Wednesday, February 4, 2015

IdiotsRUs: How personal beliefs create epidemics

Republican (and likely 2016 candidate for President) Chris Christie has two minds (loosely speaking) about vaccination in the face of the measles outbreak (reported by DailyKos in its Feb 23 email). Quoting from a Washington Post blog:

"I understand that there are families that, in some cases, are concerned about the effect of vaccinations," Obama said. "The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not."

Christie, however, said "there has to be a balance and it depends on what the vaccine is, what the disease type is, and all the rest." He added, "Not every vaccine is created equal and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others."

But then Christie backtracked.

A spokesman for Chris Christie clarified the governor’s comments on vaccines. "To be clear: The Governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated. At the same time different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate," he said.

What the hell does all that mean? So different states can decide how bad measles is? Polio? Whooping cough? "kids should be vaccinated"? What does "should be" mean? Who decides?

It does get worse. Here is a link to a NY Times video really worth watching. In 10 minutes you learn how the media is complicit with anti-vaccination types in perpetuating false balance pitting scientific consensus against idiosyncratic anecdotes. As the video shows, this anti-science does not stop at the level of states - it extends to individual parents. For instance, here in crAZy we have statues on the books allowing parents to withhold vaccinations of their children depending on their personal beliefs. (Really. Never mind the science. My kid's not getting poked.) Check that video. There is an actress Jennie McCarthy claiming that her "science" is her child. And some of that comes from a thoroughly debunked report in the UK about the relation between vaccinations and autism. The report was retracted and the author lost his medical license. But that does not stop the anti-vaccination bunch.

There is a deeper and more alarming angle to all this. The anti-science rampant now in the US was exposed 10 years ago by Charles Pierce. He wrote a longish essay for Esquire magazine "GREETINGS FROM IDIOT AMERICA". What he had to say then is true today

...It is a long way from Jefferson's observatory and Franklin's kite to George W. Bush, in an interview in 2005, suggesting that intelligent design be taught alongside the theory of evolution in the nation's science classes. "Both sides ought to be properly taught," said the president, "so people can understand what the debate is about."

If we have abdicated our birthright to scientific progress, we have done so by moving the debate into the realm of political and cultural argument, where we all feel more confident, because it is there that the Gut rules. Held to this standard, any scientific theory is rendered mere opinion. Scientific fact is no more immutable than a polling sample. This is how there's a "debate" over the very existence of global warming, even though the preponderance of fact among those who actually have studied the phenomenon renders the "debate" quite silly. The debate is about making people feel better about driving SUVs. The debate is less about climatology than it is about guiltlessly topping off your tank and voting in tax incentives for oil companies.

The "debate," of course, is nothing of the sort, because two sides are required for a debate. Nevertheless, the very notion of it is a measure of how scientific discourse, and the way the country educates itself, has slipped through lassitude and inattention across the border into Idiot America -- where fact is merely that which enough people believe, and truth is measured only by how fervently they believe it.

The rest of the world looks on in cockeyed wonder. The America of Franklin and Edison, of Fulton and Ford, of the Manhattan project and the Apollo program, the America of which Einstein wanted to be a part, seems to be enveloping itself in a curious fog behind which it's tying itself in knots over evolution, for pity's sake, and over the relative humanity of blastocysts versus the victims of Parkinson's disease.

Stephen Colbert called it "truthiness". Pierce calls it "the Gut."

In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it "common sense." The president's former advisor on medical ethics regularly refers to the "yuck factor." The Gut is common. It is democratic. It is the roiling repository of dark and ancient fears. Worst of all, the Gut is faith-based.

The Gut is the basis for the Great Premises of Idiot America. We hold these truths to be self-evident:

1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.

2) Anything can be true if somebody says it on television.

3) Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

The intellectual rot goes beyond vaccinations. It runs through discourse about almost all public policies - climate change, for example. It has infected our political leaders and reduced our news outlets' reporting to a level on par with reporting a domestic, he-said-she-said, argument.

Idiot America was in its infancy when Pierce first wrote about it. It is rapidly maturing. That should scare the bejeezus out of every thinking citizen.







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