Debra Allcock Tyler: Focus on the facts - not the fear

Debra's latest Third Sector article talks about how we should focus on facts rather than fear.

Many years ago, as a young manager at a senior management team meeting, I foolishly expressed an opinion about a situation for which I did not have the facts or the data to back up my point. The person who did know pointed out my ignorance highly publicly. It was brutally humiliating at the time, but I am grateful because it taught me the importance of knowing the facts before expressing an opinion.

That lesson about knowing facts has stood me in good stead. One of the benefits, for example, is that I am not afraid of being the victim of an act of terrorism. I understand why people are afraid. The visceral, shocking and dramatic nature of these events trigger normal fear responses in us because of the immediacy – we see them and the aftermath in real time.

We don’t view people dying of alcohol-related diseases in the same way because it’s less immediate and visual. Extrapolating from Office for National Statistics figures from recent years, between 70,000 and 80,000 people have died from alcohol-related disease in the past 10 years, compared with about 54 from acts of terrorism from 2001 to 2016. Yet we are not afraid of what is statistically more likely to kill us and terrified of what isn’t. We sit in front of the TV with our wine or beer watching the stories about potential or real terrorist attacks, not thinking about the real and present danger posed by our drinking habits.

This is partly because when we’re scared or shocked we lose the ability to think critically and rationally. That’s fine for a few moments, but not when we carry that fear into our world view. It’s one reason fear of groups that are not “like” us arises. Strong emotional responses to rare events dictate to our rational, logical selves and we end up making poor decisions as a result.

The fact is that in terms of meeting my end I am statistically much more likely to be murdered by someone I know (68 per cent of female murder victims knew their murderer, according to the most recent ONS figures), be the victim of a drunk driver (an average of about 240 in recent years, according to the website drinkdrive.org) or die of liver disease (about 4,000 in 2016, figures from Public Health England suggest) than I am to be a victim of terrorism.

What is my point? That public fear of, for example, immigration levels or the “threat” posed by niqab-wearing women or dying at the hands of a terrorist are not based on sound, rational thinking. In the UK, we are considerably more likely to die at the hands of white Christian men than brown Muslim men. It makes no rational sense to worry about a minority of people (5 per cent of our population) who statistically pose a negligible threat, either to our physical well-being or our supposed way of life.

It is all right to have a different opinion about the facts, but there’s been a tendency to ignore them because they don’t fit in with popular opinion. By all means honour our emotional selves, but listen to our rational ones. Based on the facts, we’d do better to worry about obesity, alcohol, poverty and smoking, which are much more likely to do us in.