Aid workers stage an Ebola awareness event in Monrovia, Liberia.
  • John Moore, Getty Images Europe
  • Aid workers stage an Ebola awareness event in Monrovia, Liberia.

The Reader‘s “Did you read about?” feature drew my attention Tuesday to an article that compares Ebola to Enterovirus D68 (which gives children respiratory problems and is occasionally fatal) as a public health menace, but refuses to panic over either. “In reality,” says James Surowiecki on the New Yorker website, “we’re worrying too much about both Ebola and EV-D68, and too little about an infectious disease that is much more likely to inflict serious damage on the U.S. I’m talking, of course, about the flu.”

I’m a little surprised that it was Surowiecki wrote this article, and for the New Yorker, but not surprised at all to be reading it. I’m sure I’ll read it again. Journalists love to put things in perspective. And we love to accuse each other of overreacting. So we make certain points over and over and this is one of them. During the AIDS terror back in the 80s a sensible columnist or two forlornly pointed out that vastly greater numbers of Americans were dying of cancer.

The problem with putting things in perspective is that perspective can deceive, and it can not particularly matter. In retrospect, AIDS deserved all the ink it got—as the mysterious gay killer virus from out of Africa and as the disease that was changing everything. Would we have same-sex marriage today if we hadn’t had AIDS then, putting homosexuals in the news pages of the mainstream media as a community struggling and dying and fighting back?

Meanwhile, cancer, like the flu, goes on quietly taking its toll. Surowiecki’s real subject is the “curiously divergent and inconsistent way most of us think about risk.” He writes, “If Americans learned that we were facing the outbreak of a new disease that was going to do what the flu will do in the next few months, the press would be banging the drums about vaccination. Instead, it’s yesterday’s news.”

The only reason the flu is even yesterday’s news is that once in a while a strain has come along—such as H1N1 in 2009—that looked to be so much more lethal than the usual that the public needed to be put on notice. But most risk isn’t news because people already get it. Maybe in our bones we don’t feel the risk of driving the way we feel the vastly smaller risk of taking a plane (an example Surowiecki mentions)—but in our heads we know pretty well what those risks are. There’s no particular point in reminding us every time we decide to go somewhere.

Known risk we’re all used to living with might be serious but it isn’t scary. Scary things make news because they’re unknown. They’re noises and shadows; they’re the inky black patch along the short cut through the swamp. We don’t know what that is rustling in the reeds; Ebola has killed hardly anybody in this country but we don’t know if it can be contained.

We suppose so, but it’s not enough to suppose. We know that a movie is only a movie—but if we don’t know what happens next it can scare us silly anyway.