Unscheduled Post: Subtlety and swine flu


The difference between stupid and intelligent people–and this is true whether or not they are well-educated–is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations–in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.

Neal Stephenson, Diamond Age

The swine flu story is a great test of someone’s subtlety. You have to hold two competing possibilities in your head, both with serious consequences:

1) Nothing interesting is happening…

2) Millions are going to DIE!!!!!!

1 has the obvious cost of fiddling while Rome burns and avoiding doing easy things that make serious improvements down the road. 2 has the problems of panic, societal shutdown, economic issues, etc. Plus for the experts the cry wolf problem, next time people will revert to 1.

The problem is that, at the moment we cannot know quite what will happen, but 2 is a scarily real possibility.

Of course both of these options are better than the media’s version of events. Holding strong versions of both 1 and 2 simultaineously. They both make better stories than subtlety. Saying on the one hand that we are all going to die and on the other that nothing is going to happen. In CNN’s case hyping then accusing twitter of causing panic.

In fact for me twitter has connected me up to excellent information, even though there is plenty of denial and panic as well. With twitter I can choose who to listen to, tuning my own news sources, rather than the limited choice available in the mainstream media.  In particular @bengoldacre, is always a relaible source on stories involving science when it hits the news and on this issue @hexayurt was right on the money, especially with the flucode.  There are many more informed people out there talking sense through this topic.

This is sad as there are many small things that people can do that can make a serious impact on the final outcome. If fact doing these things could possibly prevent it.  The suble fact is that if it is prevented it will be very hard to tell whether what we did was necessary.  Very small reductions in how infectious people are and how many people they come into contact with can have a dramtic effect.  For a non-technical overview of the mathematics of epidemics and disease, there is an excellent article in the online maths magazine Plus.

So in conclusion, spread the flucode and think about things don’t just consume the story you like!