Exaggeration

People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.

Bruce Schneier, Beyond Fear

This week’s summary is abbreviated because the two featured articles already exceed my targeted word count. They are “Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam” and “Is the Battle For Same-Sex Marriage Nearly Over?

Meanwhile, August’s most popular post “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” keeps perking along. Last week it had its 150,000th page view, and is running slightly ahead of the pace of the Sift’s most popular post ever, 2012’s “The Distress of the Privileged“, now at 336K views.

This week everybody was still talking about Ebola

From googling around and talking with my wife (who specializes in risk management), I’ve concluded that risk theorists do a bad job coming up with catchy names for common fallacies. Let me suggest that the principle in the opening quote be called “the Ebola fallacy”. (If you already know a name for this, please leave a comment.)

Wednesday was the first time a person died of Ebola in the United States. Thomas Duncan (who flew here from Liberia) was also the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. (The handful of previous cases were Americans who contracted the disease in Africa, were diagnosed there, and returned to the U.S. for treatment.) Sunday, we got the first report of someone catching Ebola in this country: one of the people who treated Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

This is about what you’d expect from a hard-to-catch disease like Ebola. As CDC Director Tom Frieden explained: “Ebola has been in existence for decades—and has predominantly infected remote areas lacking basic health infrastructure.”

And yet, from the public reaction you’d think Ebola was the biggest health problem in the country. It’s all over the news. Lakeland Industries, which makes hazmat suits, has seen its stock soar 160% this month. Republican political candidates are citing the Ebola threat to support clamping down on the Mexican border. (So far there have been no Ebola cases in Central America. But when Republicans think about disease-carriers, Hispanics leap to mind.) And three Democrats joined 24 Republican members of Congress in calling for banning travelers from western Africa, and possibly quarantining Americans for three weeks after they return from western Africa .

And that’s just the reaction from people who are trying to look respectable. The conspiracy theorists are going completely crazy. “The CDC is working with Border Patrol authorities and the Department of Homeland Security to disappear potential Ebola victims attempting to cross the border into the United States.”

Meanwhile, about 700 Americans die in traffic accidents each week.

Want to be safer and live longer? Use seat belts. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink and drive. Eat better. Get the sleep you need. Exercise regularly. And if you need any additional motivation not to touch the bodily fluids of people who are visibly ill, maybe then you should think about Ebola. But stop obsessing about distant-but-horrible threats that have almost no chance of affecting you.

and the Senate

A few months ago, the political experts thought they understood the battle for the Senate: It would come down to four races where incumbent Democrats elected in 2008 were trying to hang on in a state Obama lost in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. If Democrats held two of those seats, they’d hold the Senate.

Things have gone crazy since then. Independent candidates are threatening supposedly secure Republican seats in Kansas and South Dakota. Republican challengers are running stronger than expected in Colorado and Iowa (despite the fact that the Iowa candidate is a loon). And Democratic challengers who were expected to fade in Georgia and Kentucky are stubbornly making a race of it.

Don’t expect me to sort it out. Just vote, keep working for your favorite candidates, and be prepared for anything on Election Night.

and you also might be interested in …

Grist‘s David Roberts rains on the parade of those who think they’ve found a way to talk to conservatives about climate change.

Clever messages that work on polls and in labs will only do their work if they can penetrate the bubble. Until you solve that dilemma, you can’t say you’ve found a way to appeal to conservatives, not in the real world, anyway.

And even if you can get some message through the bubble, can you get a true message through?

There’s a message on climate change that appeals to conservatives: We can confine ourselves to market mechanisms, we don’t need to raise taxes or regulate anything or redistribute any wealth, we can all make money. If we act on climate change, the socioeconomic and cultural systems you know can be preserved. There’s a message that works, but it is a lie.


The International Secret Intelligence Service is changing its name.


Another week, another clueless Republican ad aimed at women.

And let’s close with a economics lesson

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