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“…All I Got Was Swine Flu!”

Screenshot of online t-shirt vendor

The latest in swine flu fashion

“Somebody I know went to Mexico and all I got was this lousy swine flu!” So goes a crass joke gracing some new t-shirt designs.

But Mexicans aren’t laughing. As these tourist t-shirts illustrate, the country isn’t just battling the physical effects of swine flu but the psychological ones as well.

While the H1N1 virus appears to have originated in either the US or Mexico, most attention has focused south of the US border where more illnesses and deaths have been reported. Some in the US have even taken to calling the virus “the Mexican flu,” using it as an excuse to stoke anti-immigrant fervor.

And the humiliation hasn’t stopped there. Discrimination has spread across the globe as quickly as the virus itself. In Paris, airport employees have refused to touch luggage coming off Mexican planes, while in China, authorities have forced healthy Mexican travelers into quarantine, delivering food to their hotels like they were hostages under siege.

With such negative attention focused on his country, Mexican President Felipe Calderon lashed out on Sunday against those “acting out of ignorance and disinformation” and implementing “discriminatory measures.”

While abhorrent, the stigma stinging Mexicans is no surprise. This kind of scapegoating is an unfortunate – but not unexpected – element of infectious disease epidemics that is often used to stoke pre-existing prejudices, according to experts.

“It’s fear of people we do not know or who look different,” said Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan and author of When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America Since 1900 and the Fears They Have Unleashed. “You take the fear of the unknown that already exists and then combine that with a real or perceived threat that is contagious disease, and it’s explosive.”

While the swine flu threat is proving to be more perceived than real, how will fear-mongering manifest the inevitable next time around – especially when we’re facing down something more insidious than the flu?

Screenshot: Zazzle.com

The Power of Photography: Addiction in Afghanistan

Screenshot of the New York Times

Although often mentioned and cited, the opium problem in Afghanistan has rarely been given a human face. The New York Times recently put up a fascinating and informative
slideshow that illustrates the real effects of the global heroin/opium epidemic on the population of the country that is known to be the source of the international scourge. It shows faces, realities and fates in a country where opium is readily available and an attractive escape for those at the bottom of an already-fragile socio-economic ladder.
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The Dow Jones of International Security

Courtesy of Isobel T /Flickr

Courtesy of Isobel T /Flickr

In a time where numeric and statistical models of reality are in crisis, there are still people that think that re-packing expert judgment using a formula somehow makes the underlying assumptions more valuable. The Russian Center for Policy Studies, for example, offers what it calls “the Dow Jones of International Security”, an index that “is meant to demonstrate the extent to which the international security situation differs from the “ideal” (…) at each point in time.”

According to the Center, the index is based on a complex methodology that is characterized by “its comprehensiveness, robustness, and clarity.”

The following formula is used to calculate your security:

Formula as presented on the Russian Center for Policy Studies' Website

Formula as presented on the Russian Center for Policy Studies' Website

values2
Screenshot: Center for Policy Studies site

According to the Center’s methodology page, the factors above include “the threat of global nuclear war, the number and intensity of local conflicts, the type of political relations between various countries and international organizations, the intensity and scale of terrorist activity, the stability of the global economy, and the threat posed by man-made catastrophes and epidemics.”

Now the question is, how does the Center collect its data to calculate the security index?

“It is calculated on the basis of expert analyses of the probability of the occurrence of one or another global or regional event that would have a direct impact on international security. Each such event is given a certain score on the scale we have developed.”

So the index is basically based on expert judgment which is quite unreliable:

Philip Tetlock pointed out in his book “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” that some 82’000 expert predictions that he tracked for two decades where only a tiny bit more reliable than random guesses or monkeys throwing darts at a board.

The problem with the index above also seems to be that perception of the current security situation is treacherous. For example on 10th September 2001 the West, especially the US seemed to be quite a safe place to most analysts. However, one day later the West was perceived as a side in a global war against a violent ideology. Nicholas Taleb’s “black swans” or random events with high impact, make an analysis of the current security situation much more difficult. It would be interesting to know how the Center’s experts had rated the probability of a global event one week before 9/11.

To be fair, the Center of Policy Studies is just doing what other political risk and even market analysts of big banks are doing: Selling their predictions by highlighting the value of expertise. As long as the marketing works and people really believe that accurate mathematical predictions of the future or even an accurate model of the present realities are possible, they will sell their products and the industry will continue to grow.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

News wires were buzzing with news of yet another Wikipedia hoax. Last week Shane Fitzgerald, a student at University College Dublin, revealed he had inserted a fake quote on the Wikipedia entry of French composer Maurice Jarre who died at the end of March. The quote was used by bloggers and newspapers around the world (including the UK’s Guardian) until Fitzgerald came clean on his research “experiment”.

So what? This isn’t the first Wikipedia hoax to have made the headlines, and it certainly wont be the last. Nevertheless, it’s not without significance. No sooner had the hoax been revealed, the commentariat chimed in with their two cents on sloppy journalism and, predictably, the value of Wikipedia.

Granted, the hoax didn’t do the profession any favors. Newspapers are suffering terribly in the current recession and their decline is happening at a time when the demand for quality journalism has never been greater. Budgets are tight and so are resources. In the “good old days” (whenever they were), a journalist could rely on a sub-editor to check quotes and sources. Alas, no more. When money’s tight, subs and fact checkers are the first to go. Why? Because the discipline of checking sources is something every journalist is expected to possess. It’s the first thing they teach you at journalism school, and the last thing they remind you of before they kick you out. The fact that more than one obituary writer was caught cribbing Wikipedia without checking sources is a worrying trend indeed, especially for those who rely on the media to inform their work – in other words, everyone working in international affairs.

But this is not to lament the the fate of the press. After all, sloppy research is not specific to journalists. It is increasingly common in government circles too. Our growing reliance on open sources of information for research and policymaking purposes places greater demand on the proper training of government employees when it comes to information literacy.

The UK government’s 2003 report on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (more commonly known as the “Dodgy Dossier”) serves as the best example of what’s at stake. Not only had the government’s analysts failed to attribute the sources they used (thus prompting accusations of plagiarism), they also forgot to correct the original spelling mistakes.

Fitzgerald’s hoax may have left egg on the face of newspaper editors around the world. But it also offers a warning to anyone whose basic tool of work is the internet.

“Israel Is Unsettled” by New US Mideast Policy

daniel_mockli

Daniel Möckli / photo: Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich

In what I think is a very good piece of international affairs analysis, Daniel Möckli of the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich comments on the new US policy on Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Möckli talks to Swiss-German radio’s Echo der Zeit, Switzerland’s flagship news program, on the impact on Israel of Obama’s policy .

“There are signs that US policy on Iran takes a direction, which does not necessarily meet Israeli interests” says Möckli. “Israel is obviously unsettled”. The interview comes at a time when Israel’s president Shimon Peres voices support of the new US approach, even though the prime minister and his government are tough on Iran and the Palestinians.

Möckli also comments on the Swiss government’s engagement in the Middle East. According to him, the Swiss government has decided to no longer mediate between Iran the West on the nuclear issue, due to domestic political reasons. “I personally regret this, because we’ve been very successful there”.

Daniel Möckli has been a guest of ISN Podcasts, where he discussed Swiss Mideast policy. A policy brief he wrote on Switzerland’s controversial policy in the region can be accessed through the ISN’s Digital Library.

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