Sunday, October 25, 2009

Anti-Vaccination - A Real Crime with Bill Maher

You know you're in trouble when Bill Frist makes a fool out of you in an impromptu scientific debate on a nationally-televised talk show, especially if it is your own nationally-televised talk show.

Frist, if you will recall, is a heart surgeon and erstwhile Republican Senate majority leader who, in 2001, damaged his reputation as a doctor, if not a politician, by challenging the accepted diagnosis that Terri Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state based only on viewing a videotape.  This "learned" opinion was offered in support of federal legislation hastily constructed to prevent the removal of a feeding tube that was keeping that brain-dead woman alive.  His professional misbehavior in this case will serve for years as on object lesson in the improper application of medical authority.

That said, it appears Bill Frist knows his way around peer-reviewed medical journals and appreciates the significance of the results of well-run clinical trials.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Bill Maher, his opponent in their argument over the safety and effectiveness of the H1N1 (swine) flu vaccine.  It would be an understatement to say that Frist emerged as the victor in this dust-up with Maher on Real Time with Bill Maher; to use the vernacular of YouTube where this clip of their debate has been posted, Maher was thoroughly pwned.  This blog in The New York Times reaches a similar conclusion.

The combination of intellectual dishonesty and scientific ignorance exhibited by Maher in this short exchange is especially disappointing to me, since, prior to my learning about his association with the anti-vaccination movement, I had held him in high regard, both as a comic talent and as a useful instigator of public discussion on controversial issues of the day.  But, by characterizing the government as being categorically untrustworthy and by asserting that vaccinations are intrinsically ineffective, Maher demonstrated a willingness to resort both to the kind of demagoguery popular with right-wing conspiracy theorists and to the kind of misunderstanding of the theory of evolution popular with know-nothing creationists.

So why single out Bill Maher for criticism? After all, there is no shortage of anti-vaccination alarmists, stirring unfounded fears about this important public health matter, although, admittedly, few with the kind of national audience that Maher commands.  What makes Maher a conspicuous target for me is not his opposition to respectable medical research, per se, but the fact that, as a very public atheist, he ordinarily champions the cause for the skeptical examination of the very kind of irrational claims that support his anti-vaccination position.

Maher's atheism has probably best become known as a result of his 2008 movie, Religulous, an entertaining and, at times, thought-provoking road trip through the world of mainstream and fringe religious belief.  The film consists of (mostly) friendly encounters between Maher and God-fearing folk, during which the usually iconoclastic Maher (mostly) sets aside his trademark mocking tone and, instead, engages his opponents with bemused curiosity and a modicum of respect.

I imagine that the relative popular success of Religulous was one reason why Maher was chosen by the Atheist Alliance International to receive the 2009 Richard Dawkins Award at their convention this month.  Yet, given Maher's views on vaccination, how can his selection for this honor by a group that consistently identifies itself with scientific rationalism be explained?

As far as I can tell, this misstep has something to do with a shift of the focus within the atheist community, where championing of the power of reason has been displaced, to some extent, by blanket opposition to religious belief.  The resulting difference of opinion has given rise to a tension among non-believers which was featured in a recent story on NPR's Morning Edition (A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists).  This dispute - not unlike the one that raged between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks in the years prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917 * - is primarily one concerning tactics with, on one extreme, the "live-and-let-live" atheists, endorsing an ecumenical form of constructive engagement with believers and, on the other, the "take-no-prisoners" atheists, advocating relentless confrontation brimming with contempt and ridicule.

What is often lost in this internecine squabble is that the fundamental intellectual program of atheism should be based not on opposition to religion, in and of itself, but on opposition to that kind of unreason upon which religion often relies, which can be at times a touchstone for harmless personal observance and at others, the cornerstone of despicable public policy.

Sometimes the purveyors of unreason emerge from within our own ranks.  Or, as Walt Kelly observed in his most memorable Pogo quotation, "we have met the enemy and he is us."

Which brings me back to Bill Maher.

While the "zero-tolerance" atheist commanders have been directing a frontal assault on religious belief in all its forms, an agent of corrosive unreason, namely Maher, not only has been operating openly within their home territory, but, indeed, has been receiving citations for his meritorious service to their cause.  Ironically, it would be hard to identify a religious leader in this country today who represents more of a concrete threat to the health and safety of his fellow Americans than Bill Maher.  Encouraging his viewers, specifically pregnant women, not to receive the H1N1 vaccine is so reckless that it borders on the criminal.

The potential danger of such misguided advice was illustrated in an article from last week's Science Times, Flu Story - A Pregnant Woman's Ordeal, which details the story of Aubrey Opdyke, who, as a result of contracting swine flu in late June, lost her baby, was hospitalized for four months, spent five weeks in a coma, suffered six collapsed lungs and a near-fatal seizure.

Although Maher would likely dismiss Aubrey's story as an ignorable anecdote, as he did Bill Frist's report of the death of an otherwise healthy man in his thirties from an H1N1 infection, the facts of the matter are that her personal tragedy is incontrovertibly linked to H1N1 and that the threat posed by the swine flu virus to pregnant women has been established in carefully scrutinized epidemiological studies.  In all likelihood, had an H1N1 vaccine been available before Aubrey was infected and had she been vaccinated with it, she and her baby would be living happy, healthy lives today.

