The state as entrepreneur: did Uncle Sam invent the iPhone?

December 10, 2017

Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS. Just think of all the good jobs — from manufacturing to retail — that have come from these breakthroughs. Barack Obama

 The foundational figure in the development of the iPhone wasn’t Steve Jobs. It was Uncle Sam. Every single one of these twelve key technologies was supported in significant ways by governments—often the American government. Tim Harford Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy

In my blog post last week featuring my favourite parts of the latest Tim Harford book Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy I included part of his essay on the iPhone. What was interesting about this piece was the importance of government spending on this iconic symbol of capitalism. The essay was based on the work of Mariana Mazzucato. This Italian economist, an eloquent exponent for an activist state industrial policy, believes that that the government should play a key role in directing investment. This is what is known in economics as picking winners. She states her case in a famous 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State. Along with other left-leaning economists, such as Joseph Stiglitz, Simon Wren-Lewis, and Thomas Piketty, she also served as an advisor to Jeremy Corbyn.

I think that there are a number of fallacies here. In Obama’s famous “You didn’t build that” speech he asserts that says Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. No, the military created the internet as a way of communicating in a nuclear war. It was the genius of the market system that found uses that its inventors would never have imagined. Technological progress in itself does not add new products to the shelves by itself. This is confusing technology with actually bringing a product that consumers will actually want to the market. Entrepreneurship involves much more that inventing technology. The feedback mechanism of the market is what directs investment. Ultimately, as economist Don Boudreaux has pointed out, market entrepreneurship is far scarcer than is infrastructure.

I am not blind to the role that the government can play in correcting market failures. It may well be true that the private sector will be reluctant to invest in the kind of basic research which will not produce immediate results. And I do think that big companies should pay more taxes. They should not be able to get away with the arbitrage; their tax avoidance schemes are an outrage. But beyond this I am sceptical about the further role of the government.

I can think of plenty of examples of governments picking winners. In my youth we had such things as British Leyland and Concorde. Indeed there was a threat to put Marks & Spencer into public ownership. Governments face perverse incentives. In Spain we have had a number of airports with no passengers. This is what happens when you are spending other people’s money. It’s easy to idolize government. You just need to focus on what it claims it will do, rather than what it actually does.

I am not a market fundamentalist. The government does have an important role in creating an environment where ideas can flourish. The kind of basic research I mentioned above is an example of a role a government can play. You could also give companies tax incentives to do their own fundamental research. I am, however, sceptical of the role that those such as Mazzucato want to give government. Her research has undoubtedly been influential. A headline in the Huffington Post last year proclaimed: The Real Creator of the Apple Watch Wasn’t Steve Jobs, It Was Uncle Sam. I would argue that that is fake news.

________

Here is Obama’s famous “You didn’t build that” speech:

    If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

    The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

    So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

 

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The Pizzagate scandal

November 26, 2017

 

This week’s post is about Pizzagate, one of those fake news stories that emerged in 2016 in the month leading up to the presidential election. It is one of those stories that I was vaguely aware of, but I did not know many of the facts. Luckily I heard a podcast from Reveal which looked into this bizarre conspiracy. In Pizzagate: A slice of fake news the podcaster teamed up with Rolling Stone and The Investigative Fund “to explore how fake news starts, snowballs and sometimes erupts into gunfire.” The cast of characters includes chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, the alt-right, a famous conspiracy theorist, a performance artist, Madeleine McCann and an actor/writer who decided to take the law into his own hands.

“My NYPD source said it’s much more vile and serious. We’re talking an international child enslavement and sex ring. Not even Hillary’s most ardent supporters and defenders will be able to excuse this!”

The first clue comes from this Facebook post by Carmen Katz that went up on October 29th, last year, just ten days before the election. The reporters saw that Carmen’s profile said that she lived in Joplin, Missouri. Unable to find Carmen Katz in the phone book, they found her real name Cynthia Campbell. They were eventually able to talk to her. She denied any involvement, claiming that her Facebook account had been hacked. Later though her attitude changed and she accused the journalists of the hacking and threatened to sue them.

The starting point for the conspiracy theory goes back to the thousands of hacked the Democratic Party’s emails from the man running the campaign John Podesta. In Podesta’s emails, there are a few references to pizza and a couple of references to Comet Ping Pong, an establishment whose owner Podesta knew, and where Democrats would hold fundraisers. The emails did made lots of references to pizza. Conspiracy theorists on Reddit knew that this had to be some kind of code. Of course it was – cheese pizza had to stand for child pornography.

