Feb 09

(We have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, check out the posts below:

- On V in Other Places: Slate's "The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”

- Race, Evil, and Black Wolves: Answering the Critics Part 2

- The Most Insulting Part of the Sheepdog Analogy

- Now Who's Being Naive? When Sheepdogs Kill Sheep

- The Internal Inconsistency of Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves Analogy

- Some Closing Thoughts on Wolves, Sheep and Sheepdogs Analogy)

Our Slate piece from two weeks ago (“The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”), got a lot of responses. And by a lot of responses, we mean approximately 1,300 comments. (An On V record!) Like any good comments section, most of the responses were insane. But we thought we’d debunk a few of the most common rebuttals to our article.

Today, we tackle the responses that attacked our research.

“Grossman didn’t invent the analogy!”

Unfortunately, this was the most popular response about our article, challenging the idea that Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman invented the analogy.

First, we had people pointing out any analogy with a wolf, a sheep or a sheepdog in it and claiming, “See! Someone else said it first!” Most of these analogies only had two of the three animals, which wouldn’t make it quite the same. In particular, a reader filed a correction with Slate, saying it came from The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth. So I found the analogy in the book, forwarded it to Slate, and we all agreed: the analogy in that book was actually the opposite of Grossman’s analogy. (That specific analogy claimed that every member of every military in the world was a wolf preying on the innocent.)

This also happened with Plato and few other analogies. In short, people have been crafting analogies about sheep for years (like the Bible); this analogy is very specific and different.

Closer to the point, a sociology professor pointed out that Grossman may have first used the actual analogy in On Killing. He also pointed out that another sociologist in the 1990s used the same analogy to criticize the media’s perception of police. Based on the follow-up research we’ve done, this seems accurate.

But it’s all besides the point.

Despite the headline “The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”, we weren’t writing a history of the analogy. We were debunking it. Oh, and we even wrote in the article that Grossman said he heard it from an old vet.

Anyway, who first crafted the analogy doesn’t matter. Grossman popularized the analogy. Grossman did more than any other person to make this analogy a cornerstone of the conservative, gun rights movement, by writing articles and giving hundreds of talks around the country. Grossman may not have invented the analogy, but he made it famous.

“You’re taking these quotes out of context!”

A lot of people objected to how we used quotes from both Chris Kyle and Lt. Col. Grossman, saying we took the quotes out of context. You can probably say this about anyone quoting anything anytime. Since you can’t (and wouldn’t) quote entire texts, someone can always claim that the next sentence, paragraph or chapter clarifies a quote that makes someone look bad. (*cough* Clausewitz *cough*)

That’s not the case with the quotes we used.

On Chris Kyle, he’s an extremist. In his book American Sniper, he hates like few people have the power to hate. More importantly to the critics of what we wrote, I re-read the passage we quoted in the article. Nothing before or after it contradicts what he said.

Some people claim that Kyle only referred to the bad guys as “savages”, not all Iraqis just the people he was fighting. And yes, at one point in the book Kyle makes that distinction. Of course, in the first chapter alone, he uses “savages” without making that distinction. And here are some more quotes about Iraqis from American Sniper:

“I never once fought for the Iraqis. I couldn’t give a flying f*** about them.”

“I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.”

So yeah, our quotes stand.

Did we take Grossman out of context? Some people complained that Grossman didn’t view his groupings as definite. To be fair, Grossman does make that point [emphasis mine]:

“This business of being a sheep or a sheepdog is not a yes-no dichotomy. It is not an all-or-nothing, either-or choice. It is a matter of degrees, a continuum. On one end is an abject, head-in-the-grass sheep and on the other end is the ultimate warrior. Few people exist completely on one end or the other. Most of us live somewhere in between.”

And this point…

“In nature the sheep, real sheep, are born as sheep. Sheepdogs are born that way, and so are wolves. They didn’t have a choice. But you are not a critter. As a human being, you can be whatever you want to be. It is a conscious, moral decision.”

But then he contradicts himself later:

“If you are a warrior who is legally authorized to carry a weapon and you step outside without that weapon, then you become a sheep, pretending that the bad man will not come today. No one can be “on” 24/7 for a lifetime. Everyone needs down time. But if you are authorized to carry a weapon, and you walk outside without it, just take a deep breath, and say this to yourself... “Baa.”

Sounds like an all-or-nothing choice. And in his earlier work, On Killing, he classified the emphatic psychopath as the ultimate warrior, dividing humans into groups based on genetics. So yeah, it’s pretty much a dichotomy.

