Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Falling for fear talk

Ignorance and fear go together.  They grow in the same environments, and feed off each other like some sort of bizarre pair of symbiotic life forms.  The antidote to both is knowledge and understanding.

It's astonishing, though, how resistant some people are to taking that particular medicine.  For example, consider what happened last week in Louisville, Kentucky, where a teacher resigned over parental fears that she was carrying Ebola after a trip to Africa.

Susan Sherman, a religious education teacher at St. Margaret Mary Catholic School, had recently returned from a mission trip to Kenya.  When she got back home, the administration required her to produce a health note from her doctor, and to take a "precautionary 21 day leave."

Parents began to call in with concerns.  Would she be quarantined during that time?  What if this wasn't sufficiently long to cover the incubation period of the disease?  Was it safe to let her come back at all?

So Sherman resigned.

Can we just clarify one thing, here, to you provincial Americans who failed high school geography?  Africa is not one country.  It's lots of countries.

And it's freakin' huge.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The continent of Africa is larger than Europe, China, India, and the United States combined.  The distance between Kenya (where Ms. Sherman was) and Nigeria (the nearest country that had a case of Ebola in the recent outbreak) is about 2000 miles -- about the same as the distance between Washington, D. C. and Phoenix, Arizona.

So if there'd been some cases of Ebola in Arizona, would you force teachers in Washington, D.C. to take 21-day leaves "just in case?"

Look, I understand why people panic about this thing.  Ebola is one terrifying virus.  The end stages of the disease are about as grotesque as anything I can think of.  But the situation isn't going to be helped by succumbing to the media's perpetual fear-talk.

Listen to the scientists.  I know, it's a radical proposal, but still.  And the scientists say:

  1. Ebola is hard to catch.  You have to come into direct contact with the body fluids of a person who has active Ebola symptoms in order to catch the disease.
  2. The disease is not transmissible at all during its incubation period.
  3. This outbreak has been limited to West Africa, in particular the countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.  All of the people who have contracted Ebola have had contact with individuals from that region.
  4. The handful of verified cases in the United States have been managed through quarantine and aggressive medical treatment, and all but one of them have survived the disease.
So basically: calm down.  The likelihood of this becoming a global pandemic is slim to none.  

Not that this is going to help Ms. Sherman, who is now out of a job because of the ignorant fears of a few parents, and an administration who didn't have the sense to stand up to them.  Instead of telling those parents, "Read the medical literature.  Also learn some geography," they allowed hype to rule the day, in the name of "precaution."

And in the end, the students and staff of St. Margaret Mary Catholic School were exactly as safe as they were to start with (i.e., very safe), and a teacher who decided to go to Kenya to help people is having to search the employment ads.

1 comment:

  1. I understand the fear too, the media don't help, but when first the hype was raging, everyone was already reporting that a liar, who denied contact with Ebola sufferers, had actually had contact with an Ebola patient recently had naturally been allowed into the United States and that at least two of those who had worked with him there were also being tested for suspicion of carrying the disease. It was barely days before everyone was reporting that an Ebola sufferer had entered my own country. All through this, the whole time, medical experts were assuring us how difficult it was to catch Ebola, that only through the transmission of bodily fluids could it be caught. Yet, at the time, we could not turn on the fucking TV or radio without hearing about another possible case of Ebola in our own countries.
    I am guilty, as guilty as the next person, of feeling the fear. Not so much a fear but more of a lounge room ranting session that sounded a lot like fear.
    My knowledge of the disease and its methods of transfer is improving, not least of all because of the good skeptical blogs that I enjoy and follow.

    All the best, folks!