The story slowly began to gather momentum. Carmen Katz’s original tweet appeared on the Twitter account at David Goldberg in New York. Given the name and that the photo for his avatar was of a man with a large Photoshopped nose, it seems more like an anti-Semitic meme used by White Supremacists. Be that as it may, the post was shared at least 6,000 times on Twitter and was subsequently picked up by a fake news site.YourNewsWire.com.

The story then goes international. The reporter goes off to Macedonia. There in Veles, a depressed former factory town we meet Borcha Pechev, a man who earns a bit of extra cash setting up fake news sites, for which he charges 100 Euro at a time. Veles is said to be the fake news capital of the world. They don’t actually invent fake news there; they just copy and paste it from American fake news sites. And they do not have it in for Hillary – this is strictly a business.

The story was still doing the rounds on the fringes when on November 2nd Alex Jones’s Infowars programme. I have mentioned Mr Jones in previous posts. Trump is known to be a fan. His most notorious claims are probably that 9/11 was a hoax and that nobody actually died in the Sandy Hook shooting. One guest on alleged that there was a child slave colony on Mars. Despite this, or maybe because of this, his show has excellent ratings and he gave the Pizzagate claims fresh impetus.

This particular episode featured an interview with Doug Hagmann, a private investigator from Erie, Pennsylvania. He claimed that:

All of the components are here to expose the greatest perversion, the greatest satanic, and I mean satanic, cabal of people that are associated with Hilary Clinton. And the people in the halls of our power in the United States.

It later emerges that he has no evidence to back up his claim. Jones would eventually apologise for his role in Pizzagate.

You would have thought that Trump winning the election would have seen the story die.  But that didn’t stop the spread of Pizzagate. It actually grew after the election. The story got became huge in Turkey, where it has been suggested that the Islamist conservative Justice and Development Party government wanted to distract attraction from a recent child abuse scandal and from controversial pending legislation on child marriage, which would have made a child rape no longer punishable if the perpetrator offered to marry his victim.

Jack Posobiec, a thirtysomething, an American alt-right activist, went to Comet Ping-Pong, where he used Periscope to live-stream an investigation of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. When he tried to broadcast a child’s birthday party being held in a back room of the restaurant, he was asked to leave.  A New York Times story, which restaurant owner James Alefantis hoped would help debunk the story proved counterproductive. And of course Russia was involved.

A 28-year-old actor/writer (he has a credit for a film on the IMDB) from North Carolina, Edgar Maddison Welch, had become obsessed with the paedophile cabal. It was his duty to save all those innocent kids On December 4th, 2016, armed with a handgun and a semiautomatic rifle, he decided to drive from his home state the miles to the nation’s capital. On the way, he made a suicide video: “girls, I love you all more than anything in this world.” Once he had arrived at Comet Ping Pong restaurant, he started looking for the basement. All he could find was a locked door. He shot it up only to discover, there was no basement. And there were no kids either. He then surrendered to a SWAT team,

After the incident, Michael Flynn Jr., son of Trump’s short-lived National Security Advisor, Michael T. Flynn, and also a member of Trump’s transition team, tweeted:

Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many “coincidences” tied to it. This tweet may well have been the reason why Flynn Jr. was forced out of Trump’s transition team on December 6, 2016

Welch and he was arraigned on federal charges and pled guilty. Now, his life, and his family’s life, is ruined. The restaurant owner, James Alefantis has also had his life is changed forever by this. The death threats have continued. I really don’t think this wacky conspiracy theory decided the election, but it does show a crazy idea can take on a life of its own. This is nothing new, but social media has made its impact even greater.

 

_______

 

1) And what about the performance artist I mentioned in my introduction. The artist in question is Marina Abramović. She was close to John and Tony Podesta. One of the Wikileaks emails referred to a 1996 performance piece Spirit Cooking:

Dear Tony,

I’m so looking forward to the Spirit Cooking dinner at my place. Do you think you would be able to let me know if your brother’s joining?

All my love, Marina

In the oeuvre Abramović wrote a series of absurd dark self-help mantras phrases on the walls of a gallery in pig’s blood. The phrases included:

 Fresh morning urine. Sprinkle over nightmare dreams.”

 “With a sharp knife, cut deeply into the middle finger of your left hand. Eat the pain.”

 “Mix fresh breast milk with fresh sperm milk. Drink on earthquake nights.”

 “Sitting on a copper chair. Comb your hair with a clear quartz crystal brush, until your memory is released.”

This tied in with the conspiracy theories.

2) According to Wikipedia, conspiracy theorists claimed John and Tony Podesta kidnapped Madeleine McCann. They claim that the brothers were in Portugal at the time of the kidnapping. The source was the conspiracy website Victurus Libertas, which has also argued that Queen Elizabeth II is a reptilian.


