Friday, August 24, 2012

The Warm Squishy Pile

The past couple of days, annoyed by the mindless drivel that passes for news in our culture (Angelina marries/divorces ____ ), and inspired to try to inform people who don't run across my blog site, I've been commenting on stupidity that I've found in news websites. I know I'm not going to fix all stupid, but dammit, One Bite at a Time--right?

I had an interesting experience that I want to tell you about. I think it's instructive.

I was on a liberal-leaning news site and read the typical "sky is falling and we're all going to die" article about West Nile Virus. The headline screamed about the "alarming" increase in West Nile, and the article itself talked about how the hot weather this year was responsible for one of the "worst outbreaks" of West Nile "in history." It went on to say there are "four times" as many cases this year as average, and the rate of new cases is "accelerating." Good Lord, why didn't I buy that advance funeral plan!?

Then buried in the middle of the article were a few statistics that didn't quite make sense with the hair-on-fire narrative they were pushing. It said,
Only about 1 in 5 infected people get sick. Early symptoms can include fever, headache and body aches. Some recover in a matter of days. But 1 in 150 infected people will develop severe symptoms including neck stiffness, disorientation, coma and paralysis.
But they quickly returned to "alarming" rates of WNV in certain locations, how worrying it all is, and how they've been spraying the snot out of those areas, and right at the end, two little sentences of what seemed to me to be the most important part:
The best way to prevent West Nile disease is to avoid mosquito bites. Insect repellents, screens on doors and windows, and wearing long sleeves and pants are some of the recommended strategies. Also, empty standing water from buckets, kiddie pools and other places to discourage breeding.
There's the scenario. Now, I'm kind of a pragmatist when it comes to this kind of thing, and I hardly ever believe that the sky is falling, because it so rarely has. So I did a little research and went on the comments section and said that their article was slanted to make the problem seem worse than it is--"fear porn" I called it. And I presented facts to show why.

For example, in areas that have reported cases of the virus, only 1 in 100 to 1 in 500 mosquitoes actually carry it. Even once bitten and infected, only 20% of people get sick at all, and less than 1% of infected people get seriously ill. Among the people who do get seriously ill, only 3-15% have historically died of the disease. The majority of those are older people with compromised immune systems.

So, here's how I look at it. If I live in an affected area, statistically I will need to get between 100 and 500 mosquito bites to get infected with the virus. Then, once infected, there's an 80% chance I won't get sick at all. Even if I do get sick, I have a 99 percent chance it won't be serious--I'll have some body aches and fever and be good to go in a couple of days. Even if I'm the unlucky one in a hundred who gets seriously ill, I still have an 85-97 percent chance of survival. Overall, the chances of dying of this disease are between 1 and 3 in a million. That's hardly worth a spark, much less hair-on-fire.

If I don't live in an affected area, have a healthy immune system, drain standing water where the skeeters breed, avoid bites by wearing protective clothes and repellant and stay inside at dusk, well then, my chances of being dead from this are just about nil. And you know, statistically, we have a greater chance of dying in a car accident on any given day than of dying of West Nile all year. We also have a greater chance of dying by lightning than West Nile! And oddly, neither the "epidemic" of auto fatalities nor the "alarming outbreak" of deadly lightning strikes gets half the press as the annual, like-clockwork freak out over West Nile Virus.

So, I pointed this out in my comments. I said that this is not an issue we should be worrying about. I said the media is being irresponsible in the manner in which they are presenting this information, by scaring and inflaming people when they should be informing and calming people--because after all, it's a one-in-a-million thing.

And I got attacked. Two people pursued me through the comment boards, angrily telling me that this was "valuable public health information," that "epidemics" grow exponentially and in 1916-17 very few people got the Spanish flu but then in 1918, 20 million (!) people died of it, and that if I didn't like the information, I should just ignore it, because that "is the root of ignorance." There were exclamation points and capital letters, and more than a little snarky condescension. And only one guy made one comment defending what I said.

I tell this whole story because it showed me something really illuminating: people like to be scared. They especially like to be scared of something that they think can be controlled without effort on their part, say by public officials blanketing hundreds of square miles with synthetic pyrethroid toxins that may have adverse effects on human health, and that may kill a portion of mosquitoes but will also kill pollinators and beneficial insects that reduce the mosquito population, like dragonflies. But it will stop the threat, or so it seems.

It's handy, I suppose, to take all your stress and fear of the unknown, and all your insecurities and uncertainties, and rake them all up and put them in a warm squishy pile, and attach to it the unattractive image of a "villain," and then comfort yourself with the notion that someone else spraying a few thousand gallons of insecticide (or making a law, or putting someone in jail or dropping bombs) will take care of it all. Easy peasy. A nice neat solution that someone else has to take care of. And you can quickly resolve your anxiety and go back to your Facebook. At least until the next news item.

It occurred to me after I'd thought about it that it's sort of like the "jones" that you get as an addict when you need a fix, followed by the silken relief you feel when you use. Only their jones is their fear and anxiety, and their fix is the cooked-up, bumper-sticker-worthy solution that some nice man from the government always provides.

It seems that my experience in the comment boards was one of an interventionist, and my scrutiny of their fear addiction was just as anger-inducing as its substance-abuse counterpart. I had called attention to their addiction--found the fifth of gin hidden in the dog food bag and confronted them with it. And I threatened their convenient and familiar cycle--make warm squishy pile, attach villain, await savior, repeat--jones/fix/jones again.

People don't like to look at their own mind games. They don't like it when their red herring fears are debunked. They don't like to see that they are playing out a continual Hegelian dialectic cycle of "problem, reaction, solution" that keeps us focusing everywhere but where we should be.

Because if you can't focus on the mosquitoes (and the easy, if toxic, "solution" to them) you might have to focus on the real problems in the world. Those are much harder to get rid of than West Nile Virus, and they're not going to go away by someone else's action. Those, we're gonna have to get rid of ourselves.

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