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The Great Zika Freak-Out: A Teaching Moment in the Psychology of Fear
An unfamiliar new threat that harms babies, that we can't protect ourselves from, that experts don't fully understand, and about which the media is blaring loud alarms; Zika virus has several powerful emotional characteristics that make any potential danger feel much more dangerous than it might actually be.
A new disease with an exotic name, Zika virus, is spreading "explosively" around the world. It may be causing babies to be born with shrunken heads and brains. No one has immunity. Experts admit significant uncertainty about how the disease spreads, what symptoms it causes, or just which parts of the population face the greatest danger. And the media is going bonkers. There could not be a more perfect set of conditions for a full-blown freak-out about a threat that plenty of evidence also suggests may not be that great a threat at all. And that kind of risk reaction can be dangerous all by itself.
I'm no expert in Zika virus or infectious diseases. For scientific particulars, one great source is Helen Branswell at STAT; Everything You Need to Know About Zika virus. There is also a solid backgrounder in The New York Times: Short Answers to Hard Questions About Zika Virus
But interestingly, the WHO information site is FAR more measured than the public statements by WHO head Dr. Margaret Chan, who spoke in much more dramatic terms.
“Last year the disease was detected in the Americas, where it is spreading explosively.”
“The level of alarm is extremely high. Arrival of the virus in some cases has been associated with a steep increase in the birth of babies with abnormally small heads.”
“The possible links have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions."
Dr. Chan’s statements, which almost surely will be widely criticized as poor risk communication, set the world press into a Zika frenzy:
But compare that scary headline with what the BBC story itself says in the second paragraph;
Most will not develop symptoms, but the virus, spread by mosquitoes, has been linked to brain defects in babies.
And compare Dr. Chan’s alarmist language (speaking about a global threat) with the comments of Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, describing the risk for the United States, where there have been a grand total of 31 recorded cases of an infectious disease that has been around in many tropical areas (that breed the right species of mosquito) for at least eight years.
For the average American who is not traveling, this is not something they need to worry about. For people who are pregnant and considering travel to the affected areas, please take this seriously.
Dr. Schuchat also did a wise thing with her risk communication. She all but promised there would be more travel-related cases, rather than trying to over-reassure the public. But she said that conditions in the United States make it highly unlikely (not impossible, but highly unlikely) there will be a serious outbreak here.
Perhaps most importantly, compare Dr. Chan’s alarm with the actual numbers from Brazil, one of the first places where doctors noticed a spike in microcephaly, the condition of babies born with shrunken heads or malformed brains. Nature reported on an analysis of the actual numbers: Brazil's surge in small-headed babies questioned by report
It is not known how common microcephaly has become in Brazil’s outbreak. About 3 million babies are born in Brazil each year. Normally, about 150 cases of microcephaly are reported, and Brazil says it is investigating nearly 4,000 cases.
From 150 to 4,000 in one year is a frightening spike on a percentage basis, and certainly cause for alarm. But how much alarm? A total of 4,000 cases of microcephaly out of 3 million babies comes to a risk rate of 0.0013. Tiny. And the study reported by Nature found that only 270 of the Brazil cases have been confirmed as microcephaly, and a tenth of the reported cases have been discounted as false diagnoses.
So the basic facts about Zika virus at this point suggest that even if the worst case is real, the statistical risk, even where conditions are favorable for the spread of the disease, is probably tiny. But at this point facts are, well, equivocal, which is why public health authorities are responding with due caution, (even though some, like Dr. Chan, are responding with less-than-cautious language.) And the very fact that there is uncertainty is just one of several psychological characteristics that make the threat of Zika virus feel much more worrisome than the evidence alone suggests.
New risks freak us out more than the ones we’re familiar with. The way we freaked out about West Nile virus, and then calmed down about it even though it’s still around, provides a good analogy. We are much more concerned about risks to babies than risks to adults. Zika scores high on that risk perception factor too. So does the fact that we have no immunity or vaccines, which means we are powerless — we have no sense of control. Not being able to protect ourselves makes any risk scarier. Uncertainty about the nature of the Zika threat adds to the sense of not knowing what we need to know to protect ourselves/powerlessness.
And the media alarms play a huge magnifying role. The more readily available something is to our awareness, the more space it takes up on our limited radar screen of risk. No matter how measured the stories on Zika virus may be as you get down into the details, (and most are), blaring headlines of “spreading explosively” and “4 million possible victims” (thank you, Dr. Chan) are what we hear and read first and, cautious beings that we are, we tend to put too much weight on the worst-case possibilities of any threat and those reassuring caveats down in the story, if we even get that far, do little to disabuse us of our fears.
Let’s be clear, and fair: Nobody is panicking. These worries, even if based more on feelings that an objective look at the evidence, are real, and valid, and entirely reasonable. Better-safe-than-sorry precaution is built into the psychology of how we keep ourselves safe. Given what isn’t known, only a fool would suggest there is no need to worry.
But we also have to worry about worrying too much, about this threat or any threat, because excessive fear can be risky too — from the choices it leads us to make, or just the harmful effects of chronic stress. So it’s worth observing how the Zika outbreak is demonstrating how we supposedly rational intelligent creatures often respond to potential danger with emotion and instinct as much as with objective analysis and reason. Understanding that can help us stay safe too.
image, GettyImages, Inti Ocon
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.