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West Nile Virus 2

Posted on July 27, 2004 in Journalists & Pundits West Nile Virus

square008.gifWhen it comes to panic, the media is our greatest enemy. Editors worried about being forgotten in the morning rush to the office stretch towards horrific hyperbole when talking about “threats to our country”. Consider the headline in today’s Visalia Times-Delta:

West Nile virus not to be taken lightly
It’s important to be aware that this is a real health threat.

The fact is that West Nile Virus sickens only one in five people who it infects and kills far fewer. But you don’t glean this from the headline. Not until the third paragraph do you get a hint of the truth:

Most people affected with West Nile virus, which is actually more dangerous for birds and animals than humans, are not affected. Some acquire flu-like symptoms. Less than 1 percent get seriously ill. Those at greatest risk for serious illness are those who are at risk for all illnesses –the elderly, those with weakened immune systems from other diseases and recent organ-transplant patients.

The media teaches and what it teaches accounts for what some decry as “stupidity” on the part of people. Kathryn Cramer, for example, said that people in the New York area showed up in emergency rooms because they’d been bit by a mosquito. Like many progressive skeptics (perhaps including Kathryn*) I don’t think this is a sign of mental defectiveness or inferiority. Smart people can cling to very bizarre beliefs, rationalizing endlessly. Journalists, as a class, are not idiots but they are poorly trained in basic sciences, psychology, social sciences, and statistics. They often lack the skills and the historical perspective to be able to separate valid evidence from hogwash and lies. They do not know how to question or research stories or vet out bias or recognize snake oil. Their errors transmit from mind to mind via the vector of television, radio, newspapers, and the nets. And the public, having also not been well educated in these vital life skills, do not question what they hear and read except on a very superficial level as in “the press has a liberal slant”, “they lie”, and the post-modernist “different truths” fallacy.

The price we pay is mass histrionic behavior. And is that good for our health?

*I am optimistic on this score because, after all, Kathryn writes a blog in the spirit of putting out the facts and analyzing them. Why waste your time if you didn’t believe that people were capable of understanding?

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