Saturday, November 01, 2014

Ebola is overhyped

A minor disease should be treated as business-as-usual

Ebola has been everywhere in the media for several months. If you look at Google Trends, you will see that the amount of media coverage dedicated to Ebola surpassed that of tuberculosis and even AIDS by an order of magnitude.

If you trusted the media as an honest reflection of the danger, you could conclude that the number of deaths from Ebola has been approximately 10 times larger than that from AIDS or tuberculosis. Is this estimate a good one?

Of course, it's not. The annual number of deaths due to AIDS is about 1.5 million, the toll due to tuberculosis is also 1.5 million, if we double-count 0.5 million where AIDS and tuberculosis "cooperated". The ratio 1.5 million over 5,000 (2014 Ebola deaths so far) is 300. Instead of 10 times larger, Ebola's killing power is 300 times smaller. In some sense, one could say that Ebola is overhyped in the media by the factor of 3,000.

All these diseases and many others are different, differently fast, differently urgent, caused by different microorganisms and spreading through slightly different channels. But all of them are capable of achieving the exponential growth of the number of the infected people and all of them have a high mortality rate.

When it comes to their effects on the society, they are comparable which is why the direct comparisons of their casualties is a relatively fair criterion to estimate their relative importance. Ebola simply is much less consequential at this moment than tuberculosis, AIDS, and several other infectious diseases. It's also no threat to the survival of the mankind. Some people have been cured of Ebola, and so on. In this sense, Ebola seems to have a higher chance to be fully defeated than AIDS.

So where does this excess exposure to Ebola in the media come from? Sorry to say but it's mostly a fad that is supported mostly by the ignorance and stupidity of the writers who aren't capable of seeing the data in the proper context and to present the stories in the right proportion. They are wrong by three orders of magnitude because they are idiots. They don't fully realize that infectious diseases have existed since the moment when life was born on Earth – for billions of years – and even well-monitored Ebola outbreaks have been around since 1976. And yes, they have faded away in the past, much like they will probably fade away soon.

Needless to say, the Ebola panic isn't the first case of an infectious disease that is overhyped by the (post)modern media. Five years ago, the media would be full of swine flu. Five years earlier, it would be bird flu. Nowadays, you don't hear about these things at all. It seems clear to me that the swine flu hysteria was a cure that was worse than the original disease. I bet that most of us don't even know whether these diseases still exist and spread somewhere. But the media haven't learned any lesson so every increase of another disease is a good enough reason to exaggerate the threat. It's a good opportunity for some politicians to strengthen their image of Messiahs in the eyes of their most gullible voters.

Much of this "political power" of Ebola is due to the "special" catchy name. If the name were "some contrived adjective flu", people wouldn't write about it as much.

I am not saying that people shouldn't fight against Ebola. I am not even saying that the demonstrably infected and perhaps potentially infected people shouldn't be segregated in quarantine. They probably should be. Flights to the bad regions should be restricted and given special care. And there are people in each country that are supposed to deal with similar things. Epidemiologists, you know. There are many technical questions about the necessity and helpfulness of various policies etc. Good enough experts are probably needed to compare costs and benefits of such policies.

But what I consider stupid is the media image of Ebola as one of the most serious threats facing the mankind in 2014. It's just a media fantasy. In a speech one month ago, an empty suit listed Ebola and Russia among 3 world's biggest threats, along with the Islamic State. The Russian prime minister pointed out that the inclusion of Russia had to be due to a brain aberration of this empty suit and he was surely right. However, my point right now is that the inclusion of Ebola was a brain aberration, too. Ebola probably doesn't make it among top 5 most threatening infectious diseases as of now and infectious diseases are just a relatively small (but not negligible) fraction of the threats that the humanity faces.

Incidentally, it is pretty ironic that the empty suit who claims to dislike Ebola and Russia has appointed an Ebola czar. This table shows that Obama has invented 38 czar titles – more than ever before (although his predecessor was already a much "stronger" czarmarker [not to be confused with a carmaker] than all the previous presidents) and more than the total number of czars in the whole history of the Russian Empire. You could think that if Obama thinks that czars are such an excellent idea, he should be more respectful to Russia and avoid ludicrous claims such as "Russia doesn't make anything". Among other things, Russia has invented czars that are at the heart of Obama's leadership.

