During a panic as severe as the current Ebola event, it’s wise to watch the news media for pointers on the right way and the wrong way to inform the public. What may be a good example of the latter was posted Sunday by The Atlantic, which should know better.
The piece, titled “21 Days” -- that’s the incubation period for the virus; if you’re disease-free that long after coming into contact with an Ebola patient, you’re almost certainly out of danger -- has already come under withering criticism online. It was written by James Hamblin, a senior editor at the magazine who also is an M.D. The article relies on “compelling evidence” from “an expert in biological warfare” to push, essentially, for “a national quarantine” against Ebola.
The danger of such loose talk should be evident, especially given the experience of Kaci Hickox. She’s the nurse who was forcibly quarantined Friday upon her arrival at Newark from the Ebola zone of Sierra Leone, despite the lack of any evidence that she’s infected. She was confined in accordance with a policy set down by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose order reflected a typically truculent outburst of pure scientific ignorance. (Hickox was released Monday.)
The Atlantic’s “expert” is Steven Hatfill, and that’s where the piece really goes off the rails. If you remember Hatfill’s name, it’s probably in connection not with Ebola, but anthrax: he was the Army disease researcher who came under intense suspicion by the government and in the media as the sender of the anthrax letters that panicked the nation in 2001, only to be completely cleared. (See the book “The Mirage Man” by my colleague David Willman for the best account of the anthrax affair, including Hatfill’s ordeal.)
Hamblin pumps Hatfill up into a world authority on Ebola, citing his source’s “unique expertise in biomedical warfare.” He says Hatfill knows about Ebola “at a depth that can rival any scientist’s knowledge.”
Both these assertions are exaggerations at best. Hatfill’s expertise may be extensive, but hardly “unique.” As for his knowledge of Ebola rivaling any other scientist’s, that’s preposterous. Scores, maybe hundreds, of doctors and scientists have spent the last decade or more on the front lines of the fight against Ebola, in the lab and in the field; there’s no reason to assume that Hatfill’s experience is equal to theirs, much less superior.
In listing Hatfill’s qualifications, Hamblin mentions that he’s a board member of the organization Doctors for Disaster Preparedness. As science writer Seth Mnookin observed on Twitter over the weekend, a few minutes’ research should have told Hamblin that Hatfill’s affiliation with this group disqualifies, rather than recommends, Hatfill as an expert.
DDP is an extremist organization that, among other positions, questions climate change as “an environmental scare” and suggests that vaccination causes epidemics. DDP’s president, one Dr. Jane Orient, declared recently on right-wing talk radio that "as many 100,000 West Africans are in Central America, have been taught to speak Spanish and are coming across our Southern border.”
Hamblin defended his piece in an email to me. Hatfill “came to me very concerned about U.S. preparedness for future viral outbreaks and made a compelling case,” he wrote. He says, “I hope I didn’t portray [Hatfill] as infallible,” but disagrees that his “assessment of his knowledge on the subject is exaggeration.”
Regarding Hatfill’s affiliation with DDP, he wrote, “Hatfill is clearly not anti-vax, but if he denies climate-change (which would surprise me) that would be seriously concerning.”
Is that enough? Hamblin didn’t offer Hatfill as one of several experts reflecting a range of informed judgment about Ebola, but placed him front-and-center as a truth-teller accusing the scientific and medical establishment of lying. More than half the piece is given over to a transcript of their conversation.
One danger of articles like “21 Days” is that they mix together a lot of unrelated debates and events to serve a totally misleading theme. Hamblin’s article depicts the debate over Ebola preparedness as a war between Democratic and Republican “messaging,” giving both sides equal standing: “Democratic messaging tends to be supportive of CDC handling and quelling of outbreak anxieties: If you have not had intimate contact with a person who is severely ill, you have no cause for concern. The quintessential Republican message, meanwhile, is one of mishandling and incompetence: Readily transmissible, even ‘airborne’ Ebola virus is a legitimate concern.”
The problem there is that the Democratic message actually has empirical science behind it. The Republican message doesn’t. They’re not equal. Hamblin trots out Hatfill to mediate, calling him "politically removed” and therefore objective, but plainly he’s nothing of the kind. Hatfill may be unaffiliated with either political party, but as Hamblin himself told me, “If anyone has reason to be skeptical of the government, you know, it’s he.”
Hatfill was sorely mistreated by government officials, but that isn’t relevant in itself to Ebola preparedness; Hatfill criticizes the initial response to the “outbreak” of Ebola in the United States as “badly designed, and poorly and incompetently implemented,” which is fair enough. But it’s hardly a “unique” viewpoint or novel viewpoint, as we’ve reported. (Anyway, can four infections, of which two were acquired overseas, rightly be called an “outbreak”?)
Much of Hamblin’s interview with Hatfill dealt with broader issues of disease preparedness, and Hatfill is right to suggest the U.S. generally is behind the curve. But it’s inappropriate to use that accurate perception to suggest drastic quarantines and other such measures to deal with Ebola. Empirical and clinical evidence supports the view that the virus can be contracted through only direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, after the infection is manifested.
You can find that judgment in Hamblin’s piece, but you have to look very hard for it. He, and The Atlantic, needed better experts.