Stop Fearing the Wrong Things
No, you are not going to die from Ebola.
To quote a wag on Twitter, "More Americans have been married to Kim Kardashian than have died from Ebola."
But the latest scare does have a small positive: It provides me with yet another opportunity to lecture you about how incredibly dumb your lizard brain is. (It's also an opportunity to castigate the media for turning a minuscule threat into a full-blown conflagration, but that's shooting fish in a barrel).
How serious is the danger of Ebola infection?
Despite the nonstop media coverage, it's important to note that this doesn't matter to 99.999 percent of Americans. Back in May, we noted the things that are most likely to kill you -- or your investments -- are not the things most of us typically obsess about.
We fear the awesome predatory perfection of the great white shark, and have made the Discovery Channel's "Shark Week,'' "the longest-running cable television programming event in history." This seems somewhat disproportionate, given that 10 people a year die from shark attacks -- out of more than 7 billion people. If you want to fear a living creature, than logic suggests it's the mosquito -- they kill more human beings than any other animal on the planet. Man, be it through wars or murder or wanton disregard or simple benign neglect, comes in a distant second.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. are heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, unintentional injuries, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide. (That was for 2012, the most recent year we have complete data for.)
We seem to be much more concerned about things like terrorism than we are mundane things like heart disease, cancer or car accidents. Yet those three were in the top 10, while more Americans were killed by toddlers than by terrorists.
Consider that an ordinary outbreak of the flu can kill tens of thousands of people. In 2004, there were more than 48,000 deaths in the U.S. from the flu. In any given year, car accidents will kill more than 30,000 Americans, while another 30,000 will die of gun-shot wounds (about two-thirds of which are suicides).
Your day-to-day lifestyle is far more important to your longevity than is your potential exposure to a killer African virus. Let me remind you that the last few scares have amounted to very little -- SARS, avian flu, killer bees, take your pick.
You are no different in how you view your investments, obsessing about outliers while ignoring the things that that are in your control.
And instead of obsessing about who was picked to be the Ebola czar, why not pay attention to the fact that the U.S. hasn't had a Surgeon General for more than a year. That is the person who is supposed to be focusing on outbreaks like Ebola. Instead, the appointment has been tied up in petty political squabbling in the dysfunctional U.S. Senate.
Dr. Vivek Murthy hasn't been confirmed by the Senate after more than a year of waiting because he had the temerity to discuss accidental gun injuries in public. The Yale-trained physician (affiliated at present with Harvard) suggested many of the things most Americans agree with about modest gun oversight -- reinstating the 1994 assault-weapons ban, universal background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of people with mental health issues.
While some people are in a lather over the Ebola czar, we may be the only developed nation that doesn't have a doctor dedicated to overseeing medical care nationwide.
Back to the mundane: Although we like to see big splashy headlines and cures for major diseases, the reality is that basic scientific research is how we get there. It's a ground game of inches, not a "Hail, Mary" pass.
The Boston Globe observes:
Progress didn't occur on its own. It happened because generations of scientists did diligent research in laboratories largely funded by US government grants. This public funding was essential to studies that have advanced the understanding of many diseases, including cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and Ebola. But public funding also achieved something else: It reassured aspiring scientists that, if they completed their education and committed their careers to life-saving research, there would be a predictable stream of money to support innovative work.
In many instances, private-sector businesses can't justify the cost of pure research. There is even less of an incentive to hunt for a cure for diseases that affect so few Americans. This kind of research is funded primarily by government. Yet at research centers such as Harvard Medical School, grants for basic research are getting scarcer.
Funding for basic research is under constant attack. It hasn't kept up with inflation, and it hasn't seen a strong response to new threats. AIDs was the last major public health threat that had a big government response. Although the disease hasn't been cured, we have dramatically reduced its spread while creating a protocol for successfully managing it.
When was the last time a real public-health hazard saw that sort of mobilization of resources and intellectual capital? Instead of flailing about over Ebola, why not focus our energies on things that are actually likely to kill you? Let's spend our limited resources on reducing heart disease, making cars safer, curing cancer and reducing accidental gun injuries.
A shortage of funding for these health threats says a lot about our priorities and our ability to understand what really threatens us.
How in modern society can parents refuse to inoculate their children against diseases we have already figured out how to prevent? As the Wall Street Journal observed, "Whooping cough, mumps and measles are making an alarming comeback, thanks to seriously misguided parents."
Whether its vaccine-truthers or media panic over Ebola, the idiot portion of your brain is too often in control.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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Barry L Ritholtz at firstname.lastname@example.org
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