Let me stop with these silly jokes.

My point is that every highly lethal disease is dangerous but there are many of them, there are people (and even before the Ebola czar, there were people) who should fight against these threats, and extracting Ebola from the context and blowing it out of proportion may only help to spread the lack of realism and the excess of stupidity. And stupidity is unfortunately spreading much more quickly than Ebola. Many presidents don't include stupidity among the top threats for the mankind because they have already been conquered by the stupidity virus and it prevents them from seeing and saying the obvious.

And that's the memo.


  1. Speaking of spreading of stupidity... Dear Tim Cook, I (among many) don't give a fu*king f*ck.

  2. It's not just stupidity of the writers, it's mostly the 24-hour news cycle. They're struggling to hold onto the audience so everything is breaking news and they keep milking anything remotely interesting until something else comes along.

  3. Good point, Carbone. But even this thing you call "24-hour news cycle" is composed of things that are irrational even if one accepts the goal of keeping the readership.

    Some of the wrong assumptions behind the "cycle" are that

    1) every 24 hours, the number of interesting events that happen is the same
    2) the distribution of the events among different major topics is the same
    3) only the events whose bulk happened in the last 24 hours matter

    When there are no big events concerning threats in the last 24 hours, they should simply write about different things than threats. When there are no important events of any kind in the last 24 hours, they should write about things that have relevance in the longer run.

    I am not calling for any institutionalized quotas on topics but the writers simply should be able to see that if the total number of articles in major world's newspapers exceeds the number of casualties of the "potentially emerging pandemics", the topic has probably been overwritten.

    Now, it's plausible that the readers really want to read 10 new articles about Ebola every day so the profit-driven justification to do such a thing is justifiable. But I still think it's right to point out that newspapers and similar producers of news that depend on the basic biological human instincts and on the human stupidity and fear in this way are not quality producers and the comments that they are prestigious are misleading, to put it really mildly. They are not far from sources that offer porn and similar things. They may call themselves the Grey Lady or anything else but such a lady doesn't really differ from a hard-working prostitute in Amsterdam's Red Light District too much.

  4. LOL, neither do I, but as long as Tim Cook doesn't want me to give him a f*king f*ck, I don't give a damn about his orientation or revelation, either. And it has no implications for the products - unless we will be told that the iPhones bend and go placid in the presence of women. In that case, one would have to be careful what we do with the product, or switch to a difference one.

  5. I always feel that the drug companies pays to have those outbursts appearing, paying the UN International Health Organisation to make these small diseases into apocalypse. I think you forgot Sars in your list of made up apocalypses which are just small diseases.

  6. It's Bayes: P(dying from Ebola) = P(dying | having Ebola) * P(having Ebola) = big number * very small number = small number. People have an strong emotional response to the first term, P(dying | having Ebola), because it involves picturing themselves in a bad situation. The second term, P(having Ebola), doesn't give rise to any mental imagery and doesn't provoke an emotional response. Media coverage and everyday discussion about things is, sadly, monotonic in the level of emotional response and often independent of other stuff that's practically important but doesn't provoke a response. So the whole Ebola craze is irrational but predictable :D

  7. It is overhyped, but the ludicrous statements from the U.S. government regarding the disease essentially destroyed the public's confidence in the government. Example: BHO stated that it was "very unlikely" that a case would appear in the U.S. Given the free travel from the hot zone, this statement was utterly ridiculous: the probability that a case would appear in the U.S. was just slightly less than 1.0.

    The main potential problem with the disease occurs in urban areas in Africa, where whole cities could be literally decimated under the right circumstances. That's why Nigeria has been very proactive in controlling the spread of the disease.

    The 24-hr news cycle does indeed play a big role in the over-hyping. Recall that CNN spent a solid 6 weeks on non-stop speculation as to what happened to MH-370, which we now pretty well know is at the bottom of the Indian Ocean — we just don't know why.

  8. A part of the product is called a factor, not a term. ;-)

    There are many other situations in which the death rate is very high.

  9. Who is benefiting from the Ebola scare if there isn't really any ready-to-use commercial cure?

  10. P(having Ebola) = very small number

    risks turning false without vigilance (and of course it's already false in various places).

