Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ebola Facts Not Fear

President Obama in his weekly Saturday address (about four minutes) on the facts about Ebola in America and Africa, about the relative risks, the difficulty of contracting it (it's not airborne; contact with bodily fluids is necessary) and perspective: thousands of Americans die every year from the infectious disease called flu.  So far two nurses who treated a man who contracted the disease in Africa are the only Americans who have contracted it here, and they are being treated.  "If we are guided by the science, the facts, not fear, then I'm absolutely confident we can prevent a serious outbreak" in the US, and the US will continue to lead the world in fighting the disease in Africa.

Ebola Hysteria in the Age of Distraction

photos in this post from New Yorker
I no longer have direct contact with cable news but I am aware of the dangers of infection.  The current hysteria over Ebola is being intentionally whipped up by Republicans for political gain but mostly by a couple of cable news networks for profit and politics (Fox) and profit, or at least fewer losses, by CNN.

Clearly many of our institutions as well as the public were not ready.  WHO, C.D.C., various African governments, individual hospitals in the US, etc. didn't have effective plans to deal with this particular infectious disease, and possibly any such outbreak.  There's blame to go around, including to Republicans in Congress who cut the CDC budget, reflecting in part a general complacency in the US regarding infectious disease epidemics.  It just hasn't happened in so long that to some it didn't seem likely or a priority or maybe even possible.

But we've also known for years that as hotter temperatures move north and into higher elevations, plus other effects of the climate crisis, that infectious diseases are likely to be a problem in places unaccustomed to them.  And the likelihood of mutations would increase, which coupled with the fast daily movement of people and products (including food and plants, and the insects and rodents that hitch rides) had the potential to spread infections faster and farther than at any other time in human history.  Stephen King for one has been making a living for decades writing vividly about this.

But there are other new wrinkles in the contemporary world that spread the viruses of hysteria even faster and farther.  Local gossip, hometown zealots and fulminators who see panic as an opportunity for fame, power and profit were always very good at whipping up hysteria without regard to factual information, but within limited areas and over time.

Newspapers at their height of influence saw profit as well as power for ownership in creating hysteria that led to wars, so feeding fears that sell papers even on public health issues was hardly out of bounds.  But the world is tighter and smaller now, not only with instant access to the electronically transmitted hysteria of radio and television voices with their own agendas, their own irresponsibility and direct impulses from troubled psyches to big mouths, but with the open to everybody channels of the Internet--all the comments, tweets, texts, etc.  Getting noticed, feeling part of a group, and a hundred other motivations all too easily trump responsible speech.

The rabid right is not the only infected group.  Political coverage in the age of distraction has become more frenzied, with a higher priority on speed and brevity than thought and accuracy.

Satirists are our trenchant guides to this.  I've already cited Andy Borowitz once: Man Infected with Ebola Misinformation Through Casual Contact With Cable News.  He followed up with CNN Defends New Slogan: "The president of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker, attempted on Wednesday to defuse the brewing controversy over his decision to change the network’s official slogan from “The Most Trusted Name in News” to “Holy Crap, We’re All Gonna Die.”

Most recently he posted: Some Fear Ebola Outbreak Could Make Nation Turn to Science: "In interviews conducted across the nation, leading anti-science activists expressed their concern that the American people, wracked with anxiety over the possible spread of the virus, might desperately look to science to save the day.
“It’s a very human reaction,” said Harland Dorrinson, a prominent anti-science activist from Springfield, Missouri. “If you put them under enough stress, perfectly rational people will panic and start believing in science.”

The irony is more comforting than the current reality however.  We're still knee-deep in hysteria that's way out of proportion to the actual danger, at least here in North America.  One of its many products is hysterical cries for what seem like easy solutions, but are far more complex and perhaps even counterproductive (closing airports may be one.)

Though there are always other factors involved (Arthur Miller's play on the witch hysteria in Salem comes to mind as revealing some), hysteria and panic often depend on ignorance.  Yet we have a supposedly educated country, free from the kind of superstition that fed witch hunts etc. until a couple of centuries ago.  Even with the discomfiting revival in belief in the supernatural, or the ease with which fundamentalist creeds can be turned to hysteria, it seems somewhat counter-intuitive that such hysteria exists here and now.

But consider the speed of information, and how much time the average human appendage to a smart phone spends on dealing with the volume and speed of what is usually pretty mundane data,  relieved by "viral" excitements instantly shared by millions.  It is a culture of perpetual distraction, and it requires instant easy answers to any disturbances in the field.  A complex and deadly reality like infectious disease quickly become overwhelming.

 Used to--and let's be real, addicted to-- speedy and ephemeral bits and stimulations, can we slow down to deliberate and concentrate?  Or is it just easier to lash out hysterically in every direction?  Even when doing so, we become prey to much more than a disease that so far is much less threatening to Americans than a car crash or lightning strike--or maybe more to the point, than the growing threats of floods, tornadoes, hurricanes or other slower effects of global heating, none of which we are dealing with adequately.