Of course, Grossman doesn’t write anything about wolves becoming sheep or sheepdogs, but we’ll discuss that in a future post.

Feb 04

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.

And a disclaimer: I hate using the phrase “the media” but I don’t really have a better option.)

On Monday, I pointed out that media’s coverage of possible military interventions--in real talk, going to war--is incredibly pro-war. Quantitatively, the media invites on pro-war guests, up to and including people whose past advice has been utterly disastrous, ie, supporting and endorsing the original war in Iraq without ever admitting they were wrong. (Hell, Arizona and South Carolina voters keep re-electing these people to the Senate.)

But as had long been the On V style, we don’t want to just complain about something. We want to offer solutions. So here they are: four solutions to the media’s pro-war stance.

1. Invite on a War Skeptic

Military insiders, reporters who’ve been to war zones, and politicians allt tend to be reflexively pro-war (pro-intervention). More political talk shows need to invite on war skeptics to push back against the rush to war. Frankly, even I don’t really know who these voices would be. (I’d guess that there are dozens of liberal college professors who would do the trick.) Find these voices, and add them to the chorus.

2. Someone Needs to Create a Responsible Anti-war Media Organization

As you can tell by the tagline, yes, I’m a pacifist. And that’s not in name only. I really believe war is not the answer. (To defend myself against knee-jerk criticism, I’m more worried about World War I scenarios than World War II scenarios.)

But you may have noticed, in the tag to this sub-section, I wrote “responsible”. Too many anti-war groups are far too extreme for the American public. They’re either far-right libertarians or far-left socialists, with few voices in between. They don’t connect to the general populace. (If anyone has any suggestions of groups or blogs I could be following, let me know. I’ve looked.)

If we had the resources of time, energy and people--Michael C and I don’t--we would create an organization dedicated to creating balance on war coverage. We’d call it the “July Crisis” organization, dedicated to putting war skeptics onto every Sunday talk show to actually balance out the point of views. (In addition to, I’m guessing, writing reports and studies about the risks of future military interventions, like Michael C and myself did here on Iran.) These experts would question the push to war, ask the tough questions, and explain the risks of intervention.

But what information and viewpoints would these guests share? Well...

3. Debate the Worst Case Scenario

The media, by its nature, tends to frame military interventions over the cost of “doing nothing”. What will happen to innocent civilians in Syria or Iraq if we don’t protect them?

Instead, as Michael C has led the charge on, let’s ask the tough questions: how could this military intervention go disastrously wrong? What’s the worst case scenario? Who could we alienate? For the first Iraq war, we should’ve asked, “What happens if we get trapped in a prolonged, decade long insurgency? What’s the cost?” “Could we end up creating another terrorist group?” “Are we creating a battlefield that will train terrorists?” “Are we going to ignore Afghanistan for half a decade?”

You know, important questions people either didn’t ask or didn’t care if they got answered.

4. Let’s Debate the Past

In my opinion, the entire debate about further intervention in Iraq should be framed around America’s past mistakes in Iraq. (Remember Santayana’s not-a-quote-behaving-badly admonition: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”) We invaded Iraq when we shouldn’t have and set up the conditions that allowed ISIS to thrive. For a primer on how the media should handle this, watch Frontline’s episodes on “Losing Iraq” or “The Rise of ISIS”. (Though even these episode overstate the ISIS threat.)

Moving into the more recent past, the media is oblivious to the fact that they spent the fall of 2013 debating “arming the rebels” in Syria, without realizing that those rebels would, less than a year later, become the Islamic radicals we feared. Instead of framing the debate around “Would America have sent arms and financing to support terrorists?”, we basically moved onto the question, “What threat does ISIS pose?” And to stop ISIS requires allying with Iran (which Congressional Republicans adamantly oppose).

Whenever we go to war, we pick and choose allies. Since World War II, when we allied with Russia to defeat Hitler, we’ve picked poor bedfellows. To defeat Russia in Afghanistan, we allied with Osama bin Laden. To defeat Saddam, we angered Osama bin Laden. To defeat Saddam a second time, we propped up Maliki. Maliki angered the Sunnis, and now we’re at war with ISIS.

This never seems to come up in media debates about war. By addressing the ISIS threat, are we creating another threat? Who is that threat? The media should be instrumental in teaching America this. And reinforcing the lesson that war has unforeseen, often disastrous consequences.

