The Pandemic Problem, Part II

Yeah, this is not the book cover, but it's cool

Yeah, this is not the book cover, but it’s cool

Okay, continuing my little saga about looking for the facts behind the Startling Statement made by Sonia Shah in her new book, Pandemic. Please start by reading my first post about it, below.

And our story continues:

The problem starts when Shah makes this Startling Statement in the introduction to her new book: “90 percent of epidemiologists said that a pandemic that will sicken 1 billion, kill up to 165 million, and trigger a global recession that could cost up to $3 trillion would occur sometime in the next two generations.” Her cited source is a survey by epidemiologist Larry Brilliant. I read Brilliant’s paper and can’t find Shah’s numbers.

What does a curious science writer like me do? Write a bunch of emails, of course. I write all four authors of the original paper (Brilliant is third author among four) asking how that work can serve as the source of Shah’s numbers. I write Sonia Shah. I write the book reviewer at the New York Times who repeated the Startling Statement in her positive review of the book. When I don’t get a fast response from Shah (understandable, she’s on book tour)  I write her agent and  her editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (tip for sleuths: you get these names from the Acknowledgments in Shah’s book).

Why do I spend all this time? Because I hate it when writers scare people with unsupported facts. There are probably a million facts in Shah’s book, and 99.999% of them are undoubtedly correct. But the Startling Statement is the big one, the nugget repeated in conversations, the elevator pitch that sells books. That one needs to be right.

Within a day or so I get a response from the original paper’s lead author, Wandi Bruine de Bruin, who confirms that the paper does not include the numbers in the Startling Statement, nor does she know of any other place where Larry Brilliant has published such numbers.

Which leads back to Brilliant himself. And here’s where we finally get to something like an answer. Brilliant gave a TED talk in 2009, halfway through which he mentioned the numbers in the Startling Statement. He said 1 billion sick, he said 165 million dead, he said it all. Shah appears to have picked it up from there, and the rest is history.

In other words, the Startling Statement is not from any scientific study (at least not one that anyone can point to yet; still haven’t heard from Brilliant), but sources to an unsupported couple of lines that a guy said in the middle of a TED talk. And that would be okay if Shah simply said where she got her numbers. But then the Startling Statement becomes something much less startling. More like, “Six years ago Larry Brilliant said in a speech that most epidemiologists probably believe that a pandemic will likely happen some time in the next five or six decades. . . ” Not exactly the stuff that book contracts are made of.

I hope this is not the end of the story. I hope Larry Brilliant can offer some real science to back up his statement. I hope Shah is a little more careful about her citations. I hope her publisher is a little more careful about fact-checking. But most of all, I hope that readers will demand real proof when they read stories about science.

(story continues here)