Fantasyland in action: the rise of the Anti-Vaxxer movement

October 28, 2017

Doctors complain that quacks keep patients away from orthodox medicine. I cheer! Since all the treatments, both orthodox and alternative, for cancer, coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and arthritis, are equally unproven, why would a sane person choose treatment that can kill the patient? Dr. Robert S. Mendelsohn

The University of Google is where I got my degree from! Actress Jenny McCarthy the public face of the antivaccine movement in the 2000s on the Oprah show

When I was little, a thousand American children died from polio every year, and thousands more were permanently paralyzed. The year I turned three, a flu epidemic killed seventy thousand people in the United States, and I spent two weeks in the hospital with unstoppable diarrhoea caused by a retrovirus, and nearly died. Back then, as many as a thousand American kids died every year from diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. Several hundred Americans were dying every year from measles, and the disease rendered many hundreds more deaf or, as we said then, retarded. But during the 1950s and early ’60s, vaccines appeared that prevented all those, and every kid got them. Many thousands of unnecessary deaths and cripplings were prevented. There was no antivaccine movement. Kurt Andersen in Fantasyland

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In 1955 the world’s first safe and effective polio vaccine came out. Discovered by the American virologist Jonas Salk, the vaccine was motive for huge celebration in the USA and the rest of the world. Having successfully inoculated thousands of monkeys, Salk took the risky step of testing the vaccine on humans in 1952. He must have had faith in his discovery – as well as administering the vaccine to 161 children from the Pittsburgh area, Salk injected himself, his wife and his three sons with the vaccine in his kitchen. Salk announced the success of the initial human tests to a national radio audience on March 26, 1953. But shortly after all this moment of triumph, a bad batch of polio vaccine came out sparking a polio epidemic which left 200 children with paralysis and killed ten. Nevertheless, such was the trust in science that parents quickly went back to vaccinating their kids. This was the Golden Age of Vaccines when the public accepted the value of the scientific breakthroughs. Now Salk’s laboratory would probably have been bombed by animal rights’ activists and it would have denounced as some kind of conspiracy to brainwash society. Indeed, the golden age didn’t last. And it all began in the 1960s

Robert Mendelsohn, M.D. was born in 1926. This self-proclaimed medical maverick became politicized in the late 60s. I am sure that the grandfatherly, white coated, paediatrician was a very pleasant and kind man. And I don’t doubt that his motives were sincere. He probably did want doctors to be the best they could be. And some of his criticisms of the medical establishment were justified. But talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater! He really did come out with some nonsense. Mendelsohn believed that parents were better qualified than doctors to assess their children’s health. If you were a woman the greatest danger to your health might actually be your doctor. And germane to this week’s topic he was one of the leading opponents of vaccination, claiming that there was no convincing scientific evidence that mass vaccination could be credited with eliminating any childhood disease. This is what I was talking about last week. Countercultural ideas gradually seeped out into the rest of society. Unfortunately there are still websites praising this doctor.

A more recent anti-vaxxer star is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The son of Bobby has trashed the legacy of his uncle, who was a proponent of vaccines. Kennedy, Jr claimed that government scientists were “involved in a massive fraud.” There have even been rumours that he would chair a commission on vaccine safety to be set up by Donald Trump. All we need now is expert witnesses including Jim Carrey, Alicia Silverstone, Charlie Sheen and the University of Google’s Jenny McCarthy, all well-known anti-vaxxers. And it could be chaired by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the doctor responsible for a notorious 1998 study of EIGHT subjects which purported to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

This is where the scepticism has brought us. It is good to analyse the motivation of pharmaceutical companies, but to go from there to believing that vaccines had nothing to do with the eradication of so many diseases or that there is a connection between autism and the MMR vaccine, is highly irresponsible. There have already been really serious consequences. In December 2014 there was a serious outbreak of the measles at Disneyland, California. Over a period of just three days, some 40 people contracted the disease during their visit visiting the park. They then went on to infect over 80 more people, and there are currently said to be around 127 measles cases attributed to the Disneyland incident. The outbreak sparked a new law in California; as of June 2015, parents are longer able to opt out of inoculations due to their “personal beliefs”. Measles also swept through a Somali immigrant community in Minnesota that had been targeted by anti-vaxxer advocates, including the Organic Consumers Association and Andrew Wakefield. Consequently, during the next few years vaccination rates plummeted in the community making its members more vulnerable to measles and mumps too. There were 79 cases in the 2017 outbreak, of which 65, or 80% affected children of Somali descent. Science has become a victim of its own success. We have forgotten how terrible these diseases can be. Sadly, we may be about to become acquainted with them. Irrational thinking costs lives.