Maybe the political talk show hosts can invite someone on their shows to give this opinion.

Feb 02

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.)

Back in the fall of 2013, writing about America possible military intervention in Syria’s civil, I noticed something:

The media is incredibly pro-war.

More accurately, the media--particularly the political talk shows--tend to favor action (read: military intervention). Two weeks of Sunday talk shows about Bashar al Assad violating human rights/using chemical weapons were dominated by pro-war voices. (I hate using the phrase “the media” but I don’t really have a better option.)

Of course, last September, when ISIS continued to take territory in Iraq and beheaded two journalists, the whole chorus began again. Three distressing problems stood out...

1. Quantitatively, pro-war guests dominate the debate.

SInce the debate over war in Syria two years ago, I’ve wanted to track the Sunday talk shows and quantify--look at the baseline numbers, instead of using my gut--how biased the media actually is.

Fortunately for me, when the country debated intervening in Iraq last year, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) did the work for me. Their key finding? “The study of key TV news discussion programs from September 7 through 21 reveals that guests who opposed war [in Iraq] were scarce.”

Analyzing three weeks worth of programs during the debate over another war in Iraq, “205 sources appeared on the programs discussing military options in Syria and Iraq. Just six of these guests, or 3 percent, voiced opposition to US military intervention. There were 125 guests (61 percent) who spoke in favor of US war.” Only one guest could be counted as anti-war.

To be fair--pun not intended--FAIR is a left-wing organization. But I doubt anyone who watches the Sunday talk shows regularly could disagree with their conclusions.

Frankly, it’s shocking how little debate there is. It’s almost like the inverse of how the media handles global warming. For years, newspaper articles and talk shows invited global warming skeptics and global warming scientists at a near fifty-fifty rate.

When it comes to war, almost no skeptical viewpoints are allowed...until the war turns into a quagmire.

2. The media is too dependent on official sources.

Not only are the guests on political talk shows supportive of war, they’re government officials who are supportive of war. Again, from FAIR:

“The guest lists for all the programs leaned heavily on politicians and military insiders. Current and former US government officials—politicians and White House officials—made up 37 percent of the guestlists. Current and former military officials accounted for 7 percent of sources.”

Nearly half of all guests were official sources. Most of the rest were reporters depend on official sources for their coverage. Why is this a problem? The Columbia Journalism Review explains:

“Lee Artz, who teaches communications at Purdue University, and the author of Public Media and Public Interest and Cultural Hegemony in the United States, said he sees these findings reflected in the constantly shifting narrative about the Islamic State. “The mainstream media in the US tends to accept uncritically whatever the US administration releases,” he says.”

Again, unlike virtually any other issue the mainstream media covers, when it comes to security and the military, they trust the military. Trusting the military is not their job. And it denies the government and military’s dodgy (at best) track record with the truth.

3. The televised media invited back the original Iraq war architects to discuss another war in Iraq.

Obviously, many media critics have made this point. The same neo-conservatives who pushed America into the original Iraq war are still being invited onto the Sunday talk shows as guests to discuss intervening in Iraq a second time. I could provide dozens of links to people making this point; I’ll just point you to The Colbert Report and what Jon Stewart calls “America’s tragedy herpe”.

Not only does the media invite John McCain and Lindsey Graham on to their shows to push military interventions--they favor intervention so much, I don’t even have to clarify which war--they invite them on more than any other politician or guest. Period.

Inviting Iraq war proponents on as guests proves that the media’s coverage is pro-war. Or at least, in an effort to avoid perceptions of bias, ends up biasing itself in pro-war/pro-intervention ways. This failure to provide even coverage also fails to educate the country about our military or foreign policy.

In closing, I haven’t suggested any solutions to the above problems. Good news: they’re coming on Wednesday.

Jan 28

At the end of the August 22nd episode of KCRW’s Left, Right and Center, former journalist and Canadian parliamentarian Chrystia Friedland pissed me off.

She was describing how America had hoped for a “peace dividend” following the fall of the USSR, and then after the drawdown in Iraq. However, she used this history to caution that America “can’t withdraw from the world” (min 15:30), and (therefore) must be prepared to go to war with countries like Russia, Syria and Iraq.   

“Withdrawing from the world” is a familiar criticism of President Obama/Democrats when they don’t want to start another war. In June, Congressman Paul Ryan accused President Obama of “withdrawing from the world” by refusing to bomb ISIS or send troops back to Iraq. John McCain has said this too, in regards to Syria.

