The facts of Ebola


When the young woman in the seat next to me asked the flight attendant for a glass of cabernet, I took it as a sign that projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea would not be part of my trip from PHL to LAX.   I also took it as a reminder that the Ebola irrationality I’ve slammed in others is not as foreign to me as I’d like to believe.

I’d been in Philadelphia for a “>facts don’t change our minds, they just make us dig our heels in harder.  We process information both rationally and emotionally, and our emotional apparatus gets there faster.  We use shortcuts, called “>put it, “Don’t make reasoning, free people choose between knowing what’s known and being who they are.”

It’s tempting to think that people who conflate knowledge and identity are Others, not Us.  Our team knows better; we get the difference between the truth claims of science and the tribal claims of culture.  It’s tempting, but it’s delusional. 

That was driven home to me last Friday, on the final morning of the conference. Just before the session began, one of the panelists showed me a distraught message he’d received from a faculty member at Syracuse University.  The night before, I read in the email, Syracuse provost Eric Spina had disinvited Washington Post photojournalist Michel duCille from a workshop at the Newhouse School of Public Communications because he’d been in Liberia three weeks before.  For the 21 days since he’d been in West Africa, which the CDC says is Ebola’s incubation period, duCille had monitored his temperature twice a day.   As far as the experts were concerned, with no symptoms he was in the clear. 

But that didn’t cut it for Syracuse.  The “>Rand Paul?  Some cable news fearmonger?  The CDC isn’t infallible, but they don’t pull numbers out of the air, either; they’re scientists, and their guidelines come from evidence.  “Some suggest” that vaccines cause autism.  Should Syracuse, out of “an abundance of caution,” make inoculations optional?  If a journalism school doesn’t have an obligation to avoid false equivalence between science and paranoia, it might as well fold up its tent.

But by the time I got to the airport, I’d had a change of heart.  What if I were a parent of a Newhouse student?  What if 21 days is just an average?  What’s the harm in delaying the workshop for a week or two?  What if this young woman sitting next to me on the plane is a nurse, or a roommate of a nurse, at Texas Presbyterian?

There’s plenty of Ebola ignorance going around and plenty of political and financial incentives to keep it that way.  I’d like to say that the antidote to my fevered speculations is familiarity with the facts.  But if that were fully true, I’d be more Vulcan than human.  I’d like to believe that my calculations of risk are driven by what science knows about infectious diseases, not by my identities as parent, catastrophist, bureaucrat or disaster-porn addict.  But if I were able to process information independent of my affiliations and afflictions, I’d be an algorithm, not a person.  The next time I try to persuade someone that they’re wrong and science is right, I hope I first take a moment to walk in their shoes, and to feel uncomfortable about how comfortably they fit.


Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society and directs the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

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