Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Sorry for my absence, I needed a few days to clear my head and the muse just didn't inspire, not for this blog at least . . .

Anyway, it's something of a repeating theme for me that we humans just aren't very good at deciding what is important, or what we ought to be worried about more than something else. So, of course the ebola virus is worrisome. Lots of people have already suffered and died and many more will. But the attention it deserves is mostly because the incidence is increasing in the fairly restricted geographic region where the outbreak is occurring, and nobody can be sure how it's going to play out.

Here, Andrew Ross Sorkin reports on calculations by the world bank that the economic cost of the outbreak will be $32.6 billion by the end of 2015 if the virus spreads to neighboring west African countries, which they consider to be a worst case scenario. That's a lot of money no? Well yes, it's probably about five times as much as the U.S. will spend bombing Syria and Iraq during that period. On the other hand it's about 1/300 of the trillion dollars we spent on the previous Iraq war. (Of course the U.S. will bear little of the cost of ebola.)

Yes, people are dying. Many fewer than died in the Iraq war of course, but it is also true that more Africans are dying right now of malaria, TB, HIV, and diarrheal diseases than of ebola, by orders of magnitude. Even in the worst case scenario, that will still be true.

As Sorkin's story tells us, the biggest economic risks are from overreaction, not the epidemic itself. Impediments to international travel and trade, useless spending, fearful declines in investment -- those are likely to cost more than $32.6 billion.

So why the wall-to-wall media coverage? Well, for one thing it's novel. That's what the word news means, after all. But this is a cognitive bias that's costly. Buried on page A-14, and nowhere to be found on the web home page, the NYT tells us of a new Pentagon report detailing the national security risks of climate change:

The Pentagon on Monday released a report asserting decisively that climate change poses an immediate threat to national security, with increased risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages. It also predicted rising demand for military disaster responses as extreme weather creates more global humanitarian crises. . . .

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking Monday at a meeting of defense ministers in Peru, highlighted the report’s findings and the global security threats of climate change.“The loss of glaciers will strain water supplies in several areas of our hemisphere,” Mr. Hagel said. “Destruction and devastation from hurricanes can sow the seeds for instability. Droughts and crop failures can leave millions of people without any lifeline, and trigger waves of mass migration.”

On the front page, however, we do have the story of the single person who was infected within the U.S., a nurse who cared for Thomas Duncan in Dallas. A single, identifiable person is much more likely to get our attention than the probability that even thousands of people who aren't identified, who are mere abstractions, will suffer or die. That's another dangerous cognitive bias. It's what led to the counterproductive reaction of the U.S. and Britain to the grotesque beheading of hostages by the self-styled Islamic State. Yes, we need to seek justice for those individuals but we need to keep the threat posed by IS in proportion and respond in a way that isn't going to make matters worse. Until those identifiable individuals were killed, that seemed likely to happen. Of course, that's why they did it.

1 comment:

robin andrea said...

I have to admit to being stunned by the Ebola coverage. I don't even want to click on Huffington Post and see one more insanely screaming headline IN RED about one worker being infected. Being unconcerned about climate change is pretty much the same ignorance as being overly concerned about Ebola. Politics instead of science wins every time.