Rethinking Healthcare

Paranoia is worse than swine flu

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The assumption of dark conspiracies among people whose careers are based on helping people is a very dangerous thing. And it's bipartisan. It has been since the pandemic started.

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Whenever I have written about the H1N1 swine flu, and attempts to tame it, I have gotten a reaction.

Paranoia. And it's going global.

A few weeks ago The Daily Show summarized it better than I can. "The government is out to get you. Science is out to get you. And oh, look behind you!"

Right now "oh look behind you" is the main scare. Some states are doing a better job communicating about the flu and vaccine than others. The flu is now widespread nearly everywhere and vaccine deliveries are slow due to problems at the factories. It's now officially a national emergency and emergency rooms are being overwhelmed.

But if vaccine supplies were plentiful, media fearmongering would not slow down. We would still have the fear, on the part of many people, that government is out to get us, or science.

In the long run this is a bigger problem than swine flu. The assumption of dark conspiracies among people whose careers are based on helping people is a very dangerous thing. And it's bipartisan. It has been since the pandemic started.

Witness my own entry into China this past May. A team in hazmat suits aimed wireless thermometers at every passenger, and anyone with a fever got one in the mouth. Everyone at customs wore masks, as did food service workers. I didn't feel the scare lift until my flight back through Chicago, by then the epidemic's epicenter, when I saw one Chinese passenger sheepishly remove his mask.

Assuming conspiracies is extremely unhealthy. We live in a complex, scientific society. Scientific attitudes change with evidence. This is how it works. The best experiments yield, not answers, but new questions. Certainty is hard to come by.

But we do make progress. A half-century ago President Eisenhower was told to eat margarine for his heart ailment. Now we know better. It's the trans-fats in margarine that cause the problem. Butter is fine.

I have a rooting interest in this one since it was a Dr. David Blankenhorn (no relation so far as I know) who pioneered the link between cholesterol and heart disease. I also had a cholesterol count over 300 before going on statins early this decade.

Yet there are people who doubt the link and science could not progress without them. Only by dealing with questions and skepticism openly and honestly can medicine progress. Or any other form of scientific inquiry.

But there is a difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism is our friend. Cynicism is our enemy. Doubt is healthy. Paranoia will destroy you.

It's paranoia, not the H1N1 virus, that is the key epidemic of 2009.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure