Ebola: Does hysteria make sense?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Ebola
10 Leading Causes of Death by Age Group

WANT TO WORRY? CLICK ON THE TOP CHART to see it expand and learn the “10 Leading Causes of Death by Age Group,” the most recent version compiled by the CDC. CLICK ON THE LOWER CHART to see it expand and learn the “10 Leading Causes of INJURY Death by Age Group” from the CDC.

There was a time when hysteria made sense and fleeing for the hills was a prudent survival strategy, notes sociologist Claude Fischer. When yellow fever and cholera were prevalent and the mechanisms of transmission (and hence prevention or treatment) were unknown, leaving town was the best way to avoid illness. Of course, this meant that the burden of a disease fell disproportionately on the poor and the immobile.

Is Ebola another time for hysteria?

Drawing upon history, Fisher argues “that, while alarm and drastic emergency actions are needed in a few West African countries, the U.S. has the expertise and the resources to contain this kind of infectious disease.”

He notes that during the same three-week period in which Thomas Duncan was diagnosed and died, thousands of Americans died from other contagious conditions. Some of these conditions are medically contagious; others are socially contagious:

10 Leading Causes of Injury Death by Age Group“…during an average three-week period in the United States: 35 people die from tuberculosis; 3,200 from influenza and pneumonia–500 of those people under 65 years of age; 1,100 from suicide by gun; 650 from homicide by gun; 1,000 by alcoholic cirrhosis; and 1,900 by motor vehicle accident. These deaths are not only vastly more numerous, they are much more contagious, either in a medical sense or in a sociological sense. Where are screaming headlines for those risks?”

The threat of Ebola has captured our attention. But the diseases and conditions that occur slowly and in some ways acceptably elude our concerns. Fischer questions whether we have the will “to contain the much greater killers like alcoholism, firearm use, and motor vehicles.”

Is hysteria warranted when it comes to Ebola?

Should we be focusing on other killers of Americans?

Free Agent Nation: Will HitchBOT make it? How about the amazing HelpDesk?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Free Agent Nation

Meet HitchBOT video from Ryerson University

NOTE FROM DR. WAYNE BAKER—This week, we’re spanning generations and perspectives in welcoming guest writers Kathy Macdonald and Miles Grofsorean. In this five-part series, they are reporting on some very creative ideas from entrepreneurs. Here is their fifth and final column …

Young entrepreneurs are launching new ideas every day, as we’ve been reporting in this week’s series “Free Agent Nation.” Of course, the “nation” we’re talking about here is bigger than the U.S. Free agents around the world are coming up with fresh solutions to daily problems that span international boundaries.

HIGH TECH: Will HitchBOT make it?

In fact, as we complete our series, one such experiment is crossing North America from the Atlantic shores of Nova Scotia all the way to the Pacific. At least that’s what researchers David Smith (McMaster University) and Frauke Zeller (Ryerson University) are hoping! Every day, this summer, new headlines are popping up as their computer commuter, HitchBOT, tries to reach its goal thousands of kilometers away.

Many of the entrepreneurial ideas we’ve summarized this week try to build relationships between computers and humans. HitchBOT literally tests the strength of this relationship. Smith and Zeller aim to answer the question: “Can people trust robots?” To find the answer they created HitchBOT, an intelligent robot that is hitchhiking across Canada. Equipped with tweeting capabilities, HitchBOT will engage with its drivers during each trip and tweet information about its travels and location so that others can pick him up.

You can watch HitchBOT’s progress at the experiment’s website. (As this column is published, the little guy has made it past Toronto.) You also can learn about HitchBOT in this brief video made by the creators …

AND … LOW TECH: An amazingly cheap Help Desk from India

Americans joke about a simple fact of life today. Often, when we call for help, we’re reaching someone sitting at a Help Desk in India.

While that huge nation is known for its growing high-tech sector, the nation also is trying to help its millions of rural school children, many of whom grow up in harsh conditions. Students sit and write on the floors of dusty rooms—sometimes stirring up dust themselves from dirt floors. A non-profit organization named Aarambh is launching an extremely low-tech solution to improve these schools.