    Considering the timewise nature of infection spread, you should use a differential equation rather than a static probability anyway.

  11. I completely agree. Given the fact that the U.S. has 300 million citizens and a big part (or most) of them travel all the time, the probability that *none* of them would catch an infection like that is virtually zero.

    Yup, locally, it may be a huge problem in African cities.

  12. What annoys me is his invocation of God. He thanks God for his sexual orientation. What's next? Gee, thanks God I have two legs, thanks God I have a blond hair, whatever. Apparently, these days you just invoke God and it is all automatically great, whatever it is. If I were deeply religious I would consider this a blatant breach of the 3rd commandment: You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain

  13. In all such matters, before to imagine conspiracies, stupidity is the most likely cause.

  14. The real problem is Globalization of Disease - not just ebola - but the whole notion that every hospital in the USA has to be prepared to deal with anybody from anywhere carrying any germ. It makes no economic sense because maybe one or two will ever see such a case. PBS reported what one hospital is doing - converting a cardiac ward to handle 3 or 4 cases - on top of everyone being overworked to begin with, and costing millions of bucks. If you have 2 people in the waiting room and they both have a temperature of 101, then you want a warning if one of them is a walking biohazard, and that is what is missing. That is a practical concern, not a matter of reading articles on 'risk analysis'.
    As to hype - heck, this is america - land of hype. Just divide everything they say by 10 and go with that.

  15. Not only journalists and politicians, organizations like CDC and WHO have been making exaggerated predictions of hundreds of thousands of cases. The reality is that there are fewer cases every week for quite some time, especially in two of the three countries. Weekly charts here:

    As for the disease itself, its own high mortality rate makes the virus can not spread much.

  16. Religion is somewhat more entrenched in the US than the UK. (I'm guessing you're an American.)

    If he were English and publicly thanked God for his homosexuality, people here would just think he was a little queer.


  17. Humor intended?

  18. Right, but the truth to be told, God has always been used as a weapon to control people's opinions in a similar way as Tim Cook used it.

    People would say "God wants [something that I want]", and this made the person's personal wish may sound more important or more impressive. Sometimes such a false prophet was burned at stake, but sometimes his interpretation of God's wishes was so successful that he became really powerful instead.

    So employing God as the sponsor of mass homosexual orgies, for example, would only differ from the abuses of God in the Middle Ages by the postmodern hobby involved. ;-)

  19. Almost every extended family in America has at least one gay member and this has led to the most rapid change in public attitudes of my almost eighty years in this country.
    Of course it should not matter if one is gay, other LBGT, a racial minority or female but it does, albeit less than it once did. People such as Tim Cook, Peter Thiel, Lynn Conway and others are helping to level the playing field. Conway, along with Carver Mead wrote the book on large-scale ICs. She (once he) was at PARC when I was there.

  20. The word “God” is frequently used in a generic sense by non-preligious people. Abraham Lincoln, who was not personally religious, used it all the time.

  21. Almost every extended family? Where do you get your numbers on this? Seems unlikely to me on the grounds that homosexuals are a very small minority.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't care if it's true or not, it's just I'm a little incredulous.

  22. It's funny. You seem to believe that it is when it hits the US that it is becoming global. Lol. In the US only the black guy died of Ebola. The whites survived.

  23. Hmmm. That's a tricky one. I wouldn't put my shirt on it as I don't know the man personally, and he may well have a nice sardonic sense of humour, but on balance, no — unfortunately I think he actually means it. More to the point though, my guess is that he also thinks it'll reflect well on the share price — no doubt through increased 'loyalty' sales among public-lavatory enthusiasts and their supporters, and indeed the global buggery community in general.

    In any case, they're a pretty humourless bunch, CEOs, in my experience. I don't see why he'd be an exception.

    I hope that answers your question. ;)

    P.S. Please stay online if you are willing to complete our brief customer satisfaction survey. Your feedback is important to us. Especially now that the downtick has been crippled. :)

  24. Death rate of 70%, acting much faster than AIDS. The spreading is also more than for AIDS, though that is the part that has been overhyped. CDC said you can't get it on a bus, but you can spread it on a bus. Why there they following up o everyone who was on a plane if it is no big deal?

