Crap journalism – swine flu, risk communication

In the New York Times, think tanker, James Jay Carafano (areas of expertise: homeland security, defense, military affairs, affairs, post-conflict operations, and counterrorism) gets hot under the collar about “news stories [that] play fast and loose with terms like ‘outbreak,’ ‘epidemic,’ and ‘pandemic.'”

His advice: “We should all just wash our hands and go to the doctor if we have flu symptoms.” Er, wrong. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (area of expertise: public health):

If you get sick with influenza, CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.

CDC is happy for people to contact their doctor if they need advice, but it only recommends adults seek emergency medical treatment if they have: (i) Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; (ii) Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen; (iii) Sudden dizziness; (iv) Confusion; (v) Severe or persistent vomiting. (The advice for children is similar – the list of warning symptoms different.)

In the UK, health authorities are even more explicit about the fact they don’t want people with flu sitting around in doctor’s waiting rooms. “If you have flu-like symptoms and have recently travelled to Mexico or been in contact with someone who has, stay at home and contact either your GP or NHS Direct on 0845 4647,” advises the NHS. Treating people without requiring face-to-face contact with healthcare professionals is at the heart of of the UK’s pandemic flu plan.

Carafano’s sins are minor compared with this preposterous Guardian article by Simon Jenkins (core expertise: frothing at the mouth).  According to Jenkins, swine flu is “a panic stoked in order to posture and spend” – with the public too moronic to resist having the wool pulled over its eyes:

We appear to have lost all ability to judge risk. The cause may lie in the national curriculum, the decline of “news” or the rise of blogs and concomitant, unmediated hysteria, but people seem helpless in navigating the gulf that separates public information from their daily round.

The government was “barking mad” to convene its emergency planning committee, Jenkins argues, while the World Health Organization is not really worried – it’s just making a pathetic bid to shore up its funding. Attention-whore doctors, health and safety hysterics, and rapacious drugs companies are all in on the plot, while ‘professional expertise’ (presumably from shrinking violent newspaper columnists) is being completely ignored.

BSE, SARs and avian flu, meanwhile, provide cast iron assurance that no pandemic is on the way. Continue reading

The Seduction of Analysis

Do we need to call ‘time out’ on global risk analysis?  The NIC report on global trends 2025 is one of a plethora of recent publications on global risks and security challenges from think tanks, Government departments, the defence community, NGOs, business, academia, and the media. Do we really need any more?

3 questions spring to mind:

1. Are we suffocating under the weight of all this analysis?
2. Should we consider having a period of consolidation and reflection?
3. Do we need a transformational shift from analysis to action?

How many times do we need to be told that:

  • Since the end of the Cold War, the international landscape has been transformed.
  • During the next 30 years, every aspect of human life will change at an unprecedented rate, throwing up new features, challenges and opportunities.
  • The unprecedented transfer of wealth roughly from West to East now under way will continue for the foreseeable future.
  • The formidable acceleration of information exchanges, the increased trade in goods and as well as the rapid circulation of individuals, have transformed our economic, social and political environment
  • New players—Brazil, Russia, India and China will bring new stakes and rules of the game to the international high table.
  • Increase in global population will put pressure on resources—particularly land, energy, food, and water—raising the spectre of scarcities emerging as demand outstrips supply.
  • There are a set of interconnected set of threats and risks, including international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, conflicts and failed states, pandemics, and trans-national crime.

Surely it is time to complement existing analytical work with some ideas for action or even, as someone suggested earlier, divert our focus to analysing potential ‘solutions’ rather than identifying the same ‘problems’ time and again. Given the vast number of reports and papers in the system, surely now is the time to consider what improvements and upgrades can and need to be made to the global system in response to the myriad of issues the international community faces.

In order to do this we need to move away from the comfortable exercise of scene setting, describing the world around us and instead take a different approach. One simple way would be to look East and see what Indian & Chinese thinkers and academics are developing. Analysis obviously plays a crucial role in thinking through issues and in policy-making but the very process of analysis can be seductive; providing us with breathing space when we actually need to be pushing on and debilitating by creating ever greater complexity which can often lead to inaction.

In the words of the King:

A little less conversation, a little more action please
All this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me
A little more bite and a little less bark
A little less fight and a little more spark