Last year, I got talking to and subsequently wrote about a couple of wily characters that were sat outside the front of a retirement home that they reside in, (there are lots of those here in Bournemouth!) they were enjoying the sunshine. As I walked past following my run, they said openly to me that they thought it was great to see me running past each day. They were both smiling and saying that it made them feel healthy. A conversation naturally ensued.

One thing they mentioned (among the many topics covered in our brief chat) and both got animated about was the rise in crime in the UK. They said they were never going to London again following the recent spate of much publicised murders among the young community of London. I do not read a daily paper or watch the news, the way I figure, the important stuff finds it way to you anyway. However, even I have spotted the coverage that these teenage murders and knife attacks have received.

I want to explain today, why I think fearing this kind of thing is so ridiculous…  

A number of years ago I read the brilliant best selling book by Richard Brodie called Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. I thought I would offer an updated version of one way he illustrated a mind virus.

According to official Metropolitan Police crime statistics, 17 murders were recorded throughout London and all its boroughs in January this year. The average is around 20. These are terrible and sad occurrences.

According to the 2001 census here in the UK, London has approximately 7,172,036 people living in it and it’s boroughs.

Therefore, 0.00023% of the population were murdered in January. I agree that is too many. That is not my point today.

I was reading this article about irrational fear at the Psychology Today website, here is part of what it says:

Each year Earth is pelted by space debris, from tiny grains to car-sized boulders, their impact equivalent to a kiloton of TNT. Every 1,000 years or so, a bigger rock smacks our planet with the force of a hydrogen bomb.

So why aren’t we quaking in our boots? David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, believes it’s because asteroids are natural; we’re far more terrified of man-made risks such as terrorism or bioengineered foods. Also, we’ve never watched an asteroid impact on TV, so we don’t really believe it could happen.

Ropeik is intrigued by why people are disproportionately afraid of some things but can ignore others. The answer may lie in how our brains are wired, allowing us to respond to danger before we’ve even had time to think about it. At the 2003 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he noted that if our ancestors hadn’t been designed this way, they wouldn’t have survived.

Experience and culture also teach us what to fear. We’re born with some basic phobias, but we must learn that DDT and terrorists are dangerous. Ropeik says we’re more afraid of catastrophic events such as airplane crashes than of everyday risks like cancer. It’s partly a matter of media coverage that makes the danger appear greater than it is; and partly because the more grisly the prospect, the more it frightens us. The result is a certain degree of illogical behavior.

From a statistical perspective, says Clark Chapman, Ph.D., an asteroid researcher at the Southwest Research Institute, in San Antonio, Texas, it was “very strange” that the deaths of a few people from anthrax dominated the news in late 2001, while the risks of influenza, which killed 30,000, “were just buried.” That distortion, adds Geoff Sommer, a graduate student at the think tank Rand Corporation, is the essence of terrorism. It works as a “weapon of mass distraction,” siphoning attention from other arenas.

As for those not-so-scary asteroids: one did hit Siberia in 1908, leveling hundreds of square miles of forest. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is now mapping the orbits of 2,000 large rocks likely to hit our planet in the future.

Hmmmm… This gets me thinking…

If 500 people lived happily on an island, getting on with their lives, and one of them was killed by a shark every 30 years whilst fishing, that is still less than the 1 in 421,884 chance of them being murdered in London. Of course, our islanders are upset by this occurrence, however, it is rare and isolated occurrence and does not affect their way of life except to be more careful when fishing.

Now, if there were 14,344 of these islands that were then subsequently hooked up with Island TV. The Island TV news has to make their show worth tuning into and newsworthy — so they show these deaths occurring across the thousands of islands — suddenly, the island people believe there is an epidemic of shark murder occurring — some stay in their homes, some stay away from the water, some take the law into their own hands and buy new harpoons — they are infected with a mind virus. The virus is particularly effective because it has an element of danger and appeals to peoples survival instincts.

Irrational fears can be created by such memes… A meme is a thought, belief or attitude in your mind that can spread from other people’s minds. Many evolution theorists believe in the theory of the survival of the fittest and this is often believed to be true about memes — that the strongest and most powerful survive. Thought processes that we pay particular attention to are those related to food, danger and sex, as per our evolution through prehistoric times.

Anyway, memes often enter our minds without our permission, they become part of our mental programming and influence our lives without us even knowing and I speak about this a great deal in my work.

What mind viruses catch on in your experience of life? Do you switch the radio on first thing in the morning and have that programme you for the day ahead? Is your sense of humour manufactured by radio or TV personalities? Do you allow gossip with friends to influence what you think and how you think it?

Do you allow media news coverage to stop you going into London ever again like those two lovely old ladies I stopped to speak to?

If you are going to watch the news, be subjected to advertising messages, have in depth discussions with people, then I recommend that firstly, you begin to choose what you allow ‘on board’ in your mind and protect yourself from being influenced by mind viruses that can enhance negativity or have you sat in front of the TV in fear! Maybe you’ve been infected with one of those ‘get rich quick’ mind viruses that plague the internet, or that you can lose pounds of weight with one miracle pill. These are exaggerated ideas I am using to make my point.

Let me tell you this:

If you smoke a packet of cigarettes a day you have around one in two chance of being killed by cigarettes. Yet many regular smokers often still concern themselves more about the possibility of being on the wrong end of a youth stabbing incident, or a terrorist blowing them up, than the danger of smoking. This is ridiculous!

What frightens people can tell you more about them and the ideas they have been exposed to than the probability of real threat in their lives. With such a long history of sci-fi viewing in my life, I could be creating problems for myself, eh?

Have a wonderful weekend, I hope the sun shines here as my new barbequeue has just arrived… Saying that, Wimbledon tennis is about to start — Enter the rain!