Title: The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Plague in History Author: John M. Barry Publication Date: 2004 Recommendation Score: 4.5/5
The H1N1 influenza A virus was called the Spanish flu. This is mainly because the Spanish press was reporting about it freely, in contrast to the censored press in the countries involved in world war I. This flu is arguably the deadliest pandemic in history. It happened between 1917 and 1920 with a peak in 1918. The war helped the virus spread by both displacing men between countries, and by censorship that minimized the death reports to maintain morale. The book describes this period in great detail.
When I was reading this book, I heard a president of a European country comforting his people by claiming that the COVID-19 crisis and its context (economic crisis, terrorism) is the worst in modern history. Political dogma aside, we are far better, with our modern technology, than the generation that endured the flu pandemic and WWI. We should expect the worst.
The book was written over 15 years ago. The author, John Barry, warns against the risk of flu pandemic outbreaks that may occur any time. He points out the fragility of the just-in-time supply chain, and the over-optimization of the industries, including the health industry, which makes us poorly prepared in case of a pandemic.
Salient events are easier to remember, so we give them more importance in our decisions. Psychologists call this simple fact “the Availability heuristic”, which is a cognitive bias.
Remember that cognitive biases are mental shortcuts that help us survive in a dangerous world, but they fool us in a complicated one. When you see a lion in the Serengeti, you need to run without thinking. But when you decide to buy a car, it would be better to avoid running to buy the one you see frequently in the ads and think thoroughly before making the decision.
Examples of the Availability Heuristic
Salient memories from one’s experience will impact its future decision, when searching for a job, a neighborhood, a partner, a vacation destination, etc. We focus on that specific event and forget about the rest. We make a poor decision, and we often regret it.
Plane crashes are so rare that everyone knows about them when they happen. Yet they seem to horrify people much more than car accidents, which cause many more victims… Sharks, Tsunamis, Terrorist attacks, etc. These are a salient cause of death, but they have, by far, the least number of victims compared to car accidents or medical errors.
The media are an enormous « availability bias » machine. Journalists and reporters are both victims and contributors to this social phenomenon. A journalist that reports “a plane departing from Berlin had landed safely in CDG airport this afternoon” will most probably lose his job. Continue reading “Outsmart the Availability Heuristic”→