If the insidious recommendations of Maher and other anti-vaccination crusaders are widely adopted, many more people will become infected with H1N1, some of these will experience a fate similar to Aubrey Opdyke's, and others, ones far worse.

So, now is the time for the atheist community to step up to the plate, thank Bill Maher for his service to the cause of reason in other regards, but remind him, in no uncertain terms, that the fight for rationality is not restricted to defeating dangerous religious beliefs, and that it must also confront so-called scientific claims not grounded in the results of systematic peer-reviewed research, especially claims that jeopardize public health.

* The Mensheviks were thoroughly pwned.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Nobel Peace Oscar

There's no way I'm going to wade headlong into the contretemps over the awarding of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. It hardly makes sense to me to engage in a debate about whether Barack Obama does or doesn't deserve that honor when there appears to be no consistent basis for determining who the winner of the prize should be. Instead of arguing about the worthiness of this or that recipient we should be focusing our questions on what the Nobel Peace Prize is - or should be - about.

Take this quote from the Nobel committee chairman, Thorbjorn Jagland, for starters.
The question we have to ask is who has done the most in the previous year to enhance peace in the world.
Perhaps this is an accurate statement of some committee guideline or other - I don't know - but it strains credulity to suggest that the prize is awarded based primarily on events of the previous year, given that a cursory examination of the list of past peace prize recipients indicates everything to the contrary. Admittedly, the qualification for nomination for the prize is dictated by a submission deadline, and the prize itself is associated with the year of its award, but to confine the "eligibility" based on the calendar year is to make the Nobel Peace Prize resemble the Oscar competition. Certainly some advances in peace are of such moment that they demand almost immediate recognition, but seldom are the implications of diplomatic breakthroughs, for instance, fully realized in such a short period of time.

The comparison of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is apt in other ways. Award of the Oscars is, nominally, based only on the talent and craft of the competitors. But, of course, the politics - of both the films and the actors under consideration - influence the process and jockeying by contenders for last-minute year-end theatrical release - a brazen acknowledgement of the limited attention span of members of the Academy who vote for the awards - has become an accepted tactic. The peace prize selection seems sometimes to be subject to similar caprice, driven by perceived political opportunity and late-breaking news.

Now, of course, the work of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee is necessarily political, at times even pointedly so. The award of the prize to Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 was, in part, motivated by the immediate political interest of assuring her safety by drawing international attention to her struggle and the threat posed by the Myanmar State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC, a disaster of an acronym, if there ever was one). Using the prize for this kind of humanitarian intervention, though, stands in stark contrast to sending abstract messages of approval for the changing of administrations in the United States, for example.

The Oscars can be forgiven for their stepping outside strict guidelines - to the extent they exist - for their selection process. The Academy is, after all, a large association of member artists, and the results of their vote are little more than an collective expression of personal opinions. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee is another kind of beast entirely. It is a small, deliberative body, and we have every right to expect that their choices be based on a well-considered - and clearly stated - philosophy.

To that end, I would recommend that the committee take a careful look at their history of "successful" awards, that is those that have stood the tests of time and repeated scrutiny.

One category, which appears early on in the history of laureates, includes ambassadors and political leaders who, through their bold action and diplomatic prowess, have worked to end ongoing armed conflicts. Anwar Sadat comes to mind in this regard. Then there are the institutional winners, such organizations as the International Committee of the Red Cross or Amnesty International or Doctors without Borders, who have created and sustained non-governmental programs that labor year in and year out, over periods of decades, in the furthering of human rights and human dignity.

But, lest the Nobel Committee lose sight of their mission and hopelessly dilute the "brand" of which they are, in some sense, only temporary custodians, they must remember to turn their spotlight routinely on heroic individuals - not government officials - in the struggle for peace and justice; Martin Luther King, Jr, Albert Schweitzer, Desmond Tutu, Rigoberta Menchu, Nelson Mandela are examples. They constitute the central pillar of the peace prize. Their work - in the face of persistent personal danger and in spite of repeated personal trials and disappointments - reminds us of the fact that the struggle for peace is essentially an individual struggle, one in which we can all aspire to participate.

So, first and foremost, the Nobel Committee should see announcement of the peace prize award as an opportunity to elicit from us, not hair-splitting debate, but admiration and hope. This is, ultimately, what the Nobel Peace Prize is about. Of course, there will always be controversial choices, but people will maintain confidence in the selection process as long as it not considered arbitrary and, instead, is consistently grounded in recognizing the lesser-sung champions in the struggle for a better world.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Why We Fight - For Science

A couple of nights ago, on the edge of the meadow at Piedmont Park, over a convivial dinner that included an appropriate amount of beer and wine, the conversation turned to science - more precisely to how to promote interest in science to the public at large. What, in conventional circles, would have been an unusual dinner-time topic, was an unexceptional one with this group, since we were members of the Atlanta Science Tavern, and we are given to talk about science every chance we get.

