How Ebola is Messing With Our Brains

Human irrationality is nothing new. But sometimes we get a fresh reminder that the human capacity for clear thinking is hampered by all kinds of stumbling blocks, and that our elected leaders are hardly immune to them. This season, of course, that something is a curly little virus called Ebola.


The scene on Thursday in Fort Kent, Maine, had an absurdist cast: two slow-moving police cars followed a woman riding her bike with her boyfriend on a crisp autumn morning. Meanwhile, state officials tried to convince a judge to issue a quarantine order for the woman, Kaci Hickox, to prevent her from coming within three feet of anyone while out of doors and to keep her out of all businesses and public transit. (Today Judge Charles C. LaVerdiere did just that.) Ms. Hickox, a nurse, returned to the United States last Friday from Sierra Leone where she had spent a month caring for Ebola patients. Now her state’s governor, Paul LePage, says Maine must remain “vigilant” in protecting the public from Ms. Hickox, in case she is carrying the virus.

Maine authorities are not alone in seeking to quarantine healthy medical workers back from the Ebola front lines. A large handful of states, including New York, New Jersey, California and Louisiana, have imposed 21-day quarantine orders, the length of the incubation period of the virus. Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense, made a similar move on Wednesday, issuing a mandatory on-base quarantine for members of the military returning from three West African countries where they had been building clinics.  

The Centers for Disease Control, scores of medical experts and President Obama agree that there is no justification in medical science for these aggressive quarantines. There is zero risk that a symptom-free carrier of the Ebola virus can pass the virus on to another person. Only someone shedding fluids containing the virus poses a risk to others. According to the CDC, individuals who have treated Ebola patients should monitor their health for 21 days, including twice-a-day temperature checks, but there is no reason for quarantine unless someone actually contracts the disease. A more restrictive policy, the White House says, could ultimately be counter-productive:

The White House has argued that stricter measures adopted by states such as New Jersey and New York could hurt efforts to recruit doctors and nurses to volunteer their services in West Africa. The federal government's guidance says only health care workers who have been exposed to Ebola directly, such as through a needle pin prick or by not having adequate protection, should face isolation.

The editorial board of the New England Journal of Medicine agrees with the president's perspective. "The governors' action," they write in an editorial, "is like driving a carpet tack with a sledgehammer: it gets the job done but overall is more destructive than beneficial." The way to stem the Ebola tide is to attack the virus in West Africa, not to attack the volunteers who are returning from that fight. "These responsible, skilled health care workers who are risking their lives to help others are also helping by stemming the epidemic at its source. If we add barriers making it harder for volunteers to return to their community," the New England Journal of Medicine concludes, "we are hurting ourselves."

This chart gives a helpful summary of how not to freak out in the wake of Ebola’s arrival on American shores:

As useful and as sensible as these guidelines are, Ebola fever (the metaphorical variety) is unlikely to ebb any time soon. This is true for one simple reason: Ebola is scary. Under the right circumstances, it is highly communicable, and it kills about half of the people it infects. But people tend to fear Ebola with an intensity that is disproportionate to the actual threat it poses. Four people have come down with Ebola across the United States in recent weeks. Four. Of those, two have recovered, one is in treatment in a New York City hospital, and one,tragically, has died.

Why the outsize concern about a disease that is, by any account, very much under control? The answer comes from a 2001 study, “Risk as Feelings,” by psychologist George Loewenstein et al. The authors argue that “emotional reactions to risky situations often diverge from cognitive assessments of those risks.” When our fear gets the better of us, and wall-to-wall cable news coverage helps to encourage this, we make poor decisions. For example, the authors cite a 1993 study finding this:

“[P]eople were willing to pay more for airline travel insurance covering death from ‘terrorist acts’ (a highly imaginable event) than death from ‘all possible causes’ (which, of course, implicitly subsumes terrorist acts in addition to a range of other causes but does not spontaneously bring fear-provoking mental images to mind). At the opposite extreme, people tend to be underinsured against hazards that evoke relatively pallid mental images. Flood insurance is notoriously difficult to sell, even when premiums are heavily subsidized.”

Ebola is like terrorism: bloody, spectacular, fearsome and unlikely. Influenza, on the other hand, is like a car accident: common, boring, meh and thousands of times more likely. So everyone tends to worry about the wrong thing, and this misconstrual of risk is far from costless. A handful of Americans may contract Ebola in the coming months, but thousands will come down with the flu virus and think they may have Ebola, overwhelming emergency rooms and diverting medical resources from diseases and ailments that pose a far greater risk to the public health.

Stirring hysteria and locking up health workers willy nilly is a sad symptom of the predictably irrational response to a sprinkling of Ebola cases in the United States. We are all predisposed to overreaction; I admit have been draining my hand sanitizer bottle at a faster clip since news broke of the first Ebola patient in New York. I've also been eyeing fellow subway passengers with coughs more suspiciously. But our public officials and the media have a responsibility to temper these irrational fears, not to stoke them. Too many cable news anchors, and too many governors, are failing us.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.