Americans In the Grip of Irrational Fears, Just Like Usual

Thomas Eric Duncan, the American who contracted Ebola in a visit to Liberia, died today in Texas. That tragedy will obviously be big news, and it will lead more people to freak out about the disease, something that will be heartily encouraged by the cable news channels (or at least by Fox News, which has apparently been going a little crazy on the "We're all going to get Ebola because Obama hates America Benghazibenghazibenghazi!" line).

And freaked out we are. Let's look at some poll numbers:

  • Gallup asked people "did you, personally, worry about getting the Ebola virus yesterday, or not?" Twenty-two percent of people said that they worried yesterday about getting Ebola.
  • Then they asked people how likely it was that they or someone in their family would get Ebola. Four percent said "very likely," 10 percent said "somewhat likely," 34 percent said "not too likely," and 49 percent said "not at all likely." On one hand, almost six in seven Americans are still tethered to reality on this topic. On the other hand, 14 percent think there's at least a fair chance they're going to get Ebola.
  • 18 percent told Gallup that they think there's going to be a major Ebola outbreak in the U.S.
  • The Pew Research Center asked a slightly different question, how worried people are about getting it. A total of 32 percent said they were somewhat or very worried. But it wasn't the same for every group:

Black people are probably more likely to know someone who has traveled to West Africa recently, which could explain why the number for them is higher. But still—47 percent?

Ebola is a frightening disease, it's true. You wouldn't want to get it. But just for the record, here in America, this is how to know if you're at risk for getting Ebola: Has someone with Ebola vomited on you? No? Then you're not.

I exaggerate only slightly. We've had only one case in America, and while there may be a few more like him—people who went to a place where the disease was spreading and returned before becoming symptomatic, all while evading the precautions that were in place—it won't be more than a few. You aren't going to get it.

But fear always wins. Fear sure wins on TV, where they're actually asking questions like "Could the virus mutate and become airborne?" And we're all hard-wired for fear, because fear is highly adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint. The australopithecine who's terrified of every bump in the night is the one who survives to pass on his genes.  

Meanwhile, the totally-not-a-race-baiter Rush Limbaugh is telling his listeners that Barack Obama wants to let white Americans get Ebola as revenge for slavery. So of course we can all stay rational.