The words they are a changin’: why it’s OK to use literally to mean figuatively

November 19, 2017

We laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability; shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay. Samuel Johnson

Maybe some prefer their flowers pressed dry in books. There are those with affectionate feelings toward the inflatable doll and the corpse. Surely, though, most of us seek life. Language, too, lives. We must take a deep breath and, like the people initially so put off by Darwinism, embrace reality, this time linguistic. Among the many benefits of doing so: wonder replaces disgust, curiosity replaces condemnation, and overall, you have a lot more fun. John McWhorter from Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally).

I have recently finished reading John McWhorter’s 2016 book on how the meanings of words evolve: Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally). It is a book that looks at the way the meanings of words have changed and are changing right now. His central thesis is that we should be a lot more relaxed about what is going on. The book is full of revealing insights and you find yourself stopping every two or three pages, wowed by McWhorter’s latest gem. The linguist loves to analogise. He invokes fade-out endings in pop music, pre-ripped blue jeans, tool sheds, fads in baby names, junk DNA, living squid in the ocean vs. dead squid in a kitchen and the Victorian party game of creating a tableau vivant to get his ideas across.

The use of literally is one thing that is guaranteed to get any self-respecting pedant’s blood boiling. Thee word originally was another variation on indicating truth, more specifically exactness, as in “by the letter”. But words are not pressed flowers and it was inevitably going to morph into other meanings. As McWhorter points out, literally in its original meaning of by the letter no longer makes sense except as a metaphor. We were literally the only ones there; we were literally on the brink of a depression. There are no letters involved. Literally began to get more personal. It has become a way of venting, of attesting to the vividness of our personal sentiments when we are describing an experience we have had. I was literally dying of thirst. This is an area of language called pragmatics, the study of meaning in the interactional context, looking beyond literal meanings of words. Literally has become a discourse marker, a way to flag sincerity.

OK, so the meaning of words drift, but what irritates people is that this current use of literally is the direct opposite of what it should mean. But this is not unusual in the English language. There is an interesting category of words and phrases called contronyms, terms that, depending on context, can have opposite or contradictory meanings. Literally is one of them. The website Daily Writing Tips has an excellent list of 75 such terms. Here is a selection of other contronyms:

Apology: A statement of contrition for an action, or a defence of one

Bolt: To secure, or to flee

Bound: Heading to a destination, or restrained from movement

Buckle: To connect, or to break or collapse

Cleave: To adhere, or to separate

Custom: A common practice, or a special treatment

Dust: To add fine particles, or to remove them

Fast: Quick, or stuck or made stable

Fine: Excellent, or acceptable or good enough

First degree: Most severe in the case of a murder charge, or least severe in reference to a burn

Fix: To repair, or to castrate

Flog: To promote persistently, or to criticize or beat

Handicap: An advantage provided to ensure equality, or a disadvantage that prevents equal achievement

Hold up: To support, or to impede

Left: Remained, or departed

Mean: Average or stingy, or excellent

Off: Deactivated, or activated, as an alarm

Out: Visible, as with stars showing in the sky, or invisible, in reference to lights

Out of: Outside, or inside, as in working out of a specific office

Overlook: To supervise, or to neglect

Oversight: Monitoring, or failing to oversee

Peer: A person of the nobility, or an equal

Quantum: Significantly large, or a minuscule part

Quite: Rather (as a qualifying modifier), or completely

Rent: To purchase use of something, or to sell use

Sanction: To approve, or to boycott

Sanguine: Confidently cheerful, or bloodthirsty

Scan: To peruse, or to glance

Seed: To sow seeds, or to shed or remove them

Trip: A journey, or a stumble

Variety: A particular type, or many types

Wind up: To end, or to start up

Do such words create mass chaos? No, we are generally able to pick up the meaning from context. If you say you are bound for London, I don’t think that you are trussed up. When they say on CSI that they are going to dust for fingerprints, I don’t think Grissom is going to bring out the duster. If I read that the Bank of England is responsible for oversight of the financial system I don’t think they job is to fail to oversee the banks. Well, actually in that case…

I agree with McWhorter that is actually quite cool that a word can literally mean both itself and its opposite. This is what makes studying a language so much fun.

