Of Pandemics, Fear, the Facts and You
But one thing remains true: “People have a very weird perception of large numbers,” [Dr. Brockmann] said. “If you have 2,000 cases of flu in a country of 300 million, most people think they’re going to be one of the 2,000, not one of the 299,998,000.”
I think people have a wierd perception of risk, and that is often influenced by media attention. Which reminds me of a memorable article from the New York Times Op-Ed page in 2003 – remember West Nile Virus? “Never Bitten, Twice Shy – The Real Dangers of Summer” by Ropeik and Holmes.
Yes, the graphic is not perfect (see this critique at Edward Tufte’s blog), but does get across the idea that risk perception is not always influenced by the facts. And is expanded in this article in Health Affairs “Dealing with the Dangers of Fear: The Role of Risk Communication” by Gray and Ropeik.
Ok, but what about the facts? The fast moving breaking news often plays fast and loose with the truth, and can spread alarming information. Early reports of the swine flu in Mexico seemed to have extremely high mortality reports, especially among young adults. Now, with new evidence of confirmed cases, the virus is looking alot milder. When I first read that influenza virus could survive for 10 days on money, I thought it was another casualty of the truth, as the avian-human-swine flu reported in a press briefing by the CDC. However, in this case, the facts seem to check out (Survival of Influenza Virus on Banknotes, Thomas et al), unlike the potluck origins of the swine flu which ProMED reported to be, upon closer examination – just swine flu.
More on risk perception:
Here’s a conversation with David Ropeik in the New York Times, and he wrote a book with George Gray – Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You
Reckoning with Risk: Learning to Live with Uncertainty – Gerd Gigerenzer