Zika Virus: The New Black Swan

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish


A new fever is helping us examine how human foibles frame our behavior.

I’ve just read about The Black Swan—not the film—but the rare event that startles us and captures our attention.

Like a car-wreck, our gaze is glued to The Black Swan—a random phenomenon, says N. N. Taleb, who wrote the best-seller, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

Rare occurrences not only engage us: they can reframe our perspectives and alter our behaviors.

When we focus our attention on an inconceivable event, we fail to notice the ordinary, Taleb writes.

And it is the ordinary that helps us make rational choices.

Extraordinary events result in poor choices.

Think about the Zika virus as an example of The Black Swan.

News headlines warn readers that babies whose mothers have had the virus are born with microcephaly—small heads and small brains.

Images of infants look like a photographer’s mistake: someone cropped the top off the poor baby’s head.

Headlines read:

Zika Virus Sparks Fears

Desperate Fight against the Zika Virus

Zika Virus Is Spreading Explosively

Zika virus contains the 3 elements Taleb describes as characteristics of The Black Swan: the event is rare, the virus has an extreme impact, and we explain the phenomenon after-the-fact (rather than anticipating it).

Although the virus is rare, it has received much more attention than, say, dengue, or yellow fever, which are carried by the same vector that affects hundreds of people every day.

As many as 1 million people contract dengue each year with about 22,000 dying–mostly children, according to the World Health Organization.

Yellow fever is no slouch either, causing about 200,000 cases each year and 30,000 deaths.

Although scientists speculate that Zika will spread, few deaths have resulted from the virus.

Cases of microcephaly, however, are expected to grow, and some 3,500 instances have been reported since in Brazil since October.

Why all the fury over an illness that proportionately affects few, when compared with dengue, yellow fever, diarrhea, or HIV-AIDS?

Taleb says it’s because we focus on the extremes, rather than the normal.

We see the pennies, rather than the dollar.

News reporters can’t help it: the rare and the unusual beg for coverage, and the photos of small-headed infants tug at our hearts.

Problem is, The Black Swan diverts our attention from the ordinary to the extreme.

Zika takes center stage because of its dramatic appeal, while less-catchy diseases fall into the shadows.

And finally, our behaviors get directed to the extreme rather than the mundane.

Victims cry for a cure, a vaccine: a dramatic and expensive solution.

“We should have anticipated that the large increase in mosquitos would create a major health crisis,” Osterholm writes in today’s New York Times.

Taking less exotic steps now will help stem the tide of the killer mosquito, says Osterholm, a professor of public health.

Getting rid of the winged beasts by cutting them off at the pass would be the best bet.

Ironically the growth of progress and industry has resulted in a growing breeding ground for the mosquito.

Used tires, plastic bottles and candy wrappers litter our landscapes, Osterholm says, providing a perfect habitat for mosquitoes.

Just add water, and the world’s dumping grounds offer harbor to the disease-carrying critters.

Like The Black Swan, we turn our attention to solving the problem though extreme means—a vaccine to treat the disease—when we could curb the problem more quickly and permanently by removing the threat before it becomes a disease.






About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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