A recent op-ed column in the NYT from David Brooks, who fancies himself a critic of the sociocultural scene, on hysterical responses to Ebola: “The Quality of Fear: What the Ebola Crisis Reveals About Culture” on October 21st, beginning:
There’s been a lot of tut-tutting about the people who are overreacting to the Ebola virus. There was the lady who showed up at the airport in a homemade hazmat suit. There were the hundreds of parents in Mississippi who pulled their kids from school because the principal had traveled to Zambia, a country in southern Africa untouched by the Ebola outbreak in the western region of the continent. There was the school district in Ohio that closed a middle school and an elementary school because an employee might have flown on the same plane (not even the same flight) as an Ebola-infected health care worker.
The critics point out that these people are behaving hysterically, all out of proportion to the scientific risks, which, of course, is true. But the critics misunderstand what’s going on here. Fear isn’t only a function of risk; it’s a function of isolation. We live in a society almost perfectly suited for contagions of hysteria and overreaction.
Here we get the trope of Decline — things are getting worse, as hysteria and paranoia spread — combined with the claim of Recency — the decline has been steep recently — all of this, according to Brooks, explained by a social change: the fragmentation of American society as social, cultural, and political groups isolate themselves from one another.
Now, Decline and Recency are, in principle, testable matters. And since Brooks presents himself as a fan of work in social science (he occasionally publishes summaries of social-science research he finds significant, or at least thought-provoking), you’d expect him to provide evidence for Decline and Recency in social hysteria, but no: like so many cultural commenters he merely retails his subjective impressions as truths, and then conjures up an explanation for them.