    You call for quarantines and stopping flights, but these things have not happened.

  25. Thanks God for the uptick. May it be eternal.

  26. True. One more reason why I think the term Feudalism II describes current century the best.

  27. Of course it depends on what is meant by “extended family”. I don’t know the exact percentage of homosexuals but they are certainly not a small minority. I have known quite a few over the last seven decades, some of whom married a person of the opposite sex and even had children only to come out of the closet later.
    I think the percentage is in the 10-15 % range but I can’t prove it and it could easily be larger. What is undeniable is that a titanic shift in peoples attitudes has occurred over the last couple of decades.

  28. The word “God” has been used in many contexts and for a variety of purposes, Lubos. An example for the ages is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which I regard as the best speech ever given by an American President. Lincoln used the term repeatedly as a reference to that which we are powerless to change.

    What the hell is a mass homosexual orgy? Every gay person I have known has kept his or her sex life far more private than the average homosexual.

  29. In the US the word “queer” is a euphemism for a gay male. I thought you were trying to be funny.

  30. Uncanny! It's exactly the same here!

    I haven't mentioned this to anyone else for fear of ridicule, but over the years I've detected a remarkable similarity in the way you Americans and we Britons speak, so much so indeed that I've even found it possible to conduct a mutually intelligible conversation with some of your fellow countrymen without recourse to a phrase book. One suspects some deep historical connection. Perhaps a future Alfred Wegener will uncover it.

    Yes, Gene, it was a deliberate pun. :)

    Of course, any offence taken by sour-faced 'passers-by' is a welcome bonus for me. :)

    "I thought you were trying to be funny."

    Yes, Gene, well spotted! I was, in fact in all three of these responses of mine. However, something tells me now I might have to try a lot harder in future. :)

    Oh well, per ardua ad astra and all that!

    Tallyho! :)

  31. True. However, you don't see titles like "LeBron thanks God that he is 6'8"" every day in the media and we all know that Christianity (or Islam for that matter) don't take exactly tolerant stance towards homosexuality. I see this case as a deliberate PR pitch.

  32. "There are many other situations in which the death rate is very high."

    Living has a 100% death rate. 8^)

  33. Ebola and the Islamic State are privileged. Obama will not stigmatize Africans with a disease, and he will not stigmatize murderous Mohammedans with a theology.

  34. Fer137, I think that you are incorrect on both of your points:

    The infection growth rate is still exponential.

    Fast transmission means fast evolution of the virus (propagation of mutations). There is only safety for a few humans in the limit of the high mortality rate of the disease.

  35. The stupidity is spreading faster than the virus. Nut meant that the transmission is global because airplane travel is. But what really gets me is that because only a few hundred people a day are dying from ebola that it is not as big a problem as gun violence, bowel obstructions, or whatever your personal pet peeve is. It is doubling every month. That means every month we waste saying its not a big problem means it will be twice as expensive to fix it.

  36. Well, if you post that to ZeroHedge you will probably get a lot of upvotes but you will also get a few responses telling you that Obama is a CIA puppet, Ebola is a CIA invention and ISIS was manifestly created by CIA. The latter is slightly more believable. Here, I think it is only lowering the level of the discussion.

  37. The nurse Amber Vinson is white? I'd never have guessed it!

  38. Dear Gene, are you really asking me what is a mass homosexual orgy?

    If you need a scientific paper that defines it and discusses some of its consequences, why wouldn't you start e.g. with

  39. In the last two decades exploratory synthetic chemistry has made rather big workflow and knowledge base advances, using the same old reaction methods. It's equivalent to automation and a thinking cap. However protein folding level computer simulation is still not advancing much at all, so it's still hard to actually predict protein responses to drugs, or how new proteins might be designed as interventions. Still, it’s a tough job market for academic and corporate synthetic chemists what with the big bucks now going to climate alarm parasites. Devices, sensors, and molecular electronics get massive funding, and suffer from fads and hype, as big synthetic chemistry projects still lack sexiness enough to equal something like the genome project in support.

  40. The US is afraid. And Jon even more. Ebola ! Ebola ! EboAllah!

  41. A good scare is a great marketing tool ;-)

  42. It surely is, Shannon. But my question is What is the product that is being marketed here? I don't see it.

  43. Lubos - If it must have a purpose then I would suggest that it is a intended as a distraction. On the other hand scaring people is fun.

