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Monday 6 June 2016

The Unbearable Shiteness of Beings

When Scientifically Illiterate Morons Attack
 Note: I'm considerably less personable to some in this than I am usually. You've been warned.

Who has been responsible for the highest number of lives saved in medical history? Sources vary a little on this question, but the name that is most widely-regarded as being at the top of the list is a vicar's son from Berkeley, Gloucestershire, named Edward Jenner. Prior to his work, smallpox was rife in Europe. Voltaire, writing about it in 1778, tells us that an estimated 60% of the population caught smallpox while, for 20% of the population, it was lethal. The common treatment for it was 'inoculation', which involved taking material from smallpox pustules and introducing them into the skin. 

It had already been noted that milkmaids seemed to be immune from smallpox, but they did contract a similar but less virulent disease, cowpox, which also manifested blisters. In 1796, Jenner postulated a link between these facts, and took some material from the blisters of a milkmaid with cowpox, injecting it into a child, James Phipps. Phipps showed fever and discomfort, but didn't exhibit full infection, was later injected with variolous material. He showed no sign of infection. This was repeated with similar results in the same child, with the same results. This experiment was conducted with more people, and Jenner published his findings.

This work, the beginnings of immunology, and the development of vaccination (after vacca, Latin for cow), laid the foundation for what eventually, in 1979, some 201 years after Voltaire's commentary, was the complete eradication of this disease.

This is among the fastest-moving areas of modern science, not least because some viruses evolve so quickly that new vaccines have to be developed at ridiculous rates. The influenza vaccine, for example, has to be redeveloped twice annually to keep up with the rate at which the virus evolves.

Of course, some humans can't actually be vaccinated for several reasons, such as being immunocompromised, which means that even the weakened version of the virus represented by the vaccine can be lethal, or other contraindications, like allergies, etc. This isn't generally a problem, as long as sufficiently high numbers of the population carry the correct antibodies, because of a phenomenon known as 'herd immunity', in which those who can't be vaccinated are protected by the immunity of the vaccinated people around them, who present a barrier to the virus finding its way to those who aren't immune.

 This brings me to the topic of this rant: Antivaxxers.

My first inkling of this particular phenomenon came in the '70s and '80s, after a prominent academic declared in '74 that the pertussis vaccine was only marginally effective and was suspected in cases of encephalitis. After this, uptake of vaccination for pertussis fell to around 10%, and resulted in an epidemic of the disease which resulted in the deaths of several children. Later studies showed initially that no such link could be found and, subsequently, that no such link existed, after which uptake increased again.

The movement continues to this day, despite the clear and unambiguous data showing that vaccines are, for the most part, entirely safe. There are anecdotal cases of children suffering problems after being vaccinated, but these anecdotes can and should be mostly dismissed as commissions of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, which I discussed in an earlier post.

Now, say hello to a remarkable young man:
Image by Vladi Krafft, used by permission

I came across a video a couple of weeks ago on Facebook entitled Vaccines DO Cause Autism (the title in the video embedded below is different,m but it's the same video). I watched with some concern, ready to go full hackenslash on the parents of the young man who posted it, one Marco Arturo. Then came the punchline, and I knew I'd been had.

I couldn't stop raving about it. Every forum I have an active membership on, Twitter, Facebook, everywhere, linking every scientist I know (and quite a few I don't).

Here's the video:

I was flabbergasted. The 'mic drop', especially, was a work of artistic genius.

I was somewhat dismayed when, later, I went back to have a look at Marco's Facebook page, to find that it had been thoroughly infected by anti-vaxer loons, having some out of the woodwork to denigrate Marco, posting disparaging and expletive-loaded comments, and telling him that he was too young to have a valid opinion. Now, those who know me well will be fully aware of what my attitude toward expletives is. Not for nothing am I known in some circles as 'the other sweary one'. However, there's a time and a place, and it's certainly not my place to subject somebody else's child to such language when I have no idea what the attitude of his parents might be to it.

Some tried that trick so beloved of creationists, namely providing links to studies without ever reading them to find out if they actually say what they need them to. A nice example was a poster named Kate Tietje, who asserted that there was 'clear evidence' that vaccines do, in fact, cause autism, and cited 12 papers purportedly supporting her position. I won't deal with them here, not least because they have been comprehensively eviscerated by experts. As Liz Ditz correctly points out in that post, Kate didn't have sufficient time in the '15 minutes or so of searching Google' to have read and absorbed the abstracts of those 12 papers, let alone done any back-checking to see if they'd been superseded or debunked by other studies. I recommend reading the linked post by Liz, as it's a work of art reminiscent of the famous Blue Flutterby.

In any event, I was incensed, and posted a bit of a rant about the glaring fallacy:
"I'm astounded at the number of commissions of the most basic of logical fallacies in this thread. That fallacy is, of course, the genetic fallacy, which is committed when an argument is dismissed or accepted purely on the basis of some characteristic, perceived or real, of the source of the argument. Anybody in this thread dismissing what Marco is saying purely because he's young is considerably less intelligent than he is.

