As the cholera outbreak in Haiti continues to worsen, the population is getting increasingly desperate. In some areas, mobs have embarked on genuine witch hunts, attacking people accused of using black magic to deliberately spread the disease. At least 12 people suspected of being witches were stoned or hacked to death last week, their corpses dragged into the street and burned.
Haiti’s descent into superstition in the face of chaos might afford us a few drops of condescension to mix with our pity at the country’s fate. But it bears keeping in mind that when it comes to confronting fears, Canadians are no less prone to fits of magical thinking.
For example, back in October, parents at an elementary school in Ontario voted overwhelmingly to ban WiFi in the classroom*. Were the parents concerned that surfing the Net during class might be bad for learning? No, they were reacting to symptoms reported by their kids that included dizziness, nausea, and headaches, and which mysteriously disappeared on weekends and holidays. Deftly elbowing past the obvious explanation—going to school makes most kids want to barf—parents concluded that the in-school wireless must be to blame. And so out went the Internet routers, despite assurances from the province’s chief medical officer that they posed absolutely no threat to students.
Then, at the end of November, the Waterloo regional council voted to stop the 43-year practice of adding fluoride to the municipal drinking water, after two local residents complained that it was making them sick. Forget the fact that the only known side effect from water fluoridation—from too-high fluoride levels, specifically—is something called dental fluorosis, a.k.a. stained teeth, and that the ban was implemented despite strong opposition from the very people who stand to benefit most from the ban, namely, local dentists. Waterloo residents are now revealed as the Birthers of dental hygiene, sticking to their thesis precisely because it is so implausible.
And just last week, a small Okanagan fruit company announced that it would seek approval from U.S. regulators for its new “arctic” apple. The apple’s principal selling point is that it doesn’t turn brown when exposed to the air, which led consumer groups to immediately denounce it as “the botox apple.” Ignore that nothing had been added or injected into the apple; the company simply figured out how to switch off the gene that produces the browning enzyme.
Anyway, these are only the latest additions to what is becoming a lengthy and persistent list of public fears. A few weeks ago, the World Health Organization released a report that concluded that Canada’s lonely crusade against bisphenol-A (we were the first country to ban it) is at best “premature,” given there is very little evidence that it is harmful to humans. And then there are the familiar fears over cancer-causing cellphones, autism-causing vaccines, and the Frankenstein’s monster that is genetically modified food, which serve as the background radiation of intellectual discourse in this country’s conversation, frying every attempt at rational thought.
These cases have three things in common. First, they are all fears directed at technologies or policies with a clear public benefit. Second, the worry is always about some invisible or undetectable feature of our micro-environment, the alleged negative effects conjured out of radio waves, parts-per-billion, and statistical anomalies. And finally, the strong public resistance to these activities takes place not despite official statements that they are completely safe, but in many cases because of those assurances. In short, the tinfoil hat that was once the mark of the conspiracy theorist and the anti-state paranoiac is now thoroughly mainstream garb.
It is customary to blame the media for peddling hysteria and alarm, and there’s something to that. Politicians have to take some of the blame as well—they happily jump on any passing craze if there looks to be an electoral advantage in it. But both the media and politicians are merely playing to the crowd, happy to exploit our fears. They don’t actually create these fears, and while some researchers have proposed that our extreme risk-aversion has biological roots—only the ape that was afraid of everything managed to survive on the African savannah—our malaise actually stems from a deep-seated distrust of modernity itself.
Sometimes it seems that every society has a fixed “fear budget” to devote to things worth worrying about. In Haiti, the fear over cholera is very real, and the scapegoating of innocent citizens as witches only compounds the tragedy. But in a rich, safe, and supposedly enlightened country like Canada, we have nothing worth spending our fear budget on. Instead, we’ve developed what looks like a sort of public safety autoimmune disorder, where our anxieties are increasingly directed at the technologies, the medicines, and the markets that are the basis of civilization.
Humans may never be able to fully escape the temptation of magical thinking. But where the gangs stalking the streets of Chambellan or Jeremie are at least trying to exorcise something genuinely horrific from their midst, our own superstition here in Canada is all the more pathetic for being directed at the very source of our good fortune.
*CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the classroom WiFi had been shut off.