  44. ZMapp. But it only seems to work on white people haha.

  45. Huh? I don't get it.

    BTW, the other nurse that got ebola, Nina Pham, is not white, either.

  46. What's your evidence for that?

  47. It's uncertain whether Lincoln was religious. There's evidence on both sides.

    Abraham Lincoln and Religion

  48. Don't you Brits also use "queer" to mean "odd," having nothing to do with homosexuality? Americans used to, but nowadays we don't, except maybe some highly educated people.

  49. certainly not a small minority ... 10-15% range ... could easily be larger

    All the studies are against you. Based on personal experience, I'd be amazed if it was so high as 10%, astounded if it was higher, and absolutely blown away if it was higher than 15%.



    NPR interview with a demographer

  50. Yes, you're right, but from what you say it's broadly the same here too.

    Queer is still occasionally used to mean odd or strange, but nowadays such usage carries the risk of the speaker being thought by some to be old fashioned or unworldly. For most of us, what was originally intended perhaps as a polite euphemism has now taken on pretty much the same meaning of the then unmentionable-in-polite-society to which it referred. What you say about the more highly educated, or cloistered, chimes nicely.

    On balance I'd say the outlook appears pretty bleak for any budding transatlantic phrase-book compilers. :)

    Further thought: maybe there's a PhD thesis in philology here. A queer subject. :)

  51. "So where does this excess exposure to Ebola in the media come from? Sorry to say but it's mostly a fad that is supported mostly by the ignorance and stupidity of the writers. . ."

    I have another, though not mutually exclusive, explanation: financially-strapped major media over-hype the Ebola story because it makes them lots of money -- just as racial riots in Ferguson, climate doomsday scenarios, Fukushima radiation hysteria, and many other similar stories do. TB and AIDS aren't news anymore.

  52. My impression is that most people in the world don't care that much for these kind of news. Most are interested in more mundane type of interest. People magazine has the highest readership. Also

  53. Well I'd like to get the evidence that it is also working on blacks because they don't seem to have tried ZMapp on them yet. Why ?

  54. Sorry.

    It's only an observation that stigmatization is more important than precaution.

    Were precaution at the forefront, people would be less anxious.

  55. OT, but loosely related:

    It's a curious thing, that in listening to those of a 'progressive' bent, one could be forgiven for thinking that the white man is solely responsible for all the human evils of this world, yet this same devil—in their lights—has the sole responsibility for the care and salvation of the whole of humanity.

    Perhaps that's something of an exaggeration. But not fucking much.

  56. Thank you for citing actual data. As Gallup notes, increased prominence of homosexuals in media has lead to overestimations like Gene's to be quite common. This may help the prospects of certain homosexuals goals, advancement of certain rights and so forth, but it's also factually incorrect.

    I have only met one homosexual that I no of, once, in my admittedly not yet very long life. I was not related to that person, and no one I am related to is a homosexual except perhaps people so distantly related to me that I don't even know they exist. I wouldn't presume, based on my experience, that the percentage of homosexuals is as low as my experience would suggest (Which I'd guess is like, one one thousandth of one percent of people I've met) because there's a huge sampling problem there. That's why I prefer actual statistical evidence. Seems to suggest 10% is probably a high estimate. Personally, that's what I'd consider a small minority. If Gene has a different standard for what he considers a small minority then our "disagreement" is semantic, not substantive.

  57. "I wouldn't presume, based on my experience, that the percentage of homosexuals is as low as my experience would suggest...."

    I thinks that's wise. By the sounds of it you and I have similar experiences but I'm a lot older. For a large part of my early life, homosexual acts were illegal in England, so homosexuality generally had a low profile in those days anyway. By and large it still has as far as I can tell, at least in ordinary life, i.e. when not being bombarded with it by the 'progressive' media.