Hysteria is the other end of the same continuum anchored by complacency and denial.  The world has been slow to respond effectively to Ebola in Africa, where it really is a dangerous epidemic.  I happen to know someone on the front lines fighting Ebola in Africa.  She is a courageous young woman working with Doctors Without Borders.  We here who know her are very proud of her.  Supporting such efforts makes much more sense than feeding the beast of panic--for its rampages right now are more potentially dangerous than the disease itself.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


   Postmodernism?  Modernism?  Abstract Expressionism?  Hmm.  Or "a photo of microtubules and clathrin magnified 1,500 times, taken with super-resolution microscopy techniques."  Another example of what this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry winners made possible.

Guns Over Freedom

Instead of leading to sane laws, the assassination attempt on Representative Gabriel Giffords that left her near death and significantly incapacitated for life (let alone the swift murder of schoolchildren) seemed to have juiced the rabid insistence on legalizing lethal weapons and allowing anyone with a pulse, no matter how crazy or careless or clueless or intent on murder and mayhem, into even the most volatile public spaces, with all the kill power they can carry.

The current misinterpretation of the the Second Amendment is currently trumping the exercise of the First Amendment.  Anita Sarkeesian, scheduled to speak at Utah State University, received a vivid death threat--not only to herself, but to her audience.  An email told her that if she spoke it would result in "the deadliest school shooting in American history."  Note that this is an explicit threat of gun violence.

But Sarkeesian was informed by school officials that under Utah state law, they could not prevent anyone from showing up at her speech armed, as long as they had a concealed weapons permit.  The school "confirmed the latest threat and said it involved danger to Sarkeesian and anyone who would have attended her speech."  She cancelled the speech, presumably much to the relief of the school.

Think about what this means.  This is the "ballots not bullets" country where the right to free speech and to peaceably assemble are considered sacred foundations to the entire American enterprise.  They are enshrined in the First Amendment, and there's a reason it is first.  Without its guarantees, the others don't matter much.  It might even be said that the rights in the following amendments are there to support the rights in the First.

But lethal weapons can't be kept out of a public assembly.  Notice that you've read this far and you don't have to be told generally speaking what political position Sarkeesian might hold.  You know she's not speaking on behalf of the Tea Party.
She is a feminist who apparently has negative things to say about the content of various video games.  So now we're talking about a Culture War, and a political debate, in which one side shows up with guns.  Theoretically both sides could.  But you know that's not going to happen.  At least not yet.  And what if it does?
Still for now this is how the rabid right wins a debate (even if it's a rabid teenage right.)

So what's next?  Guns at the polls in a couple of weeks?  Is that legal in Utah?  In other states?

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Weekly Quote

“In love’s service only wounded soldiers can serve.”
Thornton Wilder

illustration: No, it's not a coastline. It's a microscopic image of actin filaments, tiny proteins involved in functions such as movement and signaling, imagery made possible through principles discovered by this year's Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry.  Photo: Xiaowei Zhuang, Harvard U.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Climate Crisis: Cause and Effect

There are two parts of the climate crisis: the causes and the effects.  The causes are the factors that create global heating, mostly greenhouse gases pollution.

Global heating has effects, generally called climate change, but more specifically its effects that injure and kill people: sea level rise and consequent permanent changes to the landscape, drought and fires, storms and floods, higher temperatures and longer and more severe heat waves, and in turn their effects, which include disease, hunger and war.

A New York Times story tried to find the best places in America to weather the climate crisis for the next century.  It's not a pretty picture. "Forget most of California and the Southwest (drought, wildfires). Ditto for much of the East Coast and Southeast (heat waves, hurricanes, rising sea levels). Washington, D.C., for example, may well be a flood zone by 2100..."  And as someone in the story notes, all these projections are merely for the next century.  The effects will continue beyond that, perhaps getting worse, especially if this generation does not deal with the causes.

The Los Angeles Times was among the news organizations to cover a study last week: "Fewer than half of American states are working to protect themselves from climate change, despite more detailed warnings from scientists that communities are already being damaged, according to a new online clearinghouse of states’ efforts compiled by the Georgetown Climate Center."

In a story made timely by the Ebola epidemic and the cases in the US but with application to climate crisis effects,  a Scientific American writer analyzed the data and found that instead of gearing up for public health emergencies,  funding for public health preparedness by the Center for Disease Control has actually been cut to the tune of a billion dollars between 2002 and 2013.

Much is being done as a byproduct of something else, or when local leadership prevails or finesses the work on effects without mentioning the "controversial" cause.  But sooner and perhaps not too late, we'll need to be clear on what needs to be done and why, on both the causes and the effects.