Predictable Predictions

Posted: Dec 10, 2004 12:00 AM

A warm breeze swept the country on Dec. 1. It was caused by the collective exhalation of millions of Floridians, relieved that the 2004 hurricane season was finally over.

Sunshine-staters have a right to feel put upon this year. Four hurricanes ravaged the peninsula. Combined, they killed more than 100 people, left thousands homeless and caused more than $20 billion worth of damage. Experts say it was the worst storm season since 1950.

We have to admit that the hurricane forecasters at Colorado State University warned us. Last December they wrote, ?We anticipate an above-average probability for Atlantic basin major hurricanes and U.S. major hurricane landfall? in 2004. Indeed.

Of course, before those forecasters take a bow, let?s note that they make virtually the same prediction every year. In December 2002, the team wrote ?We anticipate an above-average probability for Atlantic basin tropical cyclones and U.S. hurricane landfall.? 2003 did see seven hurricanes, but only two that made landfall.

In December 2001 the experts wrote, ?We anticipate significantly above average hurricane activity and U.S. hurricane landfall probability [in 2002].? But that year brought only four hurricanes, and only one came ashore.

The point is that when experts make the same prediction over and over, they?re bound to get it right eventually. But that doesn?t mean we should believe them, because they?re as likely to get things wrong as they are to get them right.

Another example of this surfaced recently with the flu.

?There is no doubt there will be another [flu] pandemic,? Dr. Klaus Stohr of the World Health Organization?s Global Influenza Program warned on Nov. 29. ?Even with the best-case scenario, the most optimistic scenario, the pandemic will cause a public health emergency with estimates which will put the number of deaths in the range of two and seven million.? Cue scary music here.

How does Dr. Stohr know we?ll see this deadly pandemic? ?Well, somebody calculated that every 27 years a pandemic occurs, on average. The last one was 36 years ago. So we are somewhat beyond the odds,? he told CNN. With logic like that, he can make that prediction annually and he?s bound to be correct eventually.

For that matter, there may be somebody who?d predicted every year since 1919 that the Red Sox would win the World Series. But that person isn?t any smarter today than he was last year just because the odds finally favored the Sox. In fact, we?d probably mock his 84 incorrect predictions, rather than celebrate his one correct one.

Dr. Stohr will probably succeed in stirring up fears, because the flu is a sore subject in the United States right now. As you may have heard, the country is dealing with a sparse supply of flu vaccine.

That?s caused some people, including Barbara Zmoos of Long Island, to lose their heads a bit. The Chicago Tribune reported in October that Zmoos spent $1,400 dollars flying to Canada to get a flu shot. Talk about the cure being worse than the disease.

Especially since, in the worst-case scenario, a flu shot isn?t going to be much help. ?The global spread of such a pandemic virus cannot be prevented,? Dr. Stohr told CNN. ?We cannot produce a vaccine now because we don?t know which virus might cause the pandemic.? In fact, he admits it would take between six and eight months to generate a vaccine.

Let?s be honest with ourselves. Flu is a problem, just as hurricanes are. It kills about 36,000 Americans in an average year. Still, there?s no sense in panicking.

Millions more vaccine doses are on the way, so there should be enough for everyone who really needs one this year. In fact, the shortage is already passing. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Dec. 5 that ?some public health departments in Missouri, Illinois and other midwestern states are reporting a flu vaccine surplus.?

If you?re elderly, have a heart problem or take care of a baby, get a flu shot.

Otherwise, remain calm. If you feel sick, stay home. Wash your hands often and don?t touch your eyes or mouth. These common-sense steps will minimize the spread of the flu, pandemic or not.

After all, no matter what the experts say, for most of us, a flu shot is like an NHL hockey game: In an average year we don?t see one, and this year we can?t.

But we won?t miss it, either.