It seems every time the Washington war-hawk establishment gets spun up about another war--by our count, since President Obama’s reelection, it has happened with Egypt, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Ukraine, Iraq and Nigeria--they first trot out the lines about “Munich Moments”, then they try to portray advocates against another war as “isolationists”, and finish by admonishing that the U.S. cannot “withdraw from the world”.

We find these lines of attack, particularly when they come from hardcore conservatives or conservative think tanks, incredibly hypocritical. Take the Heritage Foundation. They host the text of a speech on their website from Walter Lohman, a director on their staff, called “Honoring America’s Superpower Responsibilities”, where Lohman repeatedly admonishes that America must not “withdraw from the world”. Lohman claims he is not just talking about military power, but other forms of engagement as well.

Fair enough. So let’s go to the Heritage Foundation’s website, and see its official stances on a host of international issues: Does it support more foreign aid spending? Nope. Does it support the UN Council on Human Rights? Nope. Should the U.S. honor the Geneva convention when it comes to terrorists? Nope. Should the U.S. pull back funding from the U.N.? Yep. Should it call for less peacekeeping missions to stop on-going wars? Yep.

Most importantly, does the Heritage foundation recommend rejecting almost every treaty placed in front of America? Hell yes.

See conservatives love to “engage” the world, when it means fighting there. Anyone who backs down from a fight is “withdrawing” from America’s superpower responsibilities. Yet when it comes to low cost, simple ways to spread the rule of law--and international norms, which seemed so important to uphold in both Ukraine and Syria--Republicans and conservatives balk. As Kevin Drum pointed out, conservatives in particular hate treaties.

This applies to Senate Republicans particularly. In the last decade or so they have…

- Promised to kill the the Rome Treaty that established the International Criminal Court. (President Clinton signed on to the treaty but never submitted it to the Senate, because he knew it wouldn’t pass. President Bush withdrew from it. (We’ve written before how an ICC for Terrorists, Pirates and Trans-National Criminals would solve about a dozen international issues in one fell swoop.)

- Filibustered or stalled the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was signed in 1994. (The U.S. does follow its provisions anyways.)

- Failed to sign onto treaties banning cluster munitions, land mines and white phosphorous.

- Rejected an international treaty on Human Rights for the Disabled. The U.S. most recently rejected the UN treaty on protecting disabilities, a treaty styled on US disability law!

- And more!

We’ve written about this before, defending ourselves--and fellow advocates for restraint in military adventures around the world--from charges of isolationism. But it seems important to bring it up again, especially when in Ukraine, the value of “international norms” was brought up again and again as the raison d’etre for intervention. In the words of Fareed Zakaria:

“But beyond these narrow considerations is a larger one: Do these countries want to live in a world entirely ruled by the interplay of national interests? Since 1945, there have been increasing efforts to put in place broader global norms — for example, against annexations by force. These have not always been honored, but, compared with the past, they have helped shape a more peaceful and prosperous world.”

We agree. International norms trump national self-interest, especially in the long run. But the true value of international norms isn’t created on the eve of war, it’s created in the years before conflict. The Senate, which has allowed its minority group to deny any new treaties since 1997, has done more to hurt international norms than not bombing Russia or the Islamic State.

The irony is that refusing to ratify global treaties makes the world more dangerous and free trade less likely.

And that forces the U.S. to go to unnecessary wars.

Now that’s withdrawing from the world.

Jan 26

Back in 2008, Eric C and I used to use the phrase “Munich Moment” fondly. For us, a Munich moment was when Eric C managed to make out with two different girls on the same night.

Ah, Munich.

Unfortunately, our use of “Munich Moment” has been bastardized by our great country’s politicians. John Kerry, in a desperate bid to attempt every single rhetorical flourish possible in pursuit of a war with Syria, described America’s need to launch cruise missiles at Syria as America’s “Munich Moment”.

Obviously, comparing every single foreign policy crisis to Munich in 1938 doesn’t make sense. And don’t kid yourself: every single foreign policy crisis in my adult lifetime--stretching from Iraq to Egypt to Iran (here, here and here) to Ukraine (here and here) and to Syria--has had some political leader invoking this terrible analogy.

We aren’t the first writers to bemoan this overused phrase. Tom Schactman in Foreign Policy wrote an article asking to retire the phrase here. Elias Groll piled on here. Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the New Republic argued against it here. And others said it here, here and here.