Even better is the fact that this new Help Desk meshes neatly with other cardboard recycling systems! Aarambh simply takes bundles of flattened cardboard boxes, ready for recycling, and turns them into portable book carriers for students can easily unfold into desks. Want to see how this works? Watch the video …

All this week, we’ve been exploring various new ventures that are in part a response to the transformation we are seeing in the economy–more and more people are shifting from finding jobs at well-established companies—to creating their own.

We’ve given examples of at least three types of “answers”: serviceable, seductive and supportive entrepreneurial ventures.

Where this will go is anyone’s guess, but will you be a part of it?

Like these ideas? Will they succeed? You could help to insure success simply by telling friends.

PLEASE, leave a comment below—and share this series with friends by clicking on the blue “f” Facebook icons or the small envelope shaped email icons.

Space: Next stop, Mars?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Space
Mars image from NASA 2013

Image of Mars from NASA in 2013.

Going to the earth’s moon is so, well … yester-century. Private companies like SpaceX have their launch sights set on the Red Planet. In fact, SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s goal is to establish a permanent colony on Mars.

Should Mars be NASA’s focus, too?

Here’s what NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. says in the agency’s 2014 Strategic Plan: “Our long-term goal is to send humans to Mars. Over the next two decades, we will develop and demonstrate the technologies and capabilities needed to send humans to explore the red planet and safely return them to Earth. One of the steps toward this goal is a proposed mission to find, capture, redirect a near-Earth asteroid safely into the Earth-Moon system, and then send astronauts to explore it. This mission will allow us to further develop new technologies and test mechanisms and techniques for human operations in deep space, as well as help us understand potential future threats to human populations posed by asteroids.”

But, how much public support is there for a mission to Mars?

Just over a third of Americans (36%) agree that the goals of the space program should include manned flight to Mars, according to a 2012 poll by Rasmussen Reports. Slightly more disagree (38%). But many Americans (27%) say they aren’t sure. The price tag for a Mars program could be $6 billion to as much as $500 billion, according to some estimates.

Is the Mars mission just flight of fancy?

Should NASA set its sights on the Red Planet?

Should tax payers fund a Mars program?

Space: Should it be privatized?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Space
SpaceX Dragon capsule returns to earth in 2012

NASA’s Charles Bolden, left, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk present the Dragon capsule that returned to Earth following the first successful mission by a private company to carry supplies to the International Space Station in 2012. Photo by Bill Ingalls, released via Wikimedia Commons.

NASA and the space program run on public funds, meaning your tax dollars and mine. Funding has declined over time, and it’s always a contentious issue come budget time in Washington, D.C.

Schools, hospitals, prisons, law enforcement, and national security are outsourced or privatized. Should we outsource the space program to private companies or just be done with it and rely fully on the private sector to race into space?

In part, we already have. Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX is a private firm that has been awarded NASA contracts. SpaceX has had a number of successes, including being the first private aerospace firm to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. The vehicle contained cargo, not humans, but it was an historic first.

SpaceX isn’t the only private firm. Another contender is Virgin Galactic.

Do you think private companies like these should run the space business and the U.S. government should stay out of it?

Almost a third (32%) of Americans say that space transportation and exploration should be mainly or fully funded by private companies, according to a YouGov survey at the end of last year.

Only 17% said that space transportation and exploration should be mainly or fully funded by the public (our tax dollars). That leaves half (50%) who say that the best situation would be an even mix of private and public funding.

Do you think the U.S. government should get out of the space business and let the private sector handle it?

What would the risks be if private firms “owned” space?

Do you agree with the majority—that an even mix of public and private funding is best?

Space: How important is our space program?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Space
Project Mercury Astronauts 1959

“THE RIGHT STUFF” Project Mercury Astronauts in 1959, front row, left to right, Walter H. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and Scott Carpenter; back row, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. Gus Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper.

NASA—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—was founded in 1958. Since then, NASA’s cumulative budget (adjusted for inflation) has been almost $800 billion, according to government sources. Peak funding was in the late 1960s with the Apollo program and the moon landing. Funding has fallen dramatically since then.

Is this drop in funding a good thing? How important is our space program?

Just over half of all Americans (52%) say it is extremely or very important that we “maintain the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the United States space program,” according to a YouGov poll late last year. An additional 28% say it’s moderately important, bringing the total to 80% of Americans who say it’s at least moderately important to maintain NASA and the space program.

