If the Premises are Wrong, Why Read On?

by on October 25, 2010 · 0 comments

(Second in a series.)

I recently picked up a copy of Robert Wuthnow’s Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats. According to the dust cover, the Princeton sociologist’s book “examines the human response to existential threats…” Contrary to common belief, we do not deny such threats but “seek ways of positively meeting the threat, of doing something—anything—even if it’s wasteful and time-consuming.” Interesting batch of ideas, no?

Well, the fifth paragraph of the book joins up with some pretty obscure and disorganized writing in the introduction to disqualify it from absorbing any more of my precious time. That paragraph contains this sentence: “Millions could die from a pandemic or a dirty bomb strategically placed in a metropolitan area.”

It’s probably true that millions could die from a pandemic. Two million deaths would be just under 0.03% of the world’s population—not quite existential. But the killer for the book is Wuthnow saying that millions could die from a dirty bomb placed in a metropolitan area. There will never be that many deaths from a dirty bomb, placed anywhere, ever.

One suspects that the author doesn’t know what a dirty bomb is. A dirty bomb is a combination of conventional explosives and radioactive material that is designed to disperse the radioactive material over a wide area. A dirty bomb is not a nuclear explosive and its lethality is little greater than a conventional weapon, as the radiological material is likely to be too dispersed and too weak to cause serious health issues.

Dirty bombs are meant to scare. Incautious discussion of dirty bombs has induced more fright in our society than any actual bomb. Professor Wuthnow asserts, as fact, that a dirty bomb could kill millions, which is plainly wrong. If he doesn’t know his subject matter, he doesn’t get any more time from this reader.

Given my brief experience with the book, I advise you to be very afraid of Be Very Afraid.

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