A couple tenuously-consilient items in the news in the last week kind of have me tweaked.
The first is that scientists have made relatively simple mutations in the H5N1 bird flu virus to apparently enable it to propagate through the air. My understanding is that the virus's inability to transmit this way naturally is the only firewall keeping us from an epidemic far beyond anything we've seen in modern times. I don't generally spend much time wringing my hands over these impending-medical-catastrophe things, but it seems like a fella ought to be kept awake by this one. This very extant strain of flu is especially devastating, killing somewhere near 50% of the people it infects. The article I read (different from the linked one above) cites some expert saying that we will be dealing with this flu and this type of transmission within the decade. Given that, as I understand it, we really have no medical defense against viruses, this coming plague promises to hit every one of us hard and leave a radically different world in its wake.
The second item was the hiring of a big Times Square display for New Year's Eve by an anti-vaccine group to spread their reprehensible pseudo-science alternate reality. The use of vaccines to ward off, and in some cases completely eradicate, major illnesses has been one of humankind's greatest collective achievements. And these folks are pounding away at this foundation as they run scared from a lie. It's one thing to choose to opt out for yourself, and maybe another thing to opt your children out (ugh); but it's a totally different matter entirely for your choices to place everyone else in society in peril, which is exactly what is now occurring. In an effort to flee from a completely invented and thoroughly-debunked risk--that the MMR vaccine causes autism--these people are now mounting a campaign against all vaccines, thus exposing their kids and everyone else's kids to a host of things that were heretofore under control. Catastrophic and unconscionable and apparently immune to reason. At some point this all leaves the realm of personal freedom behind and skirts instead with crime against humanity. (I can imagine a not-so-strange-as-reality sci-fi novel where society is forced to quarantine these denihilists to retain our herd immunity, only to have them lie about their convictions to avoid the rampant diseases they've released in the quarantine communities, thus making our efforts to contain their damage futile.)
My wife says, with some justification, that I am being too hard on people who are simply reacting to a devastating occurrence in their lives. But my objection is certainly not to their fear and personal anguish--of course not; I object to the strain of misinformation that preys on their vulnerable state, and to a media subculture that turns these wounded folks into passionate carriers of misinformation. And I especially object to a broader media model that covers the controversy instead of correcting the swirl of misinformation. Our current setup is creating a sect of willfully-ignorant obstructionists, people who shoot the messenger when their pet myths are faced with conflicting data, and giving them a megaphone. (A clip of a caller from an NPR Talk Of The Nation program a while back was held up as an example of cultural insanity: a doctor was a guest on the show, and to the question "What if I could show you the data to prove you're wrong?" the caller said openly that no information he or anyone else could possibly give her could make her change her mind and vaccinate her kids.)
I see the stamp of our current milieu in all this, the mark of our current media model. Rupert Murdoch has made a fortune out of putting the wacky in the spotlight and fanning the flames of white man's anger, and I know scores of people who buy unquestioningly into the results of this methodology. Part of his bag of tricks is to undermine anyone whose information runs contrary to the desired narrative, with the result that people now choose their facts. And we end up with climate and public health scientists being shouted down at public meetings while Jenny McCarthy and Rush Limbaugh are held up as qualified to expound to the masses on these subjects.
What got me thinking about all this is my current book. I'm currently reading Barbara Tuchman's account of life in the 14th Century, A Distant Mirror, and I'm up to the chapter about bubonic plague. Jesus, what an absolute horror. The disease showed up rather suddenly, and quickly overwhelmed whole towns and villages. The time between onset and death could be very short, from three days to a single day, sometimes even a few hours--a person could go to bed perfectly well and not survive until morning. There are examples of doctors showing up to treat a patient and dying from the disease before the patient herself expired. It's estimated that the plague of 1347-1350 killed off a third of the population of Europe--some 20 million people--and some places were left without a single survivor. I'm reminded of the shocking portrayal of a 19th Century England trying to deal with cholera in Steven Johnson's fascinating 2009 book The Ghost Map. There was little science at the time, no fact-based medicine, no antibiotics or any pharmaceuticals that were more than happenstances, no clue about the essence of infectious disease; and all of steeped in a really toxic mixture of total ignorance and rampant superstition mingled with a constant struggle for power and supremacy. And Tuchman's book takes us back another 500 years from that. Ugh.
And yet I daresay we were mired in the same level of ignorance and superstition in both periods. We had certainly learned things in the 500 years between the two stories, but the modern scientific method was just taking its first baby steps by the late 1800s, and so the same ignorance and superstition held sway. The big change took hold just into the early 1900s and onward, where careful observation and evidence-based research have resulted in a century of progress never before seen on this planet. We now understand plague and cholera very well, and know exactly how to treat them as well as a zillion other diseases. And we didn't get there by praying.
We may shortly be faced with an epidemic perhaps even worse than the Black Death, and I contend that science is all we have. To repudiate the science is to put us back in the comparative Dark Ages.