Why is maintaining the space program important? Here are five possible reasons. How would you rank them?

  • “The space mission drives technological progress that trickles into other parts of the economy.”
  • “Exploration and discovery are essential for human progress.”
  • “Space technology is an important element of our telecommunications infrastructure.”
  • “Space is an important element of our defense strategy.”
  • “It is important to support human excellence in all its forms.”

These are the top five reasons given by those who think it’s important to maintain the U.S. space program, according to YouGov. And, I presented them in order from most to least support. Trickle-down benefits to the economy are the most popular reason, given by 58% of those who support the program. But a close second is more romantic and idealistic—space exploration and discovery are essential for human progress.

How important do you think it is to maintain NASA and the U.S. space program?

If you think it’s important, what are your reasons?

Do you agree with reasons above—or is something else on your list?

Divided America: Group marriage?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Divided America
Oneida children produced by eugneics circa 1887

About a decade after Oneida’s founder fled to Canada, some of the “children” produced by the Oneida Community’s policy of eugenics posed for this photograph.

Turn over a piece of fine silver flatware and see if it says “Oneida.” If so, it’s made by the company that was founded years ago by members of a commune that practiced a complex form of group marriage.

In fact, under the direction of founder John Humphrey Noyes, the community’s leadership decided who was best suited to produce children, mixing and matching partners in a process of what scientists already were calling “eugenics” in the mid 19th Century. Noyes finally fled the country in 1879; the Oneida Community ended its experiment in complex marriage and eugenics—and members of the community became stockholders in the ongoing silverware company.

What do Americans think about group marriage today?

OK, I didn’t ask a question about group marriage in my national surveys. I think it’s safe to say that the most Americans today would reject this notion of “marriage.” But that doesn’t mean most Americans endorse the traditional definition of marriage. Values about marriage, gender roles, and family are in flux in contemporary America.

Here are two questions I did ask in my four surveys. To what extent do you agree or disagree with each statement?

Statement 1: A child needs a home with both a father and a mother to grow up happy.

Statement 2: Marriage should be defined solely as between one man and one woman.

Americans are divided on both issues. Just over half of Americans agree that a child needs both a mother and father at home to be happy. But more than a third disagree, with only 11% taking the middle “neutral” position.

I observed a similar pattern for Question 2, though there was more support for the traditional definition of marriage. Since the time of my surveys, opinion has shifted, with a majority of Americans now supporting legalized same-sex marriage.

Just yesterday, a federal judge struck down a ban on same-sex marriage in Oregon. Now, 18 states allow same-sex marriage.

A generational divide seems to be emerging. Younger Americans are much more likely than older Americans to support legalized same-sex marriage. The older view of the culture war pitted cultural progressives against cultural conservatives. Now, it seems that the conflict is organized along generational lines.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with each statement above?

Do you see a generational divide?

Who made your silver flatware?

LGBT Trends: Who still thinks AIDS may be ‘divine punishment’?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series LGBT Trends
2014 PEW report on LGBT related attitudes


In 1992, over a third of Americans (36%) said that AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior. Over time, public opinion has become more supportive of gay rights and even legalized same-sex marriage. Has this trend also lessened the opinion that AIDS could be divine punishment for immorality?

The percent of Americans who now agree that AIDS is God’s punishment has dropped considerably, according to the just-released report by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). But a sizable minority—14% of all Americans—still believe that AIDS is divine punishment.

We see big drops in the “divine punishment” theory across the board. In 1992, the majority of white evangelical Protestants (51%) subscribed to this explanation of AIDS; today, the percent is 24%, according to PRRI. Similarly, 50% of black Protestants in 1992 said that AIDS was God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior, but that figure has fallen to 20% today.

Only 7% of white Catholics today perceive AIDS to be divine punishment, 10% of white mainline Protestants, and 8% of the religiously unaffiliated.

We also see differences by political party affiliation. One of four Tea Partiers (24%) today subscribe to the theory of divine punishment. About two of ten Republicans (19%) agree. Support for the idea that God uses AIDS to punish immoral sexual behavior is the lowest for Democrats (13%) and Independents (14%).

Do you agree or disagree that AIDS is God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior?

What explains the trend towards fewer and fewer Americans believing that AIDS is divine punishment?