Ebola, Malaria, and Boner Pills

Do You Have Ebola?

Here is a simple test from Ezra Klein over at Vox, This Paragraph Perfectly Sums up America’s Overreaction to Ebola. Look, I get it: it isn’t just Americans. Humans are like this. We don’t think statistically; we are afraid of whatever is being pushed by the media. This is why people are so afraid that their children are going to be kidnapped by some stranger but not at all concerned that they are going to drive in one of their friends’ cars.

Klein pointed out one of my favorite statistics: there are 200 million cases of malaria each year. It continues to be the biggest medical problem in the world today. But what are we worried about? Ebola. And there were just 7,000 confirmed cases of Ebola in this outbreak. That’s during the worst Ebola outbreak in history. Oh! My! God! How will be ever survive?

I don’t mean for anyone to get the impression that the Ebola outbreak isn’t serious for those who are being effected by it. But it’s pretty minor in the grand scheme of things and it isn’t an issue in the United States at all. It reminds me very much of the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS. As bad a disease as ALS is, it is a minor disease. And all that “awareness” could have been focused on a disease that had a larger effect on humanity.

And this brings me back to what I always come back to: malaria. Why have we not cured it? Because it is a disease that affects mostly poor people. As a result, drug companies don’t spend their research dollars working on it. But each new year comes another drug to cure erectile dysfunction. If ever there were a reason to nationalize drug research, it would be this.

The claim that we need the “free market” in drugs and long patent protections is that drug companies wouldn’t innovate if they couldn’t sell a drug for hundreds of times what it would sell for in an actually free market. I’m not sure this logic ever flew, but it certainly isn’t the case today. I say get rid of drug patents, and use the estimated $60 billion per year that we save to have the government hire scientists to do research. As it is, that is far more than the drug companies spend on R&D.

Contrary to what conservatives claim, the free market isn’t perfect. What’s more, patents distort the free market. And finally, the way we bring new drugs to market is stupid. It is a way to bring only drugs to market that rich people want, because they can pay the exorbitant prices. Given that the public is currently freaked out about Ebola, that could actually do a bit of good. But as I’ve already pointed out, even Ebola isn’t that important a disease. And within a month or two, rich Americans will have forgotten about Ebola and so the drug companies will be back to pushing boner pills.

When Atheism Blinds Us to Nuance

Bill MaherIf you wonder why I have difficulty with the mainstream atheist movement, you need do no more than watch Friday night’s Real Time With Bill Maher. Along with Maher was Sam Harris and the two of them got into an argument with Ben Affleck about how Islam is a uniquely terrible religion. The basic logic — and sadly, this is the depth of the analysis — is that there really is something “wrong” with the religion.

My position has always been that there is nothing any more evil in the teachings of Islam than there is in Judaism or Christianity. And it always strikes me as very bigoted to focus on the wrongs of “their” religion rather than on the wrongs of “ours.” But the bigger problem with their discussion was that it came down to whether we should label a religion based upon the behavior of some or even most of its proponents.

Sam HarrisWhat was interesting was that Maher is clearly very emotional. His position is not, as he claims, based upon rational thought. He has something akin to an irrational hatred toward Muslims. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have his reasons. The problem is that racists have always had reasons for their claims. Americans have long claimed that African Americans were ignorant. Of course, the extent of their ignorance was a function of racism, not the other way around. I think much the same can be said about radicalism among Muslims: it is a function of western policies that have harmed Islamic peoples all over the world.

Harris makes the same racist argument, but with the patina of calm and intellectualism. And he repeated the argument that he and Maher were against the religion of Islam, but not the Muslim people. That’s just sad. That is pretty much exactly what Christians say about homosexuals: hate the sin, love the sinner. In this case, Harris says that he hates the religion, but he has nothing against the people who follow it. It makes no sense.

There is another problem with the argument that Maher and Harris are making. It is basically the “greatest threat” argument that conservatives so love. Whoever we are fighting is the greatest threat that we have ever faced. First it was the Soviet Union. Then we floundered around until we finally got “terrorism” — specifically Islamic terrorism.

