The Volokh Conspiracy

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Ebola, political ignorance, and the undead


I recently put up a guest post at the website of Economics of The Undead, the recent book edited by economists Glen Whitman and James Dow. My post explains how the kind of political ignorance that often leads to catastrophic results in vampire and zombie stories may also be affecting the public response to Ebola. Here's an excerpt:

My chapter in Economics of the Undead focuses on the ways in which political ignorance undermines efforts to combat zombies and vampires. From Dracula to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to World War Z, a constant theme of books and movies about the undead is that public ignorance and irrationality exacerbate the danger they pose to humans.

Typically, the story begins with a growing undead menace that the ignorant public is largely unaware of. As a result, government does little or nothing to address the problem. When the threat becomes so obvious that voters finally become aware of it, the reaction is an irrational panic that often leads to perverse policies that make the problem worse. In addition, the government and various interest groups often take advantage of the public's ignorance and bias to use the crisis created by the undead for their own benefit….

The ignorance and irrationality highlighted in stories about the undead are an exaggerated version of the real-world problem of voter ignorance….

Political scientist Daniel Drezner, author ofTheories of International Politics and Zombies, points out that the kind of public ignorance we find in zombie stories is now affecting efforts to deal with Ebola….

Fortunately, at least for wealthy Western nations, the Ebola crisis is probably only a very minor danger….

Nonetheless, public ignorance could easily make Ebola policy more wasteful and inefficient than it needs to be, and might potentially result in at least a few avoidable deaths. And if Western governments react to ill-informed public anger by banning travel to and from affected nations instead of focusing on more effective and less draconian measures such as temporary quarantines, the result will be extensive needless suffering and a longterm exacerbation of disease risk. Too often, well-intentioned but ignorant humans are more deadly than even the most malevolent vampires and zombies.