In Syria’s case, the analogy--especially in hindsight--was particularly egregious. Unlike Hitler, Bashar al Assad hadn’t invaded a single one of his neighbors. Supporting the rebels would have probably (and ironically) strengthened ISIS. (As Fareed Zakaria pointed out--citing Marc Lynch--in civil wars, extremists tend to thrive, not moderates.) Since ISIS later expanded to Iraq, who they kind of invaded, in a way, fighting Bashar al Assad actually would have been like the U.S. siding with Germany in 1938.

So the question for today, and one we don’t have a great answer for, is how do we stop this analogy? Like HYDRA in a Captain America movie, every time we kill one head, two grow back. Here are some ideas:

1. Public shaming. It’s been tried.

2. One of those White House petitions saying President Obama should issue an executive order forbidding this analogy in his cabinet. That would be funny, but either unconstitutional or unproductive.

3. More data analysis on this term. I don’t need to repeat the arguments for why this comparison/analogy is beyond ludicrous. So instead we want to provide something new to the debate. What is the “Munich Moment’s” batting average? In other words, how often have critics who used this phrase been correct? (Probably once, with the original use of the term.)

4. Crush opponents with logic. Especially the growth of international institutions. The Munich conference existed in a world before the UN, NATO, the Arab League, the EU, the G-Anything and countless other international institutions. The world frankly uses diplomacy a lot more than it used to. What is particularly remarkable about all the accusations of “Munich Moments” is they don’t even occur during diplomatic meetings. These are countries with internal troubles, not great powers invading neighbors.

5. Call them real-life trolls? In the future, when anyone says, “Munich Moment” can we immediately say they just violated Godwin’s law, turn off their microphone (if they are on cable television), and move on?

6. Replace “Munich Moment” with “July Crisis” or “Gulf of Tonkin”. There are two other analogies out there. The first--”July Crisis”--is an analogy no one ever uses, but should. One hundred years ago last August, the leaders of Europe had a “July Crisis”, in which every diplomat utterly failed to prevent a senseless world war. The minor assassination of an archduke led to tens of millions of deaths. Instead of worrying about Munich Moments, we should be worried about a July Crisis. Gideon Rachman of FT made this argument pretty persuasively, when also pondering the centennial of World War I.

The second is more familiar in the U.S., but hasn’t been evoked since we invaded Iraq. In hindsight, the Johnson administration used faulty intelligence to escalate in Vietnam, and the quagmire cost 60,000 Americans their lives. Initial data points are often the worst excuses to go to war, not the best.

In short, we should worry about July Crises and Gulf of Tonkins, not fret about Munich moments.

Jan 23

(This is a continuation from Wednesday's post.)

Lesson #3: America needs to focus less on America

Focusing on Ebola in America may actually cause more deaths, because it focuses attention where it actually shouldn’t be (America) rather than where it should (West Africa). Radiolab recently updated one of my favorite episodes of the show, “Patient Zero”, with an update on Ebola. (If you don’t listen to Radiolab, you should.) This line stuck out to me [emphasis mine]:

“I think the most important thing we should be doing is not letting the public health vs. civil liberties issues in the US distract us from West Africa. As the case count gets higher, it has more chances to mutate and therefore, more opportunities to adapt. So we need to end this outbreak in west Africa before this virus learns too much about us.” David Quammen (Min. 52:45)

Ebola could become more dangerous if it, ironically, becomes less dangerous. If the disease mutates in a way that allows more victims to live and live longer, it could become a pandemic by not burning out too quickly. To mutate in this way--the worst case scenario--the virus needs to infect many, many hosts. This outbreak, which has been brewing since December of last year, could have been stopped early on. Since it hasn’t, Ebola has had more opportunities to become more dangerous.

But the news media is focused on Ebola in America rather than helping people in Africa, where the real threat of a pandemic looms. (Though again, I’m not afraid.)

Lesson #4: We shouldn’t use the military.

Of course, when the U.S. finally did decided to respond to West Africa, who did we send? The military! With tents! While we appreciate a U.S. response to the Ebola epidemic, it boggles our minds that the U.S. never has a non-military option. USAID couldn’t have supported this mission? Or someone else in the State Department? And of course, the Pentagon put the price tag at a starting point of $750 million dollars.

America consistently believes that the military can solve all the world’s problems, so we fund the Pentagon to the near exclusion of any other department. This means, in times of crisis, we only have the military. This is probably the wrong response to many problems and it is exacerbated by the worst problem...

Lesson #5: We really, really, really need to start investing in countries in the long term.

