Friday, May 01, 2009

aporkalypse now

The Daily Mash captures the mood of the nation, as ever, in relation to the swine flu pandemic. I also heard a conversation on the Today programme this morning between The Guardian's Simon Jenkins and virologist Professor John Oxford. This was brought about by Jenkins' article in Wednesday's Guardian blaming scientists for stoking up public panic by making wildly apocalyptic claims about virulence and death rates. The prof made the obvious comeback that actually he'd simply made some bald statements of risk and the journalists who put the story out had sexed it up with It's Piggin' Swine-Eleven headlines, as they do. Interestingly Jenkins' latest article shifts the focus slightly back onto his hack journo colleagues, so maybe he's getting the point.

None of which invalidates Jenkins' central point, which is that we're not very good at rational assessments of risk. However, in having a pop at the "it's non-zero therefore it's the most important thing ever" mentality that generates the regular tabloid paedo-hysteria outbreaks, he trots out the equally specious "it's quite small therefore it's zero" argument. If I believed that not only would I never buy a lottery ticket ever again, but I'd be a lot happier about getting on commercial jet aircraft.

If you want proper sciencey information on the swine flu issue then I'd try the two Scienceblogs sites Aetiology and Effect Measure. Alternatively, Bad Science has less science but some nice puns, including the one I stole for the title of this blog post.

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