In the first chapter of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape explains to Wormwood that there used to be a time when “argument was the way to” keep his Christian patient “out of the Enemy’s clutches.”

Times and methods have changed:

That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.

The above was written in the 1940s. It was true then, and it has metastasized in 2020 to a nearly fatal disease. Emotions and feelings rule the day. The ability to follow an argument must be suppressed to keep the people enamored with experts who do their thinking for them. Keep the people focused on “personal peace and affluence.”

Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church…. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it “real life” and don’t let him ask what he means by “real”.

While doing some research, I came across an article by Michael Crichton. Crichton was a prolific author: Terminal Man, The Andromeda Strain, Coma, Jurassic Park, and more than two dozen additional novels and non-fiction works under his name and pen names.

The 2005 article, “Fear and Complexity,” is based on how he came to write the book The State of Fear. It reminded me of Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood and CNN’s global town hall event “Coronavirus Facts and Fears.” The fact is, it’s all about fear to control.

In 1998, Crichton began research on a novel about a global disaster. In the course of his preparation, he “casually reviewed what had happened in Chernobyl” in 1986, “since that was the worst man-made disaster in recent times” that he knew about. 

What I discovered stunned me.  Chernobyl was a tragic event, but nothing remotely close to the global catastrophe I was imagining.  About 50 people had died in Chernobyl, roughly the number of Americans that die every day in traffic accidents.  I don’t mean to be gruesome, but it was a setback for me. You can’t write a novel about a global disaster in which only 50 people die. 

Undaunted, I began to research other kinds of disasters that might fulfill my novelistic requirements.  That’s when I began to realize how big our planet really is, and how resilient its systems seem to be. Even though I wanted to create a fictional catastrophe of global proportions, I found it hard to come up with a credible example.  In the end, I set the book aside, and wrote Prey instead.

But the shock that I had experienced reverberated in me for a while.  Because what I had been led to believe about Chernobyl was not merely wrong-it was astonishingly wrong.  Let’s review that.

But most troubling of all [about predictions concerning the Chernobyl nuclear disaster], according to the UN report, is that “the largest public health problem created by the accident” is the ‘damaging psychological impact [due] to a lack of accurate information… [manifesting] as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state.’

In other words, the greatest damage to the people of Chernobyl was caused by bad information. These people weren’t blighted by radiation so much as by terrifying but false information. We ought to ponder, for a minute, exactly what that implies. We demand strict controls on radiation because it is such a health hazard. But clearly Chernobyl suggests that false information can be a health hazard as damaging as radiation. I am not saying radiation is not a threat. I am not saying Chernobyl was not a genuinely serious event.

But thousands of Ukrainians who didn’t die were made invalids out of fear. They were told to be afraid. They were told they were going to die when they weren’t. They were told their children would be deformed when they weren’t. They were told they couldn’t have children when they could. They were authoritatively promised a future of cancer, deformities, pain and decay. It’s no wonder they responded as they did."

In fact, we need to recognize that this kind of human response is well-documented. Authoritatively telling people they are going to die can in itself be fatal.

A fearful population is a population that’s easily manipulated. There are enough people who will accept any proposed remedy so they can feel safe.