What do we mean? Many politicians--let’s be honest, Republicans--are really concerned about Ebola. Despite the warnings of professional medical workers, they wanted to shut down travel from Africa and institute incredibly draconian measures to stop the spread of Ebola to the U.S.

You know what would have been more effective? Spending money (like that $750 million from above) a decade ago (when the economy was strong) to help countries face Ebola now. We should have spent money on foreign aid to develop the medical infrastructure in these countries so they’d have been equipped to handle this outbreak.

You know who hates foreign aid? Oh right, the same people who are afraid of Ebola.

We fight terrorism the same way. We wait until a crisis bubbles up--like ISIS, Boko Haram or Syria--then we lose our minds. Instead of helping these nations build their economies that repel terrorist groups naturally, we wait until a crisis happens, and then overreact.

Jan 21

Many readers and Twitter followers have asked us, “When are you writing about American Sniper?”

Looking at our work on Lone Survivor, it makes sense. Chris Kyle was as conservative--if not more so--than Marcus Lutrell and filled his book with conservative and anti-ROE ideology. American Sniper, both the book and the movie, are huge hits. And, as multiple media outlets have noticed, Chris Kyle had a tendency to make things up, including shooting looters after Hurricane Katrina, killing two men at a gas station, and punching Jesse Ventura in the face. (This last one cost his family’s estate after he lost a defamation court case.)

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, we didn’t have time to debunk the facts behind the book. We did, though, have barely enough time last week to write up a piece for Slate, titled, “The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”. It also allowed us to finally debunk the sheep, sheepdogs and wolves analogy that we’ve hated for years. (This satisfied another request from our readers, who requested that we debunk this pop philosophy.) Since the American Sniper film uses this analogy, it allowed us to discuss both topics in place.

So, head over to Slate and check it out. Expect more on sheep, sheepdogs and wolves in the next few weeks.

Jan 21

I know what you’re thinking. “Ebola is a disease; how can it be violent?” Fair point. It’s tough to assign agency to a disease. But the Ebola “crisis” in America (and those quotation marks are firmly planted around “crisis”) shows how poorly America--if not the whole world--handles crises.

Unfortunately, America’s focus on Ebola mirrors our focus on terrorism in all the wrong ways. But if America can learn the lessons for either terrorism or Ebola, we have a chance to fundamentally improve our foreign policy.

Lesson #1: Misusing Statistics

This exchange from the cold open on Saturday Night Live a few months ago, mocking the new “Ebola czar”, illustrates how people don’t understand statistics:

Ebola Czar: If anything, we should be more afraid of the flu. It kills way many more people every year.

Reporter: But .01% of people with the flu die from it. And with Ebola it’s 50%.

Ebola Czar: We could all go throwing statistics around.

Reporter: Such as?

Challenge accepted, fake reporter from a sketch comedy show who, strangely enough, actually described how most Americans feel about Ebola.

As of right now, four Americans have tested positive for Ebola in America. All of the cases came from people who went to Africa or cared for a person who’d been in Africa. Only one person died.

How many people will die from the flu? “...according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average annual death toll from influenza between 1976 and 2007 was more than twenty-three thousand,” as James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker. So...we’ll need approximately 46,000 more people to contract Ebola to make it deadlier than the flu.

Oh, and the flu may be deadlier this year than in years past.

Unlike Ebola, the average person can actually do something about the flu: get a flu shot. The more people that get the flu shot, the better America’s overall herd immunity against the disease. (The CDC no longer recommends just the sick and elderly get the flu shot; everyone should.) Which means if we all work together, as a country, we can save ten of thousands lives. (In fairness, early reports indicate this year’s flu vaccine may not be a good match for this year’s flu, but the CDC still recommends getting a flu shot.)

Will we? No, because people don’t understand statistics. Even our comedy shows, instead of parodying America's misguided fear of Ebola, are actually making us more afraid.

Lesson #2: We overhype the threat.

Ebola, it turns out, doesn’t pose much of a threat to cause a global pandemic. It “burns too hot”, meaning the disease replicates faster than the host can communicate it. In other words, it kills its victims too quickly. (It poses especially little danger to Western nations, since we don’t clean our own dead like they do in West Africa.)

And Ebola is unlikely to go airborne, as David Quammen told RadioLab, “To get to that point, would require a number of mutations that are infinitesimally unlikely...it would be like mutations that would allow a giraffe to fly.” (Min 52:00)

(Look for Pt. 2 of this post tomorrow.)