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As Ben Goldacre likes to say: the plural of anecdote is not data. Here are a couple of charts from the University of Oxford’s Vaccine Knowledge Project website:

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A couple more songs

October 28, 2017

Here are a two more songs about vaccines:


Welcome to Fantasyland

October 22, 2017

But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks. Kurt Andersen writing in The Atlantic

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Before the 2016 the British satirist John Oliver did a piece in which Trump came out with a shocking revelation before the November election. It had all been a hoax – he had just been trying to show how broken the system was. Alas, Trump’s victory is no joke. Kurt Andersen started his new book Fantasyland before Trump had even entered the presidential race. Nevertheless, it provides an indispensable historical guide to recent events.  Andersen looks at the long-running tension between Enlightenment values and magical thinking that has characterised has the former British colony in nearly 500 years of history. On leaving office in 1961, President Eisenhower warned against “the military-industrial complex”. In this book Andersen is more worried about the “fantasy-industrial complex”, the news business, religious, political, and entertainment organisations that have created this Fantasy world. What Andersen shows us is that in America there has been a strong tradition of magical thinking, anti-elitism, scepticism of authority and a desire to ignore reality. This book gives us a historical background. We are not dealing with a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is the enabling power of the internet.  I am not going to write about the whole book; rather I am going to look at a couple of the influences that Andersen mentions.

I realise that the term American exceptionalism may be a bit of a cliché, but there is something bizarre about American religion; nobody does religion quite like the Americans. Their society is a product of a country founded by the Puritans in New England who sought to create a Christian utopia, a City on the Hill. This was a theocracy as the faithful waiting for the imminent Second Coming of Christ and the end times. America is a huge, vibrant religious marketplace. Two of its more bizarre creations have been Mormonism, which Andersen describes as the “All-American Fan Fiction of Joseph Smith”, and Scientology. But it goes beyond this. It is such things as speaking in tongues, faith healing, and the prosperity gospel that give certain strands of American Protestantism its unique flavour.

A part of the book I found fascinating was his exploration of the 1960s. A profound shift in thinking emerged in the ’60s – anything and everything became believable. Many in academia turned away from enlightenment values; in particular, we saw the rise of postmodernism. Andersen is not arguing that Donald Trump read Foucault and came to the conclusion that truth was all relative. Indeed, many Conservatives have attacked relativism. Nevertheless, this fast-and-loose attitude towards the truth has been adopted by the right to promote climate-change denial, black helicopter conspiracies*, and increasingly hysteric gun-rights activism and a general anti-science bias. Andersen expresses it like this:

The term useful idiot was originally deployed to accuse liberals of serving the interests of true believers further on the left. In this instance, however, postmodern intellectuals—post-positivists, poststructuralists, social constructivists, post-empiricists, epistemic relativists, cognitive relativists, descriptive relativists—turned out to be useful idiots most consequentially for the American right.”

I found this book a stimulating read. However, the USA does not have a monopoly on magical thinking. This American idea of reinventing yourself is also what makes America great. What intrigues me is that you have the greatest scientists in the world alongside people who believe that dinosaurs shared our planet and that Noah was able to fit hall the animal species onto the Ark. bout Ben Carson embodies this duality. A candidate in the Republican presidential primaries and currently Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Trump, Carson came out with the outlandish claim that the pyramids were built to store grain. He has a science background. He was the Director of Paediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland from 1984 until his retirement in 2013. Indeed, he was a pioneer in developing a procedure for the successful separation of conjoined twins joined at the back of the head, and many other innovations. The guy is not stupid.

