What Are the Coming Decade's Most Overblown Fears?

Newsweek is running an online retrospective of the new millennium’s first decade. My favorite section to date is the “Overblown Fears” list. Here they are, in order:

1. Y2K
2. Shoe Bombs
3. Vaccines Cause Autism
4. Immigrants
5. Bloggers
6. SARS, Mad Cow, Bird Flu
7. Web Predators
8. Teen Oral Sex Epidemic
9. Anthrax
10. Globalization

One could quibble all day long with inclusions and omissions but to be sure it is a very entertaining list. I’d be tempted to remove SARS and Bird Flu from the “most overblown” category, and I’m not sure who was ever so frightened of bloggers. Also: when a given fear doesn’t make the list, it’s hard to say whether that’s because it wasn’t so overblown or because it wasn’t so scary.

It was interesting to look back to see how many of these topics have appeared on this blog over the years — e.g., here and here and here.

And in a section of SuperFreakonomics dealing with the trickle-down costs of terrorism, we write about the would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid:

Think about the last time you went through an airport security line and were forced to remove your shoes, shuffle through the metal detector in stocking feet, and then hobble about while gathering up your belongings.

The beauty of terrorism — if you’re a terrorist — is that you can succeed even by failing. We perform this shoe routine thanks to a bumbling British national named Richard Reid, who, even though he couldn’t ignite his shoe bomb, exacted a huge price. Let’s say it takes an average of one minute to remove and replace your shoes in the airport security line. In the United States alone, this procedure happens roughly 560 million times per year. Five hundred and sixty million minutes equals more than 1,065 years — which, divided by 77.8 years (the average U.S. life expectancy at birth), yields a total of nearly 14 person-lives. So even though Richard Reid failed to kill a single person, he levied a tax that is the time equivalent of 14 lives per year.

Jason Kottke
, who wrote the Y2K entry in the Newsweek list, offers this trenchant assessment:

According to Forbes, AT&T reportedly spent $500 million to fix their Y2K issues. Meanwhile, the U.S. government expressed concern about the lack of preparation undertaken by K-12 schools, small businesses, China, and Russia; none reported significant problems after Jan. 1.

I would be remiss to not ask all of you: what will turn out to be the most overblown fears of the coming decade?

Chris L

Most overblown fear = public health care


genetically modified food


What is the difference between #5 and #7?


Global warming (just kidding)

Child molesters, teen sex, and teen drug use should be the top 3 in every decade for the last 40 years.


uh, shouldn't Y2K really be considered a 90's fear by any reasonable classification? after nothing happened on 1/1/2000 that was the end of it.


Obviously I'm afraid of Dec, 12 2012. Darn Mayans.


Have you looked at the connection beyween "madness" and "genius"?

I have always had a hunch that this link is overblown due to the fact that famous mad geniuses are ...well, famous; whereas madness in the less famous (and often now the homeless) is less well documented.

Any thoughts?



Our political parties --- maybe all political parties --- sell fear. I don't know what the democrats will hang their hat on, maybe fear Palin and those who like and are like her.. The republicans will tweak/have tweaked "fear the godless commies" message and are now selling fear the socialist Obama.

alternative view

Actually, I recall an alternative analysis indicating that the shoes-off rule in fact *quickened* time spent in security lines. Footwear was apparently one of the most common causes for metal-detector false alarms, which then require the wand, secondary screening, etc.

Billy Merck

The end of the Mayan Long Count...


Fossil fuel shortage.

Many people fail to account for the fact that as gasoline becomes more expensive, the supply of oil that is cost-effective to obtain becomes greater.

But just because we can, doesn't mean we should.




I would have loved to see African Killer Bees join the list from last decade.

As for the next:
Plague, locus, famine and all else associated with the Apocalypse. At least until the December 2012.


I was not aware that there was a fear concerning immigrants. I am aware that illegal immigrants are a fear, for good reason. Newsweek certainly is aware of this, but in order to taint the results they use immigrants instead of the more applicable illegal immigrants,


The Taliban - this will cost us many more years, lives, and $$ in Afghanistan.


Second 4's first pick and 12's.


Am I the only one that is laughing at "Oral Sex" making the "Overblown" list?


Global warming, Vaccines Cause Autism

It also says something unfortunate about Newsweek that terror-related threats that were actually undertaken (shoe bomb, anthrax), and diseases that actually have caused harm, are somehow overblown.


Without a doubt CAGW is the most overblown fear of this decade and will probably be the most in the decade to come.

Sam Gross

Sarah Palin. The liberal media, not to mention the hyper-liberal online ones like Huffington Post, are hysterical with fear that this nice lady might actually have some influence on public opinion.