But I can’t help going back to the IRA. Yet all the time that terrorism was being used by Catholics in Northern Ireland, no one went around making general comments about Catholics. And this is despite the fact that a lot of American Catholics were sympathetic to the Catholic minority’s struggle in that Protestant majority country. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the focus of much of the atheist community on Muslims is racist.

On the other hand, I don’t accept Ben Affleck’s claim that ISIS isn’t a Muslim religion. No one follows the Koran perfectly, just as no one follows the Bible perfectly. That’s not the way that religions work. And that is the point from my standpoint. Anyone can use any religion or religious book to justify whatever they want. In this way, both sides are trivializing what the Islamic religion is.

Although Christians like to claim that the Nazis were atheists, they were explicitly Christian. Did they act like what I think Christians should act like? No. But I think that is what Affleck was getting at when he asked Harris, “Are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam?” Harris didn’t understand what Affleck was saying, of course. Not that it’s hard: what does it even mean to say that Islam is some pox on the world. Catholicism brought us the burning alive of heretics and Francis of Assisi. One can find justifications in the Bible for torture and living a life of poverty working for the good of others. The same is true of the Koran.

As with most things political, I wonder about motivations. It just so happens that the ideas that Bill Maher and Sam Harris push are conducive to American imperialism. Given the arguments that they make aren’t especially coherent, I think they are based upon the same kind of emotionalism that is the basis of the usual thoughtless “America right or wrong” patriotism. The idea that the problems in Iraq are really based upon some secret sauce in Islam, and not economic, political, and social conditions in those countries is submental. It’s one thing coming from conservatives who make these kind of “Good vs Evil” arguments about everything. But Harris and Maher would never make this kind of argument about the situation in Ferguson. But in Iraq, they are blind to a nuanced view. And I think it is fundamentally a problem with their atheism. For those of us (atheist and non-atheist alike) who don’t have an ax to grind, there is nothing special about the dysfunction in Iraq.

Rocket Man Robert Goddard

Robert GoddardOn this day in 1882, the great scientist Robert Goddard was born. Given that yesterday we did Sputnik 1, it just makes sense to do America’s most famous “rocket man” today. It reminds me of an old cartoon where a man walks up to two men who are trying to fix a car. The man says, “May I help? I am a rocket scientist!” Well, that was Goddard. He is best known for having build the first liquid-fueled rocket. The first of these was launched in 1926.

In his lifetime, he patented 214 inventions. One, of course, was the liquid-fueled rocket. But of equal importance to the future of space flight was the multistage rocket. If you are old enough to remember the Apollo missions, you will recall the the rockets got shorter and shorter as the flight progressed. The reason for this is so that the mass of the rocket gets smaller as it runs out of fuel, and so takes less fuel to accelerate. Goddard was the first man to propose that idea.

Goddard was ahead of his time and this led to his often being mocked in the press. For example, The New York Times mocked his idea that a rocket could propel itself in the vacuum of space without having anything to push against. Of course, this was well known by Newton. It is about the most basic concept in mechanics: conservation of momentum. So Goddard was being mocked about even the most rock solid of science that he proposed. The New York Times later printed a retraction, 49 years later — long after Goddard’s death — the day after the launch of Apollo 11.

As a result of this, Goddard tended to work alone with his own technicians. This undoubtedly slowed the speed of innovation in the field. Small minds — especially those with large audiences — have a tendency to do that. In the 1920s, The New York Times had the power to slow innovation in rocket and space science. Today, Fox News and other ring wing media outlets (along with a strong assist from mainstream media outlets) have the power to stop serious public debate about the unquestioned findings of climate science. Back then, we had to fear small minds. Today we have to fear a total lack of minds.

But Goddard was a great man and if it weren’t for him, Sputnik 1 would doubtless have been delayed by years or even decades. Although the circumstances of his life and work were not optimal, Goddard shows that science and scientists will not be denied. Great minds will flourish if given the smallest opportunity. Sadly, there are many in this country who want to deprive even the smallest of opportunities.

Happy birthday Robert Goddard!