Keywords: Politics, current affairs, science, climate change

Title: Scared To Death

Author: Christopher Booker and Richard North

Publisher: Continuum

ISBN: 0826486142


The big scare is a recurrent feature of life in Western societies. The sequence of crises that have afflicted us - from salmonella in eggs to listeria to BSE to the Millennium bug - has culminated in recent years with the rise of global warming and the spectre of climate change. In the theory of man-made global warming we have the scare to end all scares, the scare that presents us finally with a vision of the end of the world as we know it. What is remarkable about this sequence of crises is not just the sheer number of them, but also, despite the differences between them, just how much they have in common.

Christopher Booker and Richard North document both these common themes and features, but also the detail of a number of the most important scares. In doing so they look behind the headlines of the day and examine the factual basis on which many of these crises were founded. And, as the title of the book should make clear, 'Scared To Death' makes for grim but salutary reading.

The authors track each story in turn, starting with the salmonella in eggs scandal that broke out in the 1988. As a story is has all of the plot elements that have characterised the major scares that have followed it: the activities of a few self-proclaimed experts who seem to wield influence with politicians and the media (though not necessarily commanded much respect from other scientists); a media prone to hysterical headlines, outraged editorials and little understanding of even the basics of science or statistics; politicians eager for publicity or panicked into making hasty pronouncements that turn general disquiet into a panic. And, when the dust has settled and the costs are totted up we discover a huge and costly disaster due to panicked measures to tackle what is actually a minor or non-existent problem.

It would all be so laughable were the costs not so huge, both financially and socially. These scares do have victims, as the authors make plain, but these are victims of the government's responses to a crisis played up by the media and complicit 'experts'. Victims such as the families and the children involved in the scares about 'satanic child abuse' in the Orkneys, Rochdale, Cleveland and other parts of the country. Victims such as the farmers who watched their herds been destroyed and burnt by a criminally incompetent government desperate to do something about BSE because of a theoretical link to CJD.

While a number of these scares have been food-related, an equal number are not. However, Booker and North suggest that for a problem to be inflated to generalised scare level it usually satisfies a number of conditions. Primary amongst them is that the perceived threat must be to everyone - a condition that only afflicts specific groups does not becomes a scare in the same way. The media become interested if the threat is to all, and so we see a number of non-food scares including the exaggerated problems of asbestosis, the Millennium Bug scare, the theory of secondary smoking (culminating the smoking ban in the UK) and now, finally, with global warming.

For many readers, or at least those who took much of the news of these scares at face value, this is going to be something of a shocking read. For example the chapter entitled the 'Great Asbestos Scam' was a real eye-opener. And, for those who are sceptical the authors are at pains to provide plenty of references to follow up. Though it has to be said that scepticism is little displayed by the media who helped to whip up these scares.

The current scare is, of course, global warming (though the more savvy environmentalists have taken to calling it climate change, a recognition that warming isn't happening as much as we have been lead to believe). Here the authors take apart the myth of a scientific 'consensus', and carefully demolish the lies and inaccuracies in much of the climate alarmism that still infects the popular discourse.

There is so much to commend in this book. Not only is it packed with solidly researched evidence, it's also a gripping narrative read. There are few books on current affairs that really qualify as page-turners, but this is most definitely one of them. If ever a book deserved to be on the national curriculum it is this one. It ought to be required reading for every adult in the country too.

Review © Pan Pantziarka, 2008. Site © London Book Review 2008. Published March 12 2008