Enamored with science. but, somewhat blinded by our adoration, we are sometimes puzzled that others don't share our enthusiasm for the object of our affection. So, when we get together, we often wonder, "how can we encourage our friends to better support and appreciate science?"

A common answer to this question begins with a recitation of the connections between important developments in the history of science and the benefits that have accrued to modern society as a result: the double helix of DNA and cancer-fighting medical diagnosis; quantum physics and high-performance computer chips; genetic engineering and increases in agricultural productivity; Maxwell's theory of electromagnetic waves and near-instantaneous global communications; Newton's orbital mechanics and hurricane tracking. The list goes on and on. It is extraordinarily convincing.

[So as not to whitewash the matter, I readily acknowledge that science has been implicated in its share of failures and catastrophes. On balance, I believe that science comes out ahead in the cost-benefit tally, but some, notably Theodore Kaczynski - better known as the Unabomber - have constructed serious arguments to the contrary. Should, for example, the most dire predictions for global warming be borne out, Ted may well be proven right for his skepticism about technology being an unequivocal force for good, although he should never be excused for the psychotic tactics he used in trying to disrupt its advance.]

Although this kind of utilitarian argument for science is persuasive, I find it, in some respects, disingenuous and, in others, incomplete. It is less than forthright in that it fosters a misconception about why people undertake scientific careers. No doubt there are those who do so motivated primarily by their interest in benefiting mankind, but, in my experience, scientists are, more often than not, driven by an unabashedly self-centered desire to better understand the world in which they live. Public service, although a welcome side effect, is not preeminent among their personal goals. In addition, although arguing for science based on its practical applications may be the strongest hand we have to play in general, the fact of the matter is that many significant fields of scientific research have no chance of bearing technological fruit.

On the morning of the day of the informal Science Tavern dinner the New York Times had published a front-page article announcing the successful reconstruction of a skeleton nicknamed Ardi, the fossil remains of 4.4 million-year-old hominid, and a member of a likely bipedal species which may turn out to be a direct ancestor of our own. To say the least, it would be quite a stretch to come up with a justification for supporting such a masterwork in paleoanthropology based on its potential contribution to our practical technological progress.

I am no stranger, personally, to the rather quixotic pursuits that are part and parcel of basic research. As a graduate student in the late 1970s I worked with a group at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) studying neutrino interactions. Neutrinos are subatomic particles notorious for having little or nothing to do with the real world. Cruising at near the speed of light, they would hardly notice planets placed in their path; the Greta Garbo of elementary particles, after all is said and done, they want to be alone. Consequently, they are seldom considered to be of much practical use, although a once-secret patent was issued for the far-fetched scheme of employing neutrinos to communicate with deep-ocean submarines. Why would anyone pay to study them?

Likewise, what is true about neutrino research in particular is true about the enterprise of elementary particle physics more generally; outside the realm of speculative science-fiction, it is hard to imagine how the knowledge revealed in the course of these investigations into the fundamental structure of matter could lead to anything of practical value. But the value, practical or not, of such basic research is a question we cannot avoid. CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a Europe-based successor to the accelerator at Fermilab, and the most ambitious instrument yet devised to advance our understanding of the submicroscopic workings of the universe, is scheduled to begin full-fledged operation within a year, at a cost of almost $6 billion. How do we begin to justify such an extravagant expense, given that there is no reasonable prospect of deriving practical benefits from the results that the experiments that will be performed there will produce?

A very similar question had been posed to post-war American researchers, during an era when that country, which had placed a high-stakes wager on the success of the Manhattan Project and had won, was eager to fund the research efforts of the generation of scientists who had participated in the development of the atomic bomb. Robert R. Wilson was not only one of the best of that wartime cohort of physicists, he was also a sculptor, an architect, and the driving force behind the development and construction of Fermilab, as well as its director for a number years, including the brief period that I worked there.

In 1969 Wilson was called before a joint congressional committee on atomic energy to give an accounting as to why the public should continue funding the building of his giant proton accelerator, which, when completed, would measure almost 4 miles in circumference and cost over $250 million, at a time, it should be recalled, when $250 million was a significant line-item in the federal budget.

It was the height of the cold war, and any relationship to military purposes could have been offered by Wilson as an explanation and would have been accepted on the spot. But Wilson, who had been deeply affected by the regret he felt for his work on the atomic bomb and had distanced himself from the defense establishment as a result, did not take this easy way out. Instead, declining to use "national security" as a justification, he said this of his Fermilab project:
It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.
Promoting public appreciation of science in this way is much more challenging than appealing to concrete interests based on the expectations of advances, for example, in nutrition or healthcare or transportation or power production or consumer electronics or, in Wilson's case, national defense. But the fact of the matter is that it is the only honest way to argue for public support for many areas of basic research, and often more accurately reflects the motives of those engaged in scientific endeavors. In addition, it serves to reframe the debate about what genuinely constitutes the public interest and expands the conventional definition beyond concrete practical concerns. Ultimately the triumph of our civilization is not only the elevation of our comfort and our security, but also of our culture.