One part of the book that I found fascinating was when he explained the process of grammaticalization. This is a process of semantic change by which nouns and verbs which represent objects and actions become grammatical markers such as affixes, prepositions and auxiliary verbs. In the latter category he provides us with plenty of examples. The modal verb can comes from the Old English cunnan, which meant know, an etymology which is reflected in such words as canny and cunning. What’s more, the past tense of cunnan was a word pronounced “coothe,” from which the couth in uncouth comes. The uncouth person lacks know-how, that is the knowledge of how to behave in polite society. Another typical modal ought’ originally meant ‘owed’. He also looks at affixes. The suffix ‘-ly’ is a contraction of ‘like’, a word which originally meant body. In the case of a word such as slowly, the original form would have been slow-like. And the past tense ending ed, it comes from the proto-Germanic did, as in walk-did.

There is much more in this book. He defends irregardless, stating that it is human nature to try to make sure that words are strong enough to do the job required. For instance, whelm used to mean what “overwhelm” means now. He also talks about


Monopoly: a brief history and what it tells us about being human

November 12, 2017

 

The Monopoly board game, which was created in 1935, is currently produced in 47 languages and sold in 114 countries. There is a world championship, which is held every four five years. The winningest countries are the United States and Italy with two wins apiece, although the former have not won since 1974. The winner takes home $20,580 – the total amount of play money that comes in each version of the game. I am not sure if this is an apocryphal story, but according to the Chicago Tribune, Fidel Castro was not a fan and banned the game, decreeing that every set be destroyed.

The traditional story behind the creation of the Monopoly was a feelgood one. Its inventor Charles Darrow had been unemployed during the Great Depression. The year was 1933. Desperate to support his family, the unemployed salesman went down his dark, damp basement, where he would toil away until he came up with the game. He developed the game using materials from his own home. The cards were handwritten and the board was covered with a piece of oilcloth.

It is a beautiful story. However, this story is leaving an important part out. It is the role of one woman. The woman in question was Lizzie Magie, a Washington resident, who in 1903 invented the Landlord’s Game. It was ironically intended to be a teaching tool that argued against the concentration of wealth and the injustices of capitalism. It was a “practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” She was backing the theories of Henry George. This 19th century political economist and journalist saw landlords as parasites and proposed a “single tax” on them to replace all other taxes. The game was not, however, a great success. I guess this is the genius of capitalism. It took Magie’s anti-capitalist idea and turned it into billions of dollars of revenue.

There are numerous versions of monopoly. There have been more than 300 licensed versions of the Monopoly game developed themed with topics such as sports teams, pop groups and movies. There is now a fast version, wcich can be played in an hour, as opposed to the three or fours it usually takes.

The comedian Steven Wright once quipped that he thought that it was wrong that only one company made the game Monopoly. And Parker Brothers in the past, and Hasbro now have indeed aggressively defended its patents. Nevertheless, it has inspired alternative versions. One of my favourites is from Ralph Anspach a professor at San Francisco State University, who was living in Berkeley. His two young boys were playing Monopoly and Anspach didn’t like what he saw. He decided to create his own version – Anti-Monopoly. This led to a long-running legal battle with the official version. More radical was Bertell Ollman, who taught dialectical methodology and socialist theory at New York University. His game was called Class Struggle.

One of the most interesting things I learned while researching this post is a famous social science experiment carried out by social psychologist Paul Piff. He wanted to investigate how wealth changed people’s empathy towards different social classes. As part of his research, Piff ran a study using a rigged Monopoly game involving 100 pairs of strangers. The pairs played games in which the academics randomly picked one player who they would favour. The chosen player started out with more money, threw two dice instead of one, and was given twice as much cash on passing Go. Given all this help, they were bound to win. But what was interesting was how the winners reacted. They ate more of the pretzels that were on the table, became more aggressive and would openly mock their opponents. The put down their winning to their own play and the strategies they had employed. I don’t know how much these experiments shows. It does ring true, though. It speaks to our immense capacity for self-justification.

I have to confess that I’m not a big fan of Monopoly. I can’t remember the last time I played. Nevertheless, I do find the history fascinating.


My favourite authors #1: David Lodge

November 5, 2017

Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round. The British Museum Is Falling Down

_________

This is the first of an occasional series about my favourite authors. Whenever I am asked who they are, the name of David Lodge comes to mind. I have read seven of his novels, although it’s almost ten years since I read anything by him. The most recent one being Deaf Sentence, which came out in 2008. This is something I plan to remedy over the next few months

David Lodge was born in Dulwich, South London on 28 January 1935 to working-class Catholic parents. This background would inform his writing. His father William Frederick Lodge was a saxophonist and clarinettist in dance bands, while his mother, Rosalie Murphy Lodge, was a shorthand typist. He had an eventful childhood; he grew up in the days of the Blitz. Like many other children in this difficult time, he was evacuated to the countryside for the rest of the war. Once the conflict was over, the economic hardship continued with rationing lasting until July 1954. Luckily Lodge was able to benefit from the 1944 Butler Education Act. The working class boy attended St. Joseph’s Academy Catholic grammar school and in 1952 went on to read English at University College, London, which he graduated from with a Bachelor’s degree in English (with honours) in 1955. After doing his two years’ military service in the Royal Armoured Corps, he then earned a Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham, where he joined the English faculty in 1960. In this time he also married Mary Frances Jacob, with whom he had three children two sons and a daughter. One important experience was spending part of 1969 as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He carved out a successful academic career until 1987 he took early retirement in 1987 to concentrate on his writing.

