Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Run for the hills! Run for the hills!

The UK is currently in phase six of the swine flu pandemic, is likely to reach level three of a heat wave and the terror threat is "severe".

That comforting information was given me by the BBC this morning at the beginning of one of Today's great little ten-to-nine discussions (specifically this one). The topic, whilst obviously covering the heatwave and swine flu was whether or not warning levels are worth a rat's arse.

The principle problem is of course that by and large we have no understanding of what the levels mean, most often they are presented to us, as above, in the abstract, it sometimes takes considerable leg work to divine that the heatwave warning is 3 out of a maximum of four; that phase six of a pandemic, whilst the most severe level of human-to-human infection is the last before the post-pandemic phase begins and infection lessens; and that a severe terror threat level means that a terrorist attack is "highly likely" (and even more to find that the panic threat level has not been changed since it was dropped after the 7 July 2005 bombings).

As Today's discussion brought up there is the fact that even given our poorly informed state we just don't know what to do with this kind of information. We might talk in shades of grey but we think in binary. It will either rain or it won't there's so much danger we should hide in the basement or there's nothing to worry about, it's safe or it's dangerous. It takes a great deal of training to break ourselves of this deeply ingrained (some psychologists say hard-wired) instinct, and even then one catches experienced academics doing this occasionally. Dan Gardner's excellent book Risk: the Science and Politics of Fear (excellently written, heavy on the science, light on the politics but understandable to the lay person) covers this situation in depth, including our tendency to fear the worst despite all the evidence, putting this down to the fact that ultimately we are negotiating the information age with stone age brains.

So if we are incapable of processing the information, what use is it? It merely forms a part of our hunger for classification. From school league tables to government performance to mortgage interest rates, we want a number, and preferably a ranking. What we have to come to grips with is the one simple fact that life is not digital, and is not a football game. Rarely is it all as simple as win-loss, and almost never as starkly easy as good vs evil. Left vs Right is a straw man fallacy, reductio ad absurdum. Maybe, just maybe we should all be adult about things.

Or we could just PANIC!

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