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Much Ado About the Flu: Is the Media Frenzy Justified?

So far, there's no indication that the "swine flu" is particularly dangerous, but the prospect of global catastrophe is attractive and exciting.

Scientists use various models to evaluate risk, but researchers have long understood that ordinary people don't rely on mathematical probability to assess the dangers posed by some phenomenon -- they use other kinds of rules.

For example, we're much more accepting of risks that we assume voluntarily. That's one reason why people who smoke a pack a day will go to a zoning board meeting to fight against a diesel bus yard.

People are also more accepting of risk when they have a sense of control. Driving a car is much more dangerous than riding in an airplane, but as an airplane passenger, you feel helpless. Another reason people worry more about airplane crashes than motor vehicle accidents is because the events are more noteworthy -- a whole lot of people killed all at once, instead of one or two here and there, even though the latter adds up to a lot more people over time.

Then there is the question of familiarity. Whatever you may think about the safety of nuclear power versus coal, one reason that people were so averse to nuclear power was its novelty. We have been accustomed to accepting the risks of mining and burning coal for centuries, so we don't often think about them.

Some kinds of risks come with a moral stigma, which is why people drink bourbon and think their kids are doomed if they smoke pot.

But one of the most important factors is called the social amplification of risk -- which is mostly the doing of the mass media. Plane crashes are major news stories, whereas most fatal motor vehicle crashes get only minimal attention from local media, if any. That's because plane crashes are big enough, and exciting enough, with enough stuff to say, to make for a decently titillating segment on the TV. There might even be video with flames and wreckage, and there will be plenty of grieving loved ones to parade in front of the cameras.

But there is also a random element to mass media attention. Shark attacks go on at a pretty constant (and low) rate, but every once in a while, there's a media feeding frenzy and every shark attack anywhere in the world gets the O.J. treatment. For a while everybody is afraid to go into the water, then after a while we all forget about it.

And so comes the dreaded swine flu now.

First, here's my scientist's take on it: Influenza is part of the human condition. Hundreds of thousands of Americans get the flu every year, and we've just about all had it more than once. It's a drag, but it's no big deal. You stay home for a few days then you're over it.

Now, the CDC reports variously that something on the order of 40,000 deaths in the U.S. are caused by influenza every year. That's actually debatable, on a couple of grounds. There's hardly ever any confirmation that people actually had influenza: they might have had some other viral illness.

Death statistics actually say "influenza or pneumonia," and there are more than 60,000 deaths listed in that category, and they more or less guesstimate how many were really influenza. But most of those people were old and debilitated, or their immune systems were compromised, so the cause of death listed on the death certificate is misleading.

Tragically, however, around 150 children in the U.S. die each year from complications of influenza. As with the shark attacks, occasionally the media notices one of these deaths, and there's a big freak-out for no good reason. It happens, that's all.

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