Apr 29

It’s hard to displace a global economic crisis from headlining the news, but the pigs did it. A n variant of the H1N1 flu virus, associated in our lore with the 1918 flu pandemic, has jumped species and infected humans. There are reported deaths (though numbers and details vary wildly) and cases appear to have spread globally.

The media jumped on this new new new crisis, the politicians around the world thanked Providence for something to distract voters from their ethical lapses and the opportunity to pad their budgets, pharmaceutical stocks rallied, airline stocks tanked, and the conspiracy theories are running wild. The Russians stopped importing pork, even though you don’t get the flu from eating pork.

On the positive side, a few more people started washing their hands. This is a rational response; hygiene is an innovation that works. (Purell and other hand disinfectants work in a pinch, but washing your hands for at least one minute, with a long rinse in running warm water is better.)

Three of our predictable irrationalities give the swine flu story much more impact than it should have — and in this case, it would be better if we were more rational.

One: Unlike the agents in economic models, we have limited memory and limited thinking capacity; to manage it we shift our attention depending on outside information. Or, in non-academese, we pay attention to what’s happening now: things that are recent and things that are repeated often get more attention, even if they are not that important. Because the news focus on the negative (it’s their business model) we keep hearing about the cases discovered, and not about the millions of people who were exposed and didn’t get sick. Which gets us to point two:

Two: We overweigh new risks relative to comparable risks we are accustomed to. Around 100 people per day died in US roads in 2008, an enormous improvement over previous years but still. People obsessing about spending 5 minutes in elevators with others (an infinitesimal chance of contagion) will blithely cross the street against the light to have a artery-clogging triple cheeseburger with fries and then smoke a pack of cigarettes. These things have much higher risks, but because we have grown accustomed to them, we don’t think of the risks. They are not, in the technical term, salient; but they are much more dangerous. Still, their dangers are dry statistics and people are not good with statistics, which gets us to point three:

Three: Brains are wired to work well with stories. And there are many stories one can make from the news reports: pandemics amplified by airport air recycling and global travel; mass extinction followed by anarchy and mayhem; terrorism taking advantage of the burden on the health system; the flu as prelude to alien invasion from Alpha Centauri. Ok, the last one only works around the MIT Media Lab. But we love stories, and forget that the plural of anecdote is not data. Statistics, dry as they may be, give a lot more information than stories.

It is not that this problem is not real and important, I just don’t think that relative to our other problems, it is as big as we are making it to be.

What can we do: as the British said during the Blitz, keep calm and carry on. Take appropriate precautions, wash your hands, and if you’re sick get help and keep out of crowds.

CDC page on this flu