Fear and facts: why we ignore experts

Published by The i paper (2nd March, 2020)

Six months ago, an American musician friend sent me two books with the message that I must read them since they were “so damned good”. They looked slightly forbidding with stark white covers, so I put them to one side. I had not heard of their author, Eula Biss. Bereft of books a few weeks later, I started flicking through one on race called Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays and was instantly smitten. From the opening pages, reflecting on the insidious use of telegraph poles for the lynching of black men, it turned out to be a work of rare grace and strength.

I turned to the second book with rather more excitement. I was happy to have found an essayist of striking originality, a writer able to dissect difficult issues with poetic skill informed by personal insight and powerful research. At its most basic level, On Immunity: An Inoculation takes apart the selfishness of the anti-vaccination movement. Yet Biss does not scorn parents, fearful for their children, who reject jabs. For she wrote this book as a new mother. So while exploring the history of disease and issues around immunisation, she is really focusing on all our fears.

As I raced through the pages, reports of a strange virus began emerging in a distant Chinese city. Coincidentally, another pandemic forms the backdrop to Biss’s book. When her son was born 11 years ago, a new strain of influenza called H1N1 – better known as swine flu – had just erupted in north America. Television news was filled with footage of people wearing masks, there was talk of economic catastrophe and constant reminders of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that left 50 million people dead. In the end, the new strain killed somewhere between 151,700 and 575,400 people in that first year, far less than die annually from alcohol or cars.

Perhaps this synchronicity made the book feel even more profound as coronavirus started its stealthy advance around the planet. For this is an elegiac treatise on the contagion of ideas as well as viruses. Biss shows how fear and risk are hard things for humans to balance and stubbornly resistant to expertise. Studies show that we are prone to overplaying well-publicised dangers while downplaying far greater ones in daily life. We fear sharks yet mosquitoes kill many more people. The author lives in Chicago, where, in the year after her son was born, 677 children were shot, yet she admits to panicking when he drank water for the first time.

Biss observes how swine flu sparked the sudden proliferation of anti-bacterial soaps and hand sanitisers, which sounds familiar, yet studies showed that they were no more effective than regular soap and water. Many contained a strong antibacterial agent called triclosan that was turning up in the breast milk of nursing mothers and the blood of bottlenose dolphins. It was later banned from such products in the US, but not in Britain. The author also points out that if breast milk was sold in stores, some samples would exceed food-safety levels for pesticides.

We live in a culture that prides itself on modernity and rationalism yet is still clouded by superstition. There is suspicion of ‘unnatural’ vaccines when, in our natural state, many more infants die from cruel diseases. Biss touches on capitalism, on history, on literature, on medicine, on the meaning of community. She opted for a natural birth but needed surgery with blood infusions – another sharp reminder of shared reliance. ‘We are continuous with everything here on Earth,’ she writes, ‘including – and especially – each other.’

Smallpox killed more people in the 20th century than all wars combined before the disease was declared dead in 1980, proving the power of an idea based on folk medicine. Milkmaids in 18th-century England had faces unblemished by the disease’s trademark scars, a legacy of blistered hands from milking cattle with cowpox. This led a rural doctor called Edward Jenner to scrape pus from the blister on a milkmaid’s hand into an incision on a small boy’s arm to test immunity. Now he is seen as the father of vaccinology, although he used ideas that were commonplace in Africa, China and India.

But vaccines and viruses still spark fear. ‘Our tendency towards prejudice can increase whenever we feel particularly vulnerable or threatened by disease,’ writes Biss, noting one study which suggested that pregnant women become more xenophobic in the early stages of pregnancy. The last US smallpox outbreak at end of the 19th century was blamed on black people and migrants. During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, researchers wondered whether people who felt protected from disease also felt relaxed about foreigners. They asked two groups to read an article exaggerating the threat, and those who had been vaccinated displayed less prejudice against immigrants.

This latest virus arrives from a foreign land in an age of distrust. We find ourselves in a time of building walls, of doubting experts, of disdaining evidence, of divisive politics. Will a crisis over coronavirus drive us further apart by fuelling the spread of conspiracy theories, inflaming fake news and fanning the flames of bigotry? Already, there are gloomy signs of serious economic damage, yet Western democracies still suffer toxic fallout from the last economic meltdown more than a decade ago.

Biss’s beautiful book seeks to inoculate us against foolishness and fear-mongering with a reminder that we need science, a strong society and shared values. It is a reminder of the power of a communal body; herd immunity is, after all, an example of coming together through vaccination for the collective good. ‘What will we do with our fear?’ asks Biss. ‘This strikes me as a central question of both citizenship and motherhood.’

She is right. And this profound question resonates even more strongly today amid the emergence of another alarming new virus.

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