All this magical thinking has not prevented this country from becoming the world’s leading superpower. Conservatism is not an illogical ideology, but I have to agree with Andersen that in recent years the adoption of magical thinking has been asymmetric. It is frightening the way in which the Republican Party has taken on board this flight from reason. Just look at the recent 2017 special election to fill the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions after he was confirmed as Attorney General. Trump’s candidate was actually preferable to the eventual winner, Roy Moore. Wikipedia provides a summary of the “Ayatollah of Alabama’s” ideas:

  • Moore has stated that the September 11 attacks were a divine punishment for Americans’ declining religiosity and the Sandy Hook shooting was “because we’ve forgotten the law of God.”
  • He has been prominent in the anti-Obama birther movement, which claims that Obama is not a U.S. citizen. He has also argued that the previous president is secretly a Muslim.
  • He believes that homosexuality is inherently evil should be outlawed. It is an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it. Moreover, the legitimization of “sodomy” will cause suffering in the United States.
  • He opposes the theory of evolution, arguing “There is no such thing as evolution. That we came from a snake? No, I don’t believe that

This is the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. To be frank now I’m feeling nostalgic for George W. How did we come to this? Just imagine if Trump were impeached. I can’t say that the thought of President Pence makes me feel any calmer.

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*Wikipedia defines it thus: Black helicopters is a term which became popular in the United States militia movement and associated political groups in the 1990s as a symbol and warning sign of an alleged conspiratorial military takeover of the United States, though it has also been associated with men in black and similar conspiracies.[citation needed] Rumours circulated that, for instance, the United Nations patrolled the US with unmarked black helicopters, or that federal agents used black helicopters to enforce wildlife laws.

 

 


A couple of videos

October 22, 2017

Here are a couple of videos in which Andersen talks about the ideas in the book:

 


Text neck and other new words

October 15, 2017

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:

beach-spreading

Taking up more than one’s fair share of space on a crowded beach.

entropy tourism

Travel that features places of decay, neglect, or abandonment.

fatberg

A massive, hardened agglomeration of fatty substances, particularly one found in a sewer and caused by homeowners and businesses pouring fats down drains.

fearonomics

The negative impact of fear and anxiety on economic activity; the use of fear to sell products and services.

gloatrage

Triumphant satisfaction that a person’s behaviour is as bad as expected, combined with outrage at that behaviour

granny nanny

A grandmother who cares for her grandchildren while their parents are working.

neighbor spoofing

Using a false caller ID to make a scam phone call appear to originate in the callee’s local area.

racecation

A trip that combines participating in a race, such as a marathon or triathlon, and a vacation.

situationship

A relationship between two people that is more than a friendship, but less than a romance.

text neck

Neck and upper back pain caused by an excessive and prolonged forward head tilt, such as when texting or performing other mobile device tasks.

wokeness

The state of being aware of and sensitive to social justice issues.


No, Franco is not alive today

October 8, 2017

Even in the worst Franco years I don’t remember violence as bad as that meted out by the police on Sunday. If your government annuls your basic democratic rights and cuts off your freedom of expression, if it distracts and confuses public opinion with incendiary messages, what can you do but confront it? That’s why for me the time is up for Catalonia belonging to Spain. We must insist on a binding referendum to decide our future. Jordi Borrell Celades, head of sales at a chemical company based in Barcelona writing I the Guardian

In Catalonia we have seen how the EU does ‘democracy’. Why can’t Remainers see it too? Nigel Farage

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Spain is facing its greatest crisis since the Tejero’s attempted coup in 1981. The images of civil guard hitting pensioners who were trying to vote have gone round the world. I have been following the UK media and I can see that Spain has been getting an awful press. Nicola Sturgeon, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage have all condemned the actions of Spain. Personally I think it was a massive mistsake to send the Civil Guard in. We live in era of soft power and social media in which images and videos can be transmitted in seconds. It is true as Peter Preston argued in today’s Observer that in an age of fake news we need to look into the reliability of the statistics. Apparently one of the pictures that went viral was actually from miners’ strike five years ago. Preston continues:

That woman who had all her fingers broken. She hadn’t. That six-year-old boy, paralysed by police brutality? It didn’t happen. Serious injuries on the day: just two.

