A few years ago,
some nonprofit the United Nations was running an ad campaign with the slogan “Apathy is Lethal.” The first several times I saw the ads, I (accidentally) misread it as “Apathy is Legal,” and upon realizing my mistake, continued to misread it intentionally. This is probably more typical of the “you can’t make me care” attitude of a teenager than any profound statement about the state of the world, but students of foreign policy (to name just one field) have recognized for a while now that there is a certain level of apathy or ignorance that is rational: it’s simply not true that every development in the world is noticeably relevant to an individual’s everyday life.
It turns out that this phenomenon had been observed at least as early as 1950, but with regard to a surprising issue: the atomic bomb. Having been born shortly before the
fall demolition of the Berlin Wall, my entire perception of the Cold War is retrospective through views and facts presented by others. I have to admit that my inferences from those presentations did not correspond with the following:
The American public is practically universally aware of the discovery of atomic weapons. In a survey conducted in 1946, 98 per cent of a national sample had heard of the atomic bomb. This is a remarkable finding, since on most public questions there is always a substantial sector which is unaware of major public events. The American public is not only aware of the existence of the atomic bomb, but is also aware that it has destructive possibilities…. However, the atom bomb does not seem to constitute a matter of great and conscious concern to most Americans, despite the fact that awareness is practically universal, the destructiveness of atomic weapons is generally recognized, and the impossibility of maintaining the American monopoly has been conceded.
It is noteworthy that in the “focus of attention” surveys discussed above, only an extremely small percentage of the respondents ever referred to atomic weapons as the most important problem before the American people. The proportion typically ranged between one and five per cent…. Fifty per cent claimed they weren’t worried at all…. “I’m not worried about it. What’s the use of worrying?”
–Gabriel Almond, The American People and Foreign Policy, 1950: 107-8
Is this surprising to anyone else? How does this relate to John Mueller’s claims (which I am sympathetic to) that fears of nuclear war, atomic bombs in the hands of terrorists, and so forth are greater than is justified by the actual threat?