Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Dead Turkeys and Rationality

As I said below, it is hard to know where to set the worryometer when it comes to bird flu. But at least I do know what there might be to worry about. Most people seem to think it's just a question of this particular virus jumping from birds to humans. This is the impression Mick Hume gives in his column. Certainly this would be a rare event in a population that does not live in close proximity to birds. But, even if it happened just occasionally and if, just once, it infected a person already carrying the virus of a conventional human flu, then there could be a lethal mutation. In fact, some argue that, over time, this is certain to happen. Hume's approach is based on a narrow social and political rationality - we should be more concerned about jobs than health - that does not take into account the effects of a broader scientific rationality. If we did not know as much as we do, then we would not have thought of the possibility of a lethal flu pandemic arising from a few sick birds. Maybe we would have been right; maybe nothing would have happened. But the point is that we know and cannot unknow what we know. This is why scientists are caught in the embarrassing position of telling us simultaneously to worry and not to worry. The real contemporary quandary is what to do about knowing too much.


  1. Most of us crave knowledge. But it would seem knowledge is a drug with quite quite harmful side effects. We should inform our children about this. I might start a knowledge-awareness campaign - Just Say Don't Know!

  2. You have been spending too much time with Donald Rumsfeld recently.

    What about the unknown, unknwons?

  3. ...But the point is that we know and cannot unknow what we know...

    I feel this should go into the Oxford Book of Quotations.

  4. What to do about knowing too much? Get a lobotomy.

  5. But not only that, once we know something, we demand that action be taken, even if we have a long list of tasks to undertake, and limited funding to solve them.

    It's a question of setting priorities, and sometimes, those problems that need to be solved first are not given the funding, because those advocates are not as well-organized as, say, the bird flu advocates.

    We not only want our cake and eat it too, we want everyone to acknowledge our cakiness. And, no, I have no idea if that means anything.

  6. Actually it is more likely that the bird flu would infect a pig where it would mutate and then infect a person. That is what happened in 1918 when 100 million people died from the flu. Yep, more people died from the flu in about 6 months then died in both world wars... combined! And 2/3rds of the deaths were in people between 20 and 40. If you enjoy being terrified then I would suggest the book, The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.