Be that as it may it has to be said that the Catalonian government has understood the importance of soft power and getting your message across. But today I want to look at the bigger picture

What has made me increasingly angry over the last few days is the outrageous comparisons with the Spain of Franco.  Mr Borrell’s comment that even in the worst Franco years he could not remember violence as bad as that meted out by the police on last Sunday seems to reflect the tone of much of the coverage I have seen. Spain is democracy, an imperfect one. To give just one example Spain introduced gay marriage before the UK, the USA and Germany. The Spanish Civil War is often brought up, but people forget that Madrid and Catalonia were on the same side in this conflict. Franco bombed Madrid! It’s true that more of its politicians should be in prison. But that would also apply to Catalonian politicians who are no slouches when it comes to kickbacks.

What is happening in Catalonia is related to the global financial crisis and the subsequent rise of populist movement. This has seen the rise of the rise of radical parties both on the right and left. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Curiously, as happened in the USA, Russia has been trying to destabilise the situation. Obviously, if there was no sense of dissatisfaction, such attempts would not be successful. It is curious to read articles in the Daily Mail where Brexit supporters attack the EU for not intervening in a sovereign state. Isn’t that what they what they are against?

España nos roba – Spain is robbing us is what you hear in Catalonia. Financial arrangements can always be negotiated. But when I hear that Catalonia pays more than it gets back, I shake my head. But this is perfectly normal it is the third richest region of Spain behind Madrid and the Basque Country. To complain about this is like France complaining about paying more into the European Union than it gets out.  In this sense there are parallels with the Lega Nord in Italy, who resent paying for the lazy southerners.

When I hear the term self-determination, I do get a bit nervous. It sounds like a wonderful idea. Woodrow Wilson wanted loads of it in the Treaties of Paris after WWI It didn’t turn out so well did it? Country borders are complex. Whenever you create a new state, within those states there are minorities. Territorial integrity is not something that should be thrown aside lightly; I admit I prefer stability. The fact that it is not easy to create a new state is a good thing. I had hoped in the 1990s that with the EU this kind of nationalism was waning.  How wrong I was! The backlash of the last few years has been sobering.

I also wanted to look at how most Spanish people have such a negative perception of last Sunday’s vote, many even compare it to a coup d’état. In the UK there is no written constitution, which allows a more flexible approach. Under the Spanish Constitution sovereignty rests with the whole of the Spanish people. You may criticise this but it is not undemocratic and this constitution was voted for in 1978 with a massive majority including in Catalonia itself. There are rules to be followed and the Govern has ridden roughshod over them. And I would like to know if the constitution of a newly independent Catalonia will include the right for self-determination within its borders

If Catalonia were to become independent, they would be out of the European Union. Even if Spain didn’t veto their membership, I think that other European countries, with their own potentially rebellious regions, would view an independent Catalonia with any relish whatsoever. It will certainly be an adventure. Robert Hardman, writing in the Daily Mail tried to play down the dangers:

Meanwhile, Catalonia is now being warned of the usual plagues straight out of the Remain camp’s Project Fear handbook.

Alas, I fear that the outlook for the Catalonian economy in the short and medium term at least is not great.  A number of banks and other companies have already decided to move their headquarters to other Spanish cities. If independence came, it could become would the last company to leave Catalonia, please turn out the lights? Reality is not optional. Of course we have seen how emotions can make people vote against their interests.

We are living in interesting times. I have to admit that I’m rather worried. This has been a massive political failure. The Spanish government has a delicate tightrope to walk. On the one hand they do not want to see constitutional order undermined, but if they are too heavy-handed there will be a powerful backlash in Catalonia. There will have to be some kind of negotiation. Maybe the constitution will have to be revisited But I don’t see the consensus for it. I’m a bit pessimistic. Many of the people in Catalonia who favour remaining in Spain, the majority still in recent polls, are the older generation. They will die off. The younger generation brought up (indoctrinated?) in a pro independence climate are going to be the majority. Will they be satisfied with greater autonomy?