Ebolisis And Its Enablers

Derek Thompson blames the media for overhyping – and thereby exacerbating – Ebola panic in the US:

For the last two weeks, the American Ebola panic has been relentlessly overstated. When Gallup asked Americans if they were worried about contracting the Ebola virus, just 23 percent said yes in a October 11-12 poll, days after Thomas Duncan was the first person to die in America from the disease. That was up just one percentage point (well within the margin of error) from a similar survey administered one week earlier. Just 16 percent told Gallup that they actually thought someone in their family would likely get the virus, up just two percentage points from a week earlier.

One in six people thinking they’re about to die from Ebola is a serious matter. But you can get about approximately 20 percent of Americans to say all sorts of crazy things in anonymous polls.

Waldman takes on another trope of Ebolisis – that in the words of Republican Congressman Tim Murphy, “we have to be right 100 percent of the time, and Ebola only has to get in once.” It’s the viral equivalent of the one percent doctrine:

The objection some now have to the federal government’s response is that it isn’t enough like our response to terrorism, which is to say it doesn’t reflect that 100 percent perspective. You can find that perspective in some places — for instance, today the New York Times reports on some of the reaction from people who are both terrified and ignorant, like the parents who kept their kids home from school because the principal had travelled to Zambia, where there has been no Ebola despite being in the very same continent as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. So why not close all the schools? And while we’re at it, stop all flights in and out of Texas and post Army units at the highways on the state’s border with shoot-to-kill orders on anyone trying to leave? After all, Ebola only has to be right once.

All of this underscores Saletan’s point that when it comes to public health, giving the public what it wants is simply nuts:

Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas is introducing a travel ban in Congress because Obama “is refusing to listen to the American people.” Virginia lawmakers, citing the views of “the American people,” are calling for a ban on travel from West Africa to their state. Behind these initiatives, an army of conservative media outlets is quoting polls and trumpeting what “the American people want” and “the American people favor.”

On some issues, this kind of thinking is healthy. It’s democracy. But on matters of science and medicine, it’s reckless. The reason why public opinion on Ebola diverges sharply from what experts recommend, not just on a travel ban but on everyday behaviors to avoid the virus, is sheer ignorance. Telling health officials to listen to the public, rather than the other way around, is the worst kind of demagoguery.