As well as being a novelist, Lodge is also an author of non-fiction specialising in literary criticism and theory. But it is his literary output that I’m going to focus on. He has published 15 novels. While none of his novels are overtly autobiographical, most of them are based on his personal experience. His early novels were marked by Lodge’s suburban upbringing in the austere conditions of post-war England. Religion is also important in the oeuvre of this self-described “agnostic Catholic”.

If you have never read any of his novels, the best place to start is his trilogy Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work. Set at the fictional Rummidge University, the novels place the spotlight on the world of academia in the age of post-modernism, jet-setting superstar academics, inter-departmental rivalries and how business began entering the universities in Thatcher’s Britain, all suffused with lots of sexual escapades. One unforgettable recurring character was Morris Zapp, the flamboyant American Professor said to be based on Stanley Fish who Wikipedia describes as literary theorist, legal scholar, author and public intellectual. In Small World slow-witted translator Akira Sakazaki who is translating English novelist Ronald Frobisher into Japanese, and who keeps sending him nonsensical questions about minor points in the novel. In Small World satirises the academic conference circuit:

That’s the attraction of the conference circuit: it’s a way of converting work into play, combining professionalism with tourism, and all at someone else’s expense. Write a paper and see the world! I’m Jane Austen – fly me!

Lodge is often associated with his friend, Malcolm Bradbury, because the two Birmingham University men combined academic and literary careers, and were both prominent figures in the popularisation of the campus novel. I am a sucker for this genre. Unfortunately, I have never read Bradbury’s The History Man, although I have seen the wonderful BBC adaptation.

Other works are also worth reading. How Far Can You Go? looks at the intersecting lives a group of English Catholics from their student years at University College London in the early 1950s up to the late 1970s. They have to deal with questions about sex, marriage and contraception. This is all in the backdrop of the changes in Catholicism following the Second Vatican Council as well as Humanae vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical against contraception. On the one hand it satirises Church attitudes to sex and the avoidance of pleasure. Yet, on the other hand, losing faith can be a disorienting experience for the protagonists:

“Our friends started life with too many beliefs — the penalty of a Catholic upbringing. They were weighted down with beliefs, useless answers to non-questions. To work their way back to the fundamental ones — what can we know? Why is there anything at all? Why not nothing? What may we hope? Why are we here? What is it all about? — They had to dismantle all that apparatus of superfluous belief and discard it piece by piece. But in matters of belief…it is nice question how far you can go in this process without throwing out something vital.

Paradise News, an exploration of paradise on earth and in heaven. The central character, Bernard, a laicised Catholic priest is taking his reluctant father Jack to Hawaii visit his aunt Ursula, who is dying of cancer. The novel deals with abuses in the past and Bernard’s gradual sexual awakening. It is also a wonderful satire of the modern travel industry. Travel is the new religion. Lodge’s character Roger Sheldrake deconstructs modern tourism:

The pool, as Roger Sheldrake knows from his researches, is not really designed for `swimming. It is small, and irregularly shaped, discouraging the swimming of orderly lengths; in fact it is impossible to swim more than a few strokes without bumping into the sides of the pool or into another bather. The pool is really designed for sitting or lying round, and ordering drinks at. Since the patrons are deterred for swimming for long, they get extremely hot and thirsty, and order a lot of drinks, which come with complimentary salted nuts designed to make them even thirstier and therefore order more drinks. But the pool, however minimal, is a sine qua non, the heart of the ritual. Most of the sunbathers take at least a perfunctory dip. It is not so much swimming as immersion. A kind of baptism

Finally Thinks features cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger and novelist Helen Reed, who arrives on campus as “writer-in-residence” to teach a creative writing class. It ultimately deals with science and art and their competing claims to the truth about life.

What I plan to do now is to catch up on the books that I haven’t read yet, especially his earlier works. I may also re-read some of his later novels. To be honest I’ve almost completely forgotten them and I had to look up the plots online. Nevertheless, I can strongly recommend you try this author.


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

 ____________

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:


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.