More about the swine flu pandemic: about Cassandras

Summary:  Last in a series of posts about the swine flu hysteria (links to other chapters appear at the end).  This is an apt time to look at another would-be Cassandra, as the World Health Organization has noted “Signs That Swine Flu Has Peaked” (New York Times, 21 November 2009).

Other posts about the swine flue epidemic:

(1)  What about all the hype, the extreme warnings, about swine flu?, 3 September 2009
(2)  Update: about the swine flu epidemic, 9 October 2009
(3)  Is the Swine Flu pandemic being used to an excuse to expand government powers (UK edition)?, 14 October 2009
(4)  Who to blame for the delay in producing the swine flu vaccine?, 4 November 2009

The Internet overflows with experts of various sorts predicting disaster.  Folks running websites uncritically repeat these stories without investigate.  The Internet can makes us smarter, but often makes us dumber.  Here’s another case study, with powerful lessons.

Henry L Niman has impressive credentials, listed in the bio of his website Recombinomics.   He had an article published in Nature (1980, here).  He has several articles posted to the NaturePrecedings website (non-peer reviewed).   His warnings about pandemics appear on many websites.   A simple Google search shows 178 thousand entries (certainly inaccurate, but indicates a wide presence nonetheless).  He has issued a stream of warnings about the flu, receiving much attention. 

The folks posting his warnings seldom look at his past warnings.  Doing so suggests skepticism is warranted.  This simple step would help make the Internet a more powerful tool for us all. 

  1. WHO – Flu Pandemic May Have Begun“, Henry Niman, Rense, 5 May 2005 — No background, just Niman’s article.
  2. A Bird Flu Watcher Develops A Following Through the Internet“, Wall Street Journal, 23 March 2009 — The usual thumb-sucking “he said-she said” media pabulum.
  3. A flu pandemic that wasn’t but might be“, New York Times, 22 January 2008 — “Some who were Cassandras in 2005 still are. … Henry Niman, a biochemist in Pittsburgh whose Web site tracks mutations, argues that there is a separate reservoir in wild birds that extends across Eurasia. Late each fall, fresh outbreaks appear across Europe and down into the Middle East as geese and swans migrate from Asia toward Africa.”

There are a few articles that provide more specific commentary, and suggest extreme skepticism.

(a)  “Henry Niman: prophet of doom for the Internet“, Martin Williams (writer and photographer, PhD in Physical Chemistry from Cambridge), posted at his blog, April – June 2008 — Mega-critical reviews of Niman’s work.  While Williams is no flu expert, his quotations from Niman’s articles are brutal.

(b)  “Experts Dismiss Pig Flu Scare as Nonsense“, Martin Enserink, Science, 4 March 2005 — It’s almost 5 years later.  Despite Nieman’s prediction, the World Health Organization does not yet look “very ridiculous.”  Excerpt:

Determined to draw attention to the case, Niman, who has also criticized WHO extensively for its handling of the severe acute respiratory syndrome and avian influenza outbreaks, has posted more than 50 messages about the case on his site since December, with some success: Infectious-disease specialist Laurie Garrett of the Foreign Relations Council in New York City wrote about the case in an online article on 16 February — although she dismissed it as a “scary near-miss” — and last week, Nature reported Niman’s claims.

That attention irks Stöhr, who points out that Niman has not published in the scientific literature since 1996 and is not a flu expert. WHO will not issue an official statement about the case, he says: “We’re not going to bother 6.5 billion people with something that’s of no public health importance.” Webster, too, says any publicity is too much: “It’s so easy these days for somebody with a Web site to create a lot of panic.”

Being an expert doesn’t always mean being right, counters Niman, who adds that when the truth comes out, “WHO and Webster will look very ridiculous.”

For more information

Other websites:

  1. For a good summary, I recommend “Blowing the Shot – What we can learn from the shortage of H1N1 vaccine“, Marc Siegel, Slate, 2 November 2009 — A sensible look at the problems making a new vaccine.
  2. Here is a wonderful graphics from the Information is Beautiful website, showing the relative seriousness of swine flu compared to other illnesses — and the power of hand washing to prevent its spread.
  3. Preparing for a Pandemic“, W. Wayt Gibbs and Christine Soares, Scientific American, November 2005 —  Free version here.   “One day a highly contagious and lethal strain of influenza will sweep across all humanity, claiming millions of lives. It may arrive in months or not for years — but the next pandemic is inevitable. Are we ready?” 

Articles about the Swine Flu on the FM website:

  1.  What about all the hype, the extreme warnings, about swine flu?, 3 September 2009
  2. Update: about the swine flu epidemic, 9 October 2009
  3. Is the Swine Flu pandemic being used to an excuse to expand government powers – UK edition?, 15 October 2009
  4. Who to blame for the delay in producing the swine flu vaccine?, 4 November 2009

4 thoughts on “More about the swine flu pandemic: about Cassandras”

  1. Trivial nit: Cassandra isn’t the right term however. The curse of Cassandra was that she had prophecy but was ignored. The first thing that any would-be cassandra needs to be is right.

    Is there a more kind and poetic term than simple “Scaremonger”?
    FM reply: You are right; this is backwards! I addressed this, very lightly, in the summary by refering to “another would-be Cassandra”. The headline was so good I had to use it (I was weak).

  2. Actually, its interesting how Cassandra is rather a pejorative, when its really should be a complement: it means someone was right, and tried hard to change things, but failed.

    Far better than to be wrong and follow a path of folly, IMO.
    FM reply: Cassandra is a cautionary lesson about reneging on a deal. Apollo was anoyed that she did not come through with her end, and made a change on his side of the deal as well.

  3. Ah but FM , didnt YOU have swine flu ? These the pearls that were your eyes , Now nothing of you doth remain , but has suffered a swineflu change , into something -rich and strange .. ..

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