D2025%26creative%3D165953%26creativeASIN%3D0753515539)

ChristianApril 22, 2009 1:28 AM

@Tangerine Blue

> Here's what I've got so far:
> "nyyuhznafjvyyorfhow"

Don't get frustrated, it will make sense ... some time.

MoggyApril 22, 2009 2:54 PM

European and canadian buyers should go for Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, just as Ham said. Which should save you from paying for import which seems a silly thing to do.

Al.April 22, 2009 2:56 PM

@Tangerine Blue

> Here's what I've got so far:
> "nyyuhznafjvyyorfhow"

Upon protracted analysis, the encryption method is found to be a simple Caeserian substitution cypher. The most recent message is revealed:

ENCRYPTED TEXT:
nyyuhznafjvyyorfhow

PARTIAL KEY (view in monospeced font):
L O S C TP G NRY EA
abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz

TRANSLATED TEXT (view in monospeced font):
TEENSATLOCREEPGOSPY
nyyuhznafjvyyorfhow

CLEAR MESSAGE:
TEENS AT LOCREEP GO SPY.

Obviously, a warning that students at the famous LoCreep pre-espionage high school are being pressed into service before actual graduation.

-Al.

AngusJune 19, 2009 11:18 AM

I bought the UK paperback a few months ago, and read it on the plane back. I totally agree with Bruce, it's a great read.

edDecember 18, 2009 2:28 AM

I read this book when it first came out. It's one of the best I have ever read. Simple as that.

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