Two years ago a Boy Scout in Utah strayed onto the wrong trail and was lost for four days. He scrupulously followed all the advice that had been given him, and it nearly killed him. He stayed on the trail, which was good advice. But he'd also been told never to talk to strangers, so any time a rescue party came near, he would hide in the bushes. Finally, common sense got the better of caution, and he revealed himself to a rescuer.
Telling a child never to talk to strangers is a terrible thing. Yes, there's a tiny handful of malevolent strangers out there. But for every stranger who will hurt you, there are a thousand who will help you. Sometimes even, as in this case, save your life. Caution is fine, but that's a matter of judgment — just the opposite of a blanket injunction.
What does this have to do with astronomy? Quite a lot. One of the most striking changes in the U.S. since I was a child in the 1950s and 60s is the flowering of fear. When I was an 11-year-old in New York City, my parents let me go anywhere I wanted alone (within reason, of course). That was pretty much the norm then, though a few parents were more cautious. But parents who were considered comically overprotective in the 50s and 60s would be judged reckless by today's standards. In the intervening years, America became a deeply fearful society.
People often ask if I'm not worried when I travel to distant sites (or not-so-distant parks in my own city) to observe the night sky. City dwellers think I should be afraid of wild animals, country folk think I should be afraid of wild humans, and suburbanites are scared of everything. Nobody ever asks about the real danger of driving to a remote site at night, which is traffic accidents. That's particularly a worry on the drive back late at night, when the proportion of drunk drivers is highest, the likelihood of hitting a deer or moose is greatest, and I'm close to falling asleep at the wheel. The U.S. experiences about 40,000 traffic fatalities every year, compared with fewer than 10 people killed by all kinds of wild animals combined — and most of those in Alaska. Yet wild animals evoke far more fear than cars.
Mind you, I'm not trying to blow the danger of traffic accidents out of proportion. Considering how liberating cars are (or can be, anyway), the risk of crashes is well worth accepting. I'm trying to make it clear just how tiny — really utterly negligible — the threat of wild animals is. And frankly, in most places, human attacks aren't much more of a hazard. There are about 1/3 as many homicides as traffic fatalities — a modest number though not negligible. But well over half of those are by acquaintances or family members. Murder by random strangers in the street, the kind that everybody worries about, is rare, and largely confined to impoverished urban and rural areas where "respectable" people never go.
Moreover, the homicide rate is just about the same today as it was fifty years ago! And accidents from cars and other causes have declined significantly. Few places have ever been as safe as America today, yet we're perhaps the most fear-ridden society that the world has ever seen, outside of major war or pestilence. What's going on?
Partly, no doubt, it's the commercialization of fear by television, tabloids, lawyers, and insurance companies. And since ancient Greece, politicians have always known that there's nothing like fear and hatred to rally people behind them. But I think it's also a real sea-change in society. In my parents' generation, there were real dangers to worry about. Large numbers of women died in childbirth, infants died of measles and scarlet fever, millions of people had just been killed in World War I, and millions more were about to die in World War II. Even the richest family was vulnerable to infectious disease. Nobody expected life to be safe and secure.
Only in my lifetime has the idea taken root that danger can and should be abolished absolutely, that life should be lived completely free of risk. But that's an illusion. The only way even to come close is to lock yourself in a box and cut off all contact with the world. Technology's not quite up to that yet, but most people's lives are increasingly confined to their home and backyard, their car and the mall. And then they end up with the diseases of civilization: obesity, arteriosclerosis, diabetes. In the long run, nature always takes its revenge.
Small wonder that people don't enjoy the wonders of nature — stars included. Small wonder that people want to make the outdoors just like the indoors, to pave it or plant it with well-manicured grass, to fence out all intruders, to light up every square inch so that night is turned to day. Small wonder that 90% of people live where the Milky Way is obscured by skyglow — and that 90% of the remainder haven't seen the Milky Way either, because they're afraid to turn off their porch lights.
At an even deeper level, I've had a number of people tell me that the stars scare them. Frankly, I can sympathize with that sentiment. The stars are utterly alien, completely and forever beyond our control. Awe and fear are intimately related. And there's nothing wrong with that. Fear isn't the end of the world — unless you run away from it.