Tuesday, October 7, 2014


I have written a few times about how much I enjoy watching CBS This Morning, with Charlie Rose, Norah O'Donnell, and Gayle King.  Compared to the other morning news shows, which universally comprise fluff of the lowest order, CBS has managed to put together a genuinely useful morning news program.

But that does not mean that they get it right all the time.  Periodically over the last few months, they've had their medical correspondent, Dr. Jonathan LaPook, on to discuss the unfolding Ebola crisis.  LaPook has been on the last few mornings in a row because of the man in Dallas who brought an Ebola infection here.  He's has been doing his best to tamp down the rhetoric on Ebola.  This morning, as well he should have, he got onto Rose for asking him to give the "worst-case scenario" about Ebola.

These are the facts:  Ebola poses zero risk to nearly every American.  In order to become infected by the Ebola virus, and thus to contract Ebola hemorrhagic fever, it is necessary to engage in the intimate exchange of bodily fluids with a person who is both infected and symptomatic.  Ebola is not spread through casual contact.  It is not spread through the air.

We know these things to be true, because we have almost 40 years of experience, almost all of it in Africa, of dealing with this virus. 

The Ebola outbreak in west Africa is a genuine crisis that has overwhelmed the third-world medical facilities available there.  This outbreak is likely to be the worst in history, for reasons that we don't fully understand, but most likely for multiple reasons that come together to produce ideal conditions for this outbreak to occur.

This is not west Africa.  I have my criticisms of the American medical establishment, but the truth is that even the most downtrodden of American hospitals is better than virtually all medical facilities in west Africa.  American hospitals may lack the latest equipment and fully trained personnel, and a (fortunately shrinking; thanks, Obama!) percentage of Americans lack health insurance and thus inexpensive access to care, but every facility in America has the ability to maintain basic hygienic conditions; if they cannot, they will be shut down by the government or inundated with a flood of lawsuits, or both.

The reason why the Ebola patient in Dallas has garnered so much attention is not because he came to the U.S. with Ebola--that's virtually impossible to stop with 100% effectiveness--but because the hospital he initially visited broke the protocols set up to identify and quickly quarantine possible Ebola victims.  That was a human error, as happens, but it is one that is likely to have minimal extended consequences beyond serving as a reminder to health care workers to follow the protocols.

We have the facilities to contain, treat, and minimize the spread of Ebola.  It is simply not the grave threat that some people are making it out to be.

That has not stopped the breathless, ignorant, and alarmist reporting among the news media and opportunistic right-wing politicians who see value in ginning up a panic right before the election.

Over the last few days, I've been considering why we are so susceptible to this.  I have come to the conclusion that the problem is attributable to two related factors.  First, there is in this country a general lack of understanding of science.  Over the last few decades, science education has lagged behind for a number of reasons, but mostly because understanding science and scientific processes requires higher-order critical thinking skills at a time when our educational focus has been measuring rote performance through testing.

The second factor is that the progress of science over the last few decades in particular has been perceived to have a liberal bias. Our understanding of biology, the origins of human life, chemistry, environmental science, the origins of the universe, and numerous other areas of scientific inquiry has grown so much during that time that the effect has not been very good for the conservative worldview.  Conservatives, particularly those who are especially religious, regard the progress of modern science with a wary eye.  The response of some conservatives has been to fabricate an alternate reality, fixed around Biblical scholarship and understanding.  That approach is logically fallacious and scientifically suspect, yet these people are utterly convinced that their approach is right and that those who oppose them--namely, everyone in the world of science--are motivated by hatred or the supernatural control of an evil being.  They appeal not to critical thinking or to evidence but to the egalitarian concept that we should give equal treatment to "both sides," no matter how ridiculous or unsupported one of the sides may be.

So, though the scientific consensus is that human activities are causing large-scale climatological change that is very likely to cause sea levels to rise and drastic changes to climate patterns, these people demand equal treatment for the idea that these things are not occurring, or that if they are, they are caused by extrinsic factors outside human control.  In reality, their position boils down to one or more of three simple facts:  They believe that the changes that science is demanding will cause some people to lose out and have to change what they do for a living, or they believe that their God would not allow the earth to be damaged by human activities (or, relatedly, they believe that the end of the world is nigh), or they believe that the people who research climate change have a political perspective that must be opposed regardless of the merits of what they are saying.

On that last point...the surest way to get a conservative to like something is to tell him that liberals hate it.

I don't have a problem with questioning the conclusions that scientists draw.  The questioning process is a part of science, and it is how we make progress--by challenging old ideas, even those that seem to have scientific merit.

But I must insist that the questioning be informed and open-minded.  As a rule, the climate-change deniers aren't interested in finding out whether human activities are at the root of climate change; they're not interested in gathering evidence and drawing conclusions from it; they are interested in undermining any evidence that contradicts their position. 

And climate change is far from the only issue where this has occurred.  Look at the vaccination rates for measles in some areas of the U.S.--rates that are below those of some third-world countries--simply because of an utterly debunked, highly irrational fear that vaccines cause certain diseases, like autism.  Look at those clamoring for public schools to teach a religion-centered version of the origin of the universe and of human life on earth--so-called "Creation Science," which is not science and has no place in a science classroom.

The result of all of this has become rather tragic.  The Centers for Disease Control, the finest biological research organization in the history of mankind, is regarded by a significant, ill-informed portion of our population as suspect, as the root of some conspiracy that is designed to endanger Americans.  That view fails even the most basic of sniff tests.  The scientists at the CDC care about one thing:  understanding the ways in which risks to human health begin and propagate so that those risks can be mitigated and eliminated.

When we allow science to be undermined by politics and religion on the basis of "equal treatment," we only hurt ourselves.  Not all ideas have equal value.  Not all positions have equal support.  When we pretend otherwise, that makes it possible for the ridiculous--like the idea that Americans, generally, are in danger from Ebola--to infect our thinking and create the kind of fears that lead to horrible, damaging decisions.

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