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Fear, Uncertainty and Bias, a Year after the Boston Marathon Bombing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I’m signed up for this social network analytic tool called “ThinkUp,” and one of the things it does is to remind you what you were talking about a year ago on the same day. Last week, this is what appeared on my dashboard:

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A few days later:

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If you’re an American, I probably don’t have to tell you what this is about – two pressure cooker bombs detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing 3 people and maiming hundreds. Several days later, the FBI released images of two suspects, leading to a city-wide lockdown and manhunt that began with the killing of an MIT police officer, and ended with the death of one suspect and capture of the other.

I live in Boston, but I aside from being stuck in my house all day last April 19th, I was not directly affected by the bombing. I knew some people in the race, but they’re all ok. I briefly considered going to take pictures at the finish line, but that’s as close as I got. Still, the proximity to that kind of tragedy feels significant, and it’s hard to reconcile my logical self with the fear and uncertainty I felt while it was happening. I wrote a guest post for SciAm that explored these feelings in light of our cognitive biases. I admit, this was as much an exercise in trying to convince myself as to educate my readers, but it didn’t help much. Knowing why we irrationally fear things like terrorism doesn’t make that fear any less real.

Now, a year later, where are we? Most residents of Boston are outwardly eager for this year’s race, though speaking for myself, that excitement contains a fair bit of dread. All of my marathon-related thoughts are filled with contradictions. Part of me feels like showing my solidarity with the city and actually going to take pictures at the finish line this year. Most of me (including my better half) says, “No way.” Yet even if we knew an attack of the same scale were going to happen somewhere on the marathon route, my chances of being among the victims would likely be lower than my annual risk of dying in a car crash. I want to be Boston Strong, but I also object to the commercialization and appropriation of that phrase. I’m happy about the money it’s raised for charity, but a bit ashamed that I feel affected by a tragedy that for all intents and purposes did not affect me more than one of the regular bombings in the middle east.

I’m guessing this year’s race will go off without a hitch. I’m guessing the finish line will be one of the safest places in the city to be. But I won’t be there. I’ll be at home, pretending the only reason I’m not there is because I have too much work to do. And that’s true… mostly.

Kevin Bonham About the Author: Kevin Bonham is a Curriculum Fellow in the Microbiology and Immunobiology department at Harvard Medical school. He received his PhD from Harvard, where he studied how the cells of the immune system detect the presence of infectious microbes. Find him on Google+, Reddit. Follow on Twitter @Kevbonham.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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