Kahneman and Tversky published a series of influential psychology articles in the 1970s about heuristics--the mental shortcuts that we all take when processing the constant bombardment of information that is inflicted on us during every waking moment. One of these is the availability heuristic, which, according to the Wikipedia entry, is a cognitive bias "in which people base their prediction of the frequency of an event or the proportion of the population based on how easily an example can be brought to mind." I've been lecturing about the availability heuristic for years in my social psychology courses. One example I always mention was how a friend of mine in graduate school refused to fly on DC-10s after just one high-profile crash in Iowa, even though DC-10s at the time had one of the best safety records of all aircraft.
Well, right now I'm suffering from the power of the availability heuristic as it pertains to the swine flu "pandemic." And I'm not the only one--emergency rooms in New York City are full of people who think they have the swine flu: “The consensus among these physicians,” said Dr. Steven J. Davidson, the chairman of the hospital’s emergency medicine department, “is that the influenza is mild but the patients are unusually scared.” Here in Australia the frequency of swine flu stories in the news has noticeably increased in the past week. Some newspapers give daily Australian "swine flu tolls," as if they were counting deaths from the flu, although no one here has actually died in the over 170 cases that have been reported. Today's Courier-Mail included several pages of coverage to the swine flu, which included a major story about a cruise ship that has been sort of quarantined at the Great Barrier Reef (but the passengers continue to "party on," as one Brisbane bloke told a reporter). Another story was about the fact that the state and federal governments are now requiring that all children who travel to countries with high rates of swine flu (e.g., the United States) must stay at home for seven days when they return to Oz.
Why is this causing me a problem? Well, we are scheduled to leave next Thursday for the U.S. with our 3-year-old in tow (who looked very much like that boy in the picture above when he was younger!). V. and I have thought seriously about cancelling our trip, and waiting until next year to try to travel again. We would lose lots of money if we did so, and we (and my family members) would be very disappointed. But, you know, it's our son that we're talking about here.
But, alas, we have decided to stick to the facts. The fatality rate from the swine flu is about the same as any strain of influenza, and, our chances of getting the flu (of any strain) are probably no greater when going to the U.S. now than staying around here where it seems our colleagues and friends are coming down with all sorts of viruses (remember, the flu season has just begun in the southern hemisphere). I had a flu "jab" a few weeks ago that is supposed to inoculate me from both Brisbane strands of the virus (dubbed last year as "more deadly than any seen in the past two decades in Britain").
Damn you, availability heuristic, I'm going to stick to the facts this time when estimating the probability...