Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Irrational Rational Fear of Cancer, MERS, and Terrorism

At the time of this writing, there have been fourteen deaths that have been attributed to MERS.

As a result, thousands of schools have closed, despite cooler heads warning that this was unnecessary. More than 20,000 tourists called off visiting Korea since June 5th, costing Korean businesses millions in lost revenue. Subsequently, the Bank of Korea has cut interest rates to a record low of 1.5 percent amid fears of a sharp fall in consumer spending.

As I had said before, however, I think that the fear of this virus has spread faster than the virus itself and that this fear is irrational. After all, this is not the first time an unusually strong strain of the flu virus spread in Korea. Also, statistically speaking, people ought to be much more worried about cancer and hypertension than about influenza or SARS or MERS or Ebola.

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So why do people overreact to relatively less dangerous things such as MERS and react so coolly to much more dangerous things like cancer? After all, the smoking rate in Korea is 42 percent – and even after the new tax takes effect and helps suppress demand, 34 percent of Koreans will remain smokers.

For all intents and purposes, people react disproportionately to different things due to different reasons.

Firstly, there is a difference in timing. Of the fourteen people who have died after having contracted MERS, the time that it took for them to die was a matter of days. Cancer, on the other hand, is often perceived as something that will occur some day far in the future. Despite what people say, we are all afraid of death. However, the further away death is perceived to be, the more abstract it becomes and the less we fear it.

Secondly, it's a matter of how much control we have. When we think of cancer, many of us tend to think that we have some control over it. We can quit smoking, eat less junk food, drink less coffee, apply more sunscreen, go for annual checkups, etc. Of course, we might not necessarily choose to exercise our convictions. How many times have we made the same New Year's resolution to drink less and exercise more and quit smoking? The point is that we feel that we can exert some control over cancer if we choose to do so.

But what about MERS or Ebola? Unlike cancer, diseases like MERS and Ebola feel like they are beyond our control. What if the disease is airborne? What if the lady sitting next to me on the bus is one of those patients who was quarantined but chose to go out to play a round of golf? We cannot see a virus; nor can we taste it nor smell it. And when we cannot control something, well...

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Thirdly, we also cannot ignore the power of imagery.

Many years ago, I saw a family friend die of cancer. She wasted away in the hospital. She lost weight, her hair, her youthful vigor, the sparkle that used to twinkle in her eyes. And the screams...

But toward the end, there was a calmness to it. Her system had been filled with morphine and she was finally asleep, peacefully. Her family had gathered all around her to bid her farewell. There were tears, hugs, and prayers. And then she was gone. The death of a loved one is tragic, but when people are given time to prepare for death, sometimes death becomes a little easier to accept.

On the other hand, however, what is the imagery associated with MERS? Violent fits of coughing, increased body temperatures, isolation and quarantine from all those that you love. Doctors and nurses wearing hazmat suits? Death suddenly seems abrupt and lonely.

What is the imagery associated with terrorism? Google ISIS and you will see. Or don't Google ISIS and spare yourself the unpleasantness.

Seriously, don't Google ISIS.
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Consider that MERS has killed only fourteen people and that thousands of schools have shut down. Also, despite the fact that only one Korean teenager has so far volunteered to join ISIS, the media spent a disproportionate amount of time worrying about ISIS's influence among Koreans. Also, the government has created spyware for smartphones that will watch out for, among other things, mentions of “IS” and “terrorism.”

So, for various reasons, we fear the wrong things much more than we need to and we fear those things that we do need to fear less than we ought to.

The kicker, however, is that this messed up set of priorities is perfectly rational; so long as we define “rational” as “that which is based on or in accordance with reason or logic.” So, it's the reasoning that is faulty.

I am reminded of a phrase that I once learned in a computer science class I took in school a long time ago – Garbage In, Garbage Out (GIGO).

For good or for ill, humans have never achieved the status of homo economicus and probably never will.

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