There's a famous story about a young person, about Marco's age, whose teacher decided he wanted to take a nap during class, so he gave them a problem to solve that he thought would take them the whole lesson. Before he even got his eyes closed, the young person advised the teacher that he'd finished.

The problem was a fairly simple one, but one that the teacher thought would be time-consuming. The young person, being a genius, saw a shortcut to the solution that none of his elders were aware of. It involved adding together all the numbers from 1 to 100.

This young person went on to be one of the most famous and accomplished mathematicians of all time, and was one of the major inspirations for Einstein, among others. You can find his name all over the board when it comes to mathematics, not least in such areas as probability distributions (what we refer to as 'normal distribution' or a 'bell-curve' distribution is named after him), and those of you who remember what happened when you put a magnet next to an old-style cathode ray tube television, when all the colours bled into the corner, and the fix the engineer carried out, all bear his name.

His name, incidentally, was Carl Friedrich Gauss, and he was one of the great geniuses of the modern age.

What some are dismissing as the know-it-all attitude of an arrogant kid is anything but. What he is saying here is not only correct in every respect, including the latter schooling on herd immunity, it's highly amusing, not least because the set-up was so convincing, I was ready to spit feathers at his parents, right until the punchline was delivered.

You should be ashamed of denigrating such intelligence in one so young. This video, and indeed his responses, reveal a significant intelligence, and portends a bright future, as long as morons don't try to beat it out of him with their intellectually vapid critiques, all too common in today's society.

Marco, fabulous work. I will be mentioning your name among the many scientists I know, and I may even ask some of them to comment. You have a bright future ahead of you, so pay no attention to these dullards. Best of luck."
Incidentally, when I shared this rant among my friends, some of them were incredulous at one aspect of it, summed up by this image posted on a forum in response:

Anyhoo, I probably needn't have interjected with this rant, not least because Marco is perfectly capable of defending himself, as the following quite beautiful exchange shows nicely:

However, as I've been at pains to point out, I have a quite nasty and entirely incurable case of SIWOTI syndrome, and I make no apology for it. More importantly, I'm motivated by the one thing underpinning all my posts here and elsewhere, namely my feeling that education, and specifically scientific education and literacy, is the one thing that can actually lift us from our animal state, and that children and young people like Marco should - and this is going to cause some controversy - actually be encouraged to take an interest in their self-improvement and their understanding of how the world works. That some ignorant slack-jaws feel threatened by somebody with less years and hugely more knowledge and intelligence is no excuse for the kind of nastiness I've seen in the thousands of comments on Marco's Facebook page.

I'm happy to say that, at the time of this writing, there have been more than 7.3 million views, and a fair bit of noise around the web, including some great support from celebrities, not least Ashton Kucher, with the comment 'hopefully, this settles it' and a featured article on his Aplus, along with some lovely comments from scientists (one of my Twitter acquaintances commented 'THAT was hands down the best 2min video I've ever seen'), so Marco has certainly come out of all this the winner, but the story doesn't, I'm sorry to say, end there.

Today, I came across some news that so appalled me that I felt the need to rant again. The anti-vax twits, particularly one anencephalic ignoramus, a 'Levi Quackenboss' (possibly Robyn Ross, a known AV advocate, and with the most apt moniker 'quackenboss', as she does seem to be the leader of these quacks), not content with failing to make their case and being comprehensively smacked down by a young man clearly far more intelligent than they, have doxxed Marco and his family. For those unfamiliar with the term, doxxing is when you research a person and reveal personal information about them online. This is a truly despicable act, and is quite rightly illegal in every case but, when this is done to a minor, we should be sending out a clear message that this is not acceptable behaviour. 

It's not enough that these mouth-breathing fuckwits are endangering others with their toxic and scientifically illiterate schtick, and undermining the efforts of health professionals with their utterly nonsensical claims about vaccines causing autism sans any evidence that this is actually the case (no, your post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc, anecdotal drivel doesn't constitute evidence, you fucking morons), they also feel the need, in the current climate of internet whackos and stalkers, to reveal personal information about a child and his family, targeting their dangerous idiocy at individuals. No doubt they long to return to 1348, an age before Jenner, when treatable and preventable diseases cut swathes through the population of Europe, while the church tried to solve it by talking to the empty air.

This absolutely unconscionable behaviour should carry with it a stiff custodial sentence. The person who committed this cowardly and callous act should be left in no doubt that to endanger a child and his family in this manner will not be accepted by beings of conscience. I will be advising Marco that this activity is illegal, and that he should most definitely report it, along with all the information that's been uncovered, to make sure an unambiguous message is sent that this sort of thing will not be tolerated.

And finally, a direct message to quackenboss: Come and have a fucking go, if you think you're hard enough. I'm considerably bigger and uglier than your last target, and I won't be nearly so nice, you vile twat.

Thanks to the wonderful Karen Ernst, the frighteningly incisive Liz Ditz, Epi Ren and my old mucker Rayne for bringing this to my attention.

Edit: Meant to add this video, which deals with how we think about this stuff:

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