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?


If you want to rank it according to dollars spent for benefits received, then Global Warming will by far be the most overblown fear of the decade and probably of the century.

Captain Obviousness

1. CO2 emissions
2. Terrorism
3. Health care crisis


I think between 2010 and 2019 China will yield some fear in the hearts of the American's. That being said, there may be subcategories to the "China Fear"
Governance / Lack of Diplomacy
Human Rights

I can see the fox headlines as I write this.

Paul Clapham

Well, that quote about Y2K just goes to show how much people didn't understand the problem.

I'm not surprised that AT&T spent a lot of money on Y2K remediation. I was on the Y2K project at the company where I work and I can tell you, if we hadn't done all that work it would have been a major nuisance trying to keep track of who hadn't paid us and who we hadn't paid. And that state of affairs would have gone on for several years. You just can't run a business that way. So the work had to be done.

And no doubt AT&T had a lot more computer systems than we did -- that can happen when you get to be a big corporation -- so it's not surprising they had a lot of them to fix. (I'm still shocked by $500 M though.)

But in March 2000 I went to the place where I bought swimming pool chemicals. His PC had the wrong date on it because of the Y2K problem, so my cash register receipt had the wrong date. I didn't care, he didn't care. Not a problem.

Likewise for schools. Why would they have a problem? And Russia? Probably if all their computers were turned off completely it would hardly make any difference. I read all of the stuff about people building bunkers and stocking up on fuel oil and guns and just found the idea ridiculous. There was someone called Gary North who ran one of the fearmongering websites. I checked it out regularly to see what he had to say, but pretty soon I realized that he actually wanted society to crash like that. He didn't have anything useful to say.

So yeah, it was a problem. And a lot of money had to be spent on it. But a disaster in the making? It was never that.



I've heard several retrospectives lately making Y2K out as an "overblown" fear: Ha ha, we were all so silly ten years ago!

The fact that nothing major went wrong on 1/1/00 doesn't mean there was no problem in the first place; instead it reflects the thousands of hours that thousands of people, myself included, devoted to preparation and education for the event.

Y2K wasn't an overblown fear; Y2K was an averted disaster.


Anyone else see the obvious irony? As if Newsweek doesn't prop up these types of occurrences when they happen.

And really, how incredibly naive to say things child molestation and terrorism are overblown issues.... Go talk to a 9/11 survivor or a family member of a deceased and comeback and tell us it's overblown.


You missed Global Warming. Dun Duuun Duuuuuun.



First, that it still maintained WMDs in usable quantities.

Excusable, perhaps, because the intelligence on this -- spanning at least two presidential administrations, the UN, Great Britain etc. -- was universally bad.

Second that it was an inextricable quagmire, and simply the worst foreign policy blunder ever.

Excusable only for those who are bad at history and math.


I worked at AT&T as a software developer during Y2K. I was lucky enough to miss most of the impact, but they did go to extreme measures. We were all on call lists, even for software we didn't maintain. On December 31, 1999, a bunch of folks had to be the office just in case something "blew up."

A few years after that, I worked for telecom equipment provider, and we had a similar Y2K like situation, which did trigger. In our equipment, we kept relative time based upon a counter. The counter had such a high frequency that it cycled back to 0 after about 47 days. We didn't realize this at the time, and nothing ever stays in the test lab running continuously for 47 days for anyone to observe it. So this bug was sent to the customer.

Guess what happened when the counter reset to 0 for our customer? The equipment interpreted 0 as so far in the past (47 days) that the equipment was obviously malfunctioning, so the equipment rebooted itself - a very reasonable task given the situation.

There was no harm to our customer, but it was slightly embarrasing for us. \We did have to scratch our heads for a day or two trying to figure out why unconnected equipment across the country was rebooting itself. Once we figured out the cause, the code was updated to take the wrap around to 0 into consideration and the patch was shipped.

I'm guessing AT&T and the other companies that spent a lot on Y2K did not just to prevent disaster, but also to prevent embarrassment.



Fidel Castro should have made the list for the past several decades.

For the coming decade, I'd add Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Richard Shea

Globilization is only an overblown fear when YOUR job hasn't been outsourced. I know a lot of unemployed people who would love to see NAFTA, GATT, and all the other trade pacts nullified. Obviously, you're living in a bubble away from the real world.

ed c

fear is the basis of our economy: the entire insurance industry/scam is based on fear....fear enough to get everyone who buys ANY policy to essentially bet against themselves.....to bet on trouble because of the fear of the imagined....we have become a nation of fraidy-cats


"Socialism" has my vote.




I think Autism/Vaccines should be at the top of the list. That one has real public health implications going forward. Scares me.

Maybe in the 2010s the overblown fear will be the fear of pandemic from the repercussions of vaccine/autism fear...?

Guy Thompto

Overhyped, overblown fantasies that will be laughed cat in ten years:

-Global warming
-"Savings" from socialized medicine
-Sara Palin
- H1N1
-Kennedy mystique.


Most overblown fear: fast zombies

Most underblown fear: slow zombies


1) public health care
2) inflation

Guy Thompto

Overhyped, overblown fantasies that will be laughed at in ten years:

-Global warming
-"Savings" from socialized medicine
-Sara Palin
- H1N1
-Kennedy mystique.


Park Slope parents.