    But I think the main reason for our similar (earlier) experiences is that, being heterosexuals, we're simply oblivious to it — it's just not on our radar. Females, on the other hand, are responsible for all those blown valves with their persistent blip overload. :)

    I worked with a chap for about three or four years. He was as much a regular and popular member of our (then young) crowd as any of us. We were all married blokes except him. He still lived with (or cared for?) his mother or something like that apparently, I gleaned. It never occurred to me to make personal enquiries — as long as he paid for his round of beer and kept the jokes coming at the Friday lunchtime piss-ups etc [those days are long gone] all was fine. I warmed to him and enjoyed his company. He had a superb sense of humour — very dry. He was a little strange though, in some ways that impinged on my consciousness but which I never bothered to examine—but then we're all a little strange.

    Anyway, shortly after he left our employment, the subject of the pub conversation turned to him. In response to some casual remark I made (which I don't recall) I was a little surprised at the response: "You do know that X is queer, don't you?"

    Well, no actually, I didn't. I'd never thought about it. But then—instantly—I knew the fact fitted! X did walk with rather small quick, deliberate steps, wore his trousers a little too high, well off the hip, and was curiously precise about certain unimportant things (unimportant to me, that is). A slightly fussy if conservative dresser. No mention of girlfriends. And he lived with his mother! Bingo! So there you have it. They're not all roaring queens and Village People, you know! :)

    Gradually over the years I've come to know a few more who've joined our circle of friends. Relatives of friends, friends of friends, that kind of thing. Of course, I'm more tuned in now. Haha! I take them all as just variations of X. :)

    After reading Smoking Frog's links I asked my wife what percentage of the population she thought constituted homosexuals, lesbians etc. She said she guessed three to four. I was impressed.

    But then she quipped that I ought to take it up and stop 'bothering' her. Which rather took the wind out of my sails. :)

    That reminds me: when I was young the thought of older people having sex was about as repulsive to me as the sort of things homosexuals get up to. But needs must and one mellows. Poorer eyesight helps too. Eeyuk! :)

  58. Jim, I think you are precisely an example victim of that journalistic overhyped.

    "..The infection growth rate is still exponential."

    If anything, downward exponential.
    No point arguing facts. No exponential growth rate, not even a growth rate. It is decreasing rate. I wrote the link to the official data. There you can see the declining charts week after week, consistently for nearly 6 reports.

    Even if they do not take into account the decreasing confirmed cases (such as the WHO says about Liberia) are also decreasing the suspected and probable cases.

    Again the link to the latest situation report:

    Here the whole collection. To be able to see future reports. Those on Wednesdays have the weekly evolution.

    However if we look in google-images 'ebola chart' shows lots of insane exponential charts, even in October-November. Simply lie. As can be seen easily. I suppose they are those for journalistic sites, organizations, etc.
    Scaring sells more, as in so many other issues.

    "..Fast transmission means fast evolution of the virus (propagation of mutations)."

    With 'fast development' I meant that in just 3 weeks virus disappears.

    I meant that in just three weeks the virus disappears in all cases.
    In half of the cases with the death of the patient, and the other half by antibodies generated. Compare it with other viruses such as AIDS, which for years could spread from each patient.

    The rate of 'mutation' you mention has nothing to do with it.

    Short duration of the disease, "Speed of ​​transmission", and Mutation rate, are 3 different and independent concepts. Moreover the ebola isn't characterized by particularly "fast transmission", neither particularly high mutation rate.
    Instead it is a disease that lasts a relatively short time, which is what I meant. 3 weeks maximum.

    And since you brought up the subject of mutations: The less time, fewer mutations.

    As I said before: The virus unknown survive in humans. It is not adapted to it. Kill the host and itself, or perishes in 3 weeks.
    (Is adapted to other species)

    Mutations that would make better adapted, and therefore the most advantaged evolutionarily, would be improve survival in humans, (one of the most abundant and ubiquitous mammals on Observable Universe), would make it far less dangerous. (But journalists,etc. only mention what could do even more deadly and scary, Professional deformation:)

  59. I remember when the empty suit first got elected. The coverage here in the UK was worse than when that other cretin Lady Diana Spencer was killed. The shocking thing is there are now a lot of conservatives in this country (the UK) who would sooner identify themselves with the policies of Putin than those of the empty suit. A sorry state of affairs indeed.

  60. A partial explanation is that the news doesn't report the state of the system, it reports the time derivative of that state. Hence the word "new" in "news."

  61. Right. But the time derivative of anything about ebola is very small, too!