The 100 Percent Fallacy and the Costs of Our Ebola Panic

Paul Waldman makes an excellent point about our Ebola hysteria–and it is a panic (boldface mine):

But Murphy is right in that Ebola is producing some of the same insane overreactions that terrorism did and continues to do. That “We have to be right 100 percent of the time” argument has been repeated a zillion times with regard to terrorism, and there are two problems with it. The first is that we don’t, actually. What if we were right 99 percent of the time? Then there might be a successful terrorist attack every once in a while. And then what? It would be awful, and the nation would survive. We don’t say we have to stop 100 percent of the 30,000 or so gun deaths in America each year, or that we have to prevent 100 percent of the medical errors that kill tens or hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, or that we have to prevent 100 percent of the excess deaths from respiratory illness due to power plant pollution.

On all those other things, which kill many more of us than terrorism ever will, we say, well, we’ll do what we can, but you have to balance preventing those deaths against other things that are also important to some of us. Sure, it’d be nice if we didn’t have so many gun deaths, but we don’t want to restrict people’s right to bear arms. It’d be great if fewer people got sick from dirty air, but we don’t want our electric bills going up. When you enter “100 percent” territory, all other considerations must be secondary.

The second problem with the “100 percent” argument is that it inevitably becomes the justification for all manner of policy excesses, including spending hundreds of billions of dollars to create an Orwellian national security state and abandoning all kinds of civil liberties. We need to keep records of everyone’s phone calls, because we have to be right 100 percent of the time. We need to know what books Americans take out of the library, because we have to be right 100 percent of the time. We need to invade Iraq, because we have to be right 100 percent of the time….

So why not close all the schools? And while we’re at it, stop all flights in and out of Texas and post Army units at the highways on the state’s border with shoot-to-kill orders on anyone trying to leave? After all, Ebola only has to be right once.

Waldman’s absolutely right. There are other costs too. First, some CDC personnel–who are already stretched thin–are being retasked to Ebola work. Second, we are now shifting funds from influenza vaccine research–and influenza kills thousands to tens of thousands annually in the U.S. alone–to Ebola vaccine research. That may very well be the right thing to do, but let’s not pretend that there won’t be costs from this down the road. If we limit contact with Africa (i.e., travel and trade restrictions), this could hurt our economy. I can’t even imagine, if we overreact, the chaos that will ensue once norovirus (‘winter vomiting disease’–it’s as fun as it sounds!) and influenza seasons begin (the initial symptoms of both diseases mirror those of Ebola).

Keep in mind that no one other than two healthcare workers who came in contact with Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan–while he was very ill and infectious–have contracted the disease. Not his family, not his fiancée–and it’s not clear that they received the best infection control support from the Dallas Department of Public Health (not that I blame Dallas DPH: between Texas Gov. Perry’s unwillingness to put resources in public health and our general lack of ‘biopreparedness’, they did pretty well). Lots of things went wrong: people traveled when they probably shouldn’t have, many medical personnel didn’t have adequate protection, and so on, yet there was no outbreak outside of the hospital.

We should keep that in mind before we freak out.

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2 Responses to The 100 Percent Fallacy and the Costs of Our Ebola Panic

  1. dr2chase says:

    This is a really good year to get a flu shot. Otherwise, we can rely on hordes of little frightened bunnies clogging ERs when they think they’ve come down with Ebola.

  2. Juniorprof4ever says:

    Great point. Next time someone starts in about a travel ban, simply ask: if the government were to implement such a ban, can you provide a guarantee we’ll be 100% safe?

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