With the arrival of Ebola in the United States, our phasers seem to have only two settings: "Don't Worry Be Happy" and "Abject Panic." Friday's White House press conference on Ebola was not a victory for "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
So far, I've been among the contingent that has been happy to mock the hysteria and batshittery that has engulfed the U.S., and I still am. It is only one case, and the virus doesn't have the wildfire spreadability of the flu. Screening people out at airports by taking their temperature is working pretty darn well. We liberals believe in science, and the science says I'm probably never going to get Ebola. When Ebola showed up in Texas, and everyone else was thinking "Shit just got real," I was thinking "Shit maybe just got loosely based on a true story. Maybe."
Having said all of that, when I dipped into Friday's presser, I was a little bit alarmed by the chyron that MSNBC was displaying, which seemed to indicate a subtle shift in rhetoric, from President Obama saying it was unlikely that Ebola would ever reach the U.S., to unlikely there would be an outbreak, to this:
"W.H. OFFICIAL: Do Not Anticipate Significant Outbreak In The U.S."
As it turns out, though, "significant outbreak" wasn't a White House official's quote, it was CNN reporter Jim Acosta's. This is just one more way that the media stokes hysteria in ways that are extremely unhelpful.
There was one thing at Friday's press conference that should give Americans pause, that should maybe create a new "Wait, what?" setting on the Ebol-O-meter™. Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco's response to a question about the failures in the Dallas case revealed one of science's main weaknesses. Asked why Americans should feel confident in a system that revealed so many flaws in its very first encounter with a case of Ebola, here's how she responded:
I think the American people should be confident for all the reasons that we have stated and the President has spoken to, and that is because the public health infrastructure we have here is so expert, is so expansive, and is considerable.
Science is good at a great many things, but humility isn't one of them. It is not comforting to know that the system that let this patient continue to come in contact with people regards itself as too expert to ever let that happen, after it happened. That's not evidence-based. I realize that their main mission is to keep us all calm, but being delusional in public doesn't do that.
The media, for its part, has done a terrible job at that as well, hyping the disease with terrifying graphics and constant loops of b-roll that does little more than raise more questions, like "Should I be hoarding kiddie pools?"
One thing they have done a good job at is delivering one particularly comforting, if gross, messages:
Blood, Vomit, and Feces: not just the worst tapas plate you've ever eaten anymore. This bit of information is nominally comforting, because most of us are fairly confident in our ability to avoid direct contact with blood, feces, and (most days) vomit. For some reason, though, the hysteria-philes in the mainstream media aren't talking, or asking, about a mode of transmission that's not quite airborne, but also not as direct as they're making this all sound: aerosolized transmission. Even the know-it-alls at Vox.com acknowledge that you can get Ebola from having someone sneeze or cough right on you, but also assert that this is "rare."
According to those officials in that White House presser, we know that its being transmitted through direct contact because "direct contact with bodily fluids amply explains what is going on right now in the West Africa counties."
That's not really science, either, and even those who are talking about aerosolized transmission are saying someone has to cough or sneeze right on you, which seems less reliable now that we know they're pretty much just eyeballing their transmission info. None of this is to say we should panic, but it would be nice to know just how far the disease can travel from person to person. Sneezes go far. When they say it's not airborne, they're referring to a specific definition that differs from transmission via sneezing and coughing.
Then, there's the possibility of a mutation that could make Ebola airborne. Scientists are calling this possibility very remote, especially now that there's a case in the U.S., and most of the reasons they give make sense. Some are less convincing, like this:
We have been studying viruses for over 100 years, and we’ve never seen a human virus change the way it is transmitted.
Wow, one hundred whole years? And change? I'm not a scientist or anything, but I'm pretty sure viruses have been around for zillions of years. Again, not saying we should panic, but our track record with a kazillionth of the viruses isn't compelling. The White House officials also cited the fact that "Every Ebola outbreak over the past 40 years has been stopped," but again, even relative to that extremely limited experience, we're in undiscovered country.
It's also a little bit unsettling that, long before there was a case of Ebola discovered in the United States, President Obama, the Cool-Cat-In-Chief who wouldn't panic in an underground lair at the end of a James Bond movies, said this:
But it shouldn't reach our shores. Now, here's the last point I'm going to make. If we don't make that effort now, and this spreads not just through Africa but other parts of the world, there's the prospect then that the virus mutates. It becomes more easily transmittable.
Now, was he saying that to help sell the aid we're giving to west Africa, or is this really something to worry about now that it's here, and it's mutating like a mofo? Well, nobody at Friday's presser brought up the word "mutation," and nobody asked.
I'm not saying we should be sealing our borders and sizing up our neighbors for the day we're forced to resort to cannibalism, but it would be nice if we could get a clearer picture of the risks from the media, and a little less certainty about things we can't be certain of from our public health officials. And it probably wouldn't hurt to grab a few extra boxes of Top Ramen.