Public reaction to Ebola

Ebola elicits two kinds of reactions in the US. Some think we are in imminent danger of an Ebola epidemic. Others think Ebola poses absolutely zero danger and that those who think otherwise are kooks.

Nothing can be discussed rationally. Even narrow scientific questions lead to emotionally-charged political arguments. Those who have a different opinion must be maligned.

The big question is whether the Ebola virus can spread by air. Experts say “probably not” but some are cautious. For example, Ebola researcher C. J. Peters says “We just don’t have the data to exclude it.” But people who know absolutely nothing about virology are firmly convinced one way or the other.



8 thoughts on “Public reaction to Ebola

  1. I wonder John, how much of our (scientific) discourse follows this same template. Uncertainty, after all, can be quite the frightening state of existence.

  2. Tim: One thing I’ve learned over my career is that scientists are not very scientific. Some are, but they stand out.

  3. Unfortunately, on-the-one-hand, often the only way to get people to take a problem seriously is to let it reach crisis proportions, and on the other hand people often panic too much from a piece of news. In hoping to avoid panic, the medical community has erred in the direction of preaching too much calm. We are likely already behind the curve of understanding changes in the virus, or as the saying goes, we know what we know, but we don’t know what we don’t know.
    Even if the regulations in place are enough to contain the virus, complex regs are almost never successfully enforced 100% (especially not internationally), so lapses are unavoidable. I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least several dozen, even over 100 victims in the U.S. over some time, and will consider that a ‘success’ if we hold deaths to those levels. By then perhaps we’ll have successful containment/treatment. But if we get to the 150-200 victim count the exponential nature of infection does get scary — it is not just victims and their contacts who must be found, but contacts of contacts of contacts… and that number gets very large (and unmanageable) very fast in a highly mobile society.
    Anyway, I don’t mean to sound scaremongering, but in their desire to avoid widespread panic, I do think the medical community is being less than completely honest and realistic with the public — but they are in a rough balancing act.

  4. It’s much the same in the climate change world. You can’t point out the limitations of a climate model or that adjustments made to the surface temperature record to counteract local site effects over time (more concrete, buildings, etc.) are the same magnitude as the changes we are trying to measure without being labeled a “denier”. And you can’t point out that there is ample evidence that seven billion people are affecting the environment and the climate without being labeled a tree-hugging kook. I think that need for tribalism and the need to be right in every arena is one of the biggest issues keeping humans from reasonable discourse.

  5. John said:
    “But people who know absolutely nothing about virology are firmly convinced one way or the other”

    I’m inclined to see this as a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect [wikipedia]. In a way you can look at it as a feature-rich but data-poor learning model, one that comes down more decisively the less data it has (“I flipped this coin once and determined it will always come up heads!”)

    Like so many things in the policy arena, I don’t think it’s so much that people are being foolish, but that we are optimized to solve much smaller, more immediate problems, where any decision is better than no decision. The results are very frustrating, but this is such a universal effect, that I think those of us concerned with serious policy issues really need to figure out how to take this into account. Just being frustrated or angry doesn’t seem to ever make much difference.

  6. Dunning-Kruger seems a bit harsh.

    If one needs to judge the trustworthiness of an actor (in this case the CDC , Immigration, hospital personnel and others), and one is not an expert, then the judgement proceeds on the basis of the knowledge about the actor actions to date (and success of same), and what one can infer from knowledge of similar actors.

    None of which is reassuring.

    I don’t personally know anyone panicked – I was out to lunch this weekend and the place was packed – but I do know a number of people who are wondering if it isn’t going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

  7. The question is not really if Ebola can spread by air. Some strains might already, maybe not. There is scant evidence either way. However, the virus mutates faster than any other know infectious deadly virus known to date. This is cause for alarm enough. The other issue is that the virus does not elicit symptoms until after one to three (!) weeks. And in people with weak immune systems virus might already be spread to others while the body shows no fever yet. So the faction who thinks the risk is absolutely zero may be in for a wild surprise …

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