Nearly every story about the H5N1 strain of the flu virus invokes the flu pandemic of 1918-19. That outbreak killed an estimated 675,000 Americans and as many as 100 million people worldwide. Like H5N1, that virus is believed to have originated in birds and then jumped the species barrier.
The parallels between the two have led to predictions of an H5N1 outbreak that could kill as many as two million Americans. Where did that number come from? Someone simply multiplied 675,000 times three, the increase in population since 1919.
Now, if that methodology does not sound too rigorous to you, you are not alone. Both the New Republic and the Weekly Standard have recently featured articles on the avian flu hype.
In his Weekly Standard piece, science writer Michael Fumento points out that the 1918 flu usually did not kill its victim directly; they died from secondary infections. This matters because we have something that they did not have in 1918: We have antibiotics. These and other drugs, coupled with the difference in the quality of medical care and overall health of the population, makes using the 1918 figures fear-mongering.
What’s more, there is no evidence as yet that H5N1 has mutated into a form that can be transmitted from person to person. It’s not for lack of time: Contrary to what you might have been led to believe, H5N1 has been around since at least 1997 and possibly as far back as 1992.
Since none of these facts are in dispute, why haven’t we heard more dissenting voices? Part of the answer is media sensationalism: “Avian Flu May Not Be So Bad” is not the stuff of great ratings.
But part of the problem also is that scientists are as prone to group-think and ideological rigidity as the rest of us. Once a theory becomes scientific orthodoxy, those who question it are regarded as—what else?—heretics. Just ask anyone who has doubts about global warming or whether an asteroid caused the dinosaur’s extinction.
Fumento knows what I’m talking about. Twenty years ago, his book, The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, challenged another reigning orthodoxy: that is, that HIV/AIDS would “break out” into the general heterosexual population. Then, as now, he pointed out the inconvenient facts. Fumento argued that ideology and group-think, not science, lay behind the dire AIDS predictions; and then, as now, he was attacked for his truth-telling. Eventually, Fumento was vindicated, although his critics still do not admit it.
Now, the flu concerns need to be taken seriously. And it’s a good thing the government is working hard on vaccines. But that’s no excuse for ignoring inconvenient facts and attacking those who point them out. Yeah, sure, we live in the age of media hype: This makes a great story, in living color on our TV sets. But it is our job to help neighbors see things in perspective and not be carried away by fear.
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Michael Fumento, “Fuss and Feathers,” Weekly Standard, 21 November 2005.
Wendy Orrent, “Chicken Little,” New Republic, 4 September 2005. (Available to subscribers.) See Orrent’s correspondence with Marc Lipsitch of Harvard and Carl T. Bergstrom of the University of Washington.
Charles Krauthammer, “Life-and-Death Flu,” Townhall.com, 14 October 2005.
Jo Ciavaglia, “Avian Flu: Is Hype for the Birds?” Courier Times, 16 October 2005.
Mick Farren, “Disconnect the Panic Button,” Los Angeles Times, 28 November 2005.
Gilbert Ross, “WHO’s Afraid of Bird Flu?” National Review Online, 14 December 2004.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 040303, “Scaring Witless: How the Media Distorts Reality.”
C. John Sommerville, How the News Makes Us Dumb (InterVarsity, 1999).