Bad Science and the End of the World

Stefan LankaMichael Hiltzik reported on a funny story with deadly consequences, A Vaccine Denier Bet $100,000 the Measles Virus “Doesn’t Exist.” He Lost. It’s deadly because people listen to fools like that and don’t get their kids vaccinated and people die. It’s interesting to consider things like the recent French law that allows the government to take down (without due process) websites that supposedly advocate terrorism. Many people here in the US think such laws are valid for the sake of public safety. But we would never be okay shutting down junk science sites that push vaccine and global warming denial — even though they are far more dangerous.

The particular case that Hiltzik wrote about concerns a German virologist Stefan Lanka who has “a long history of pseudoscientific outbursts.” So he offered €100,000 to “anyone who could prove that the measles virus exists.” I know, I know: you didn’t even know there was a debate about this. It sounds kind of like the claim that the sun revolves around the earth. Indeed, the existence of the measles virus is equally settled science. But there will always be cranks around. Lanka is one of them. And if there were billions of dollars at stake in pushing this idea, Lanka would be a really popular guest on Fox News!

A German doctor by the name of David Bardens decided to take the challenge. He put together a bunch of research and submitted it. Lanka, of course, said, “No! No! No!” According to him, Bardens hadn’t proven that viruses exist. Of course, Bardens couldn’t have proved that, because no amount of evidence would ever convince Lanka under normal circumstance, much less when €100,000 was riding on it. So Bardens sued Lanka, and the court found in Bardens’ favor. Needless to say, this is a fantastic outcome. I am so tired of these disingenuous publicity stunts.

Steven Novella at NeuroLogica Blog explained what’s going on in some depth, Yes, Dr Lanka, Measles is Real. It turns out that Lanka’s current position is an outgrowth of his decades long belief that HIV doesn’t exist. Because viruses are so small, scientists have to infer a great deal. You can’t see them in a normal microscope. But so much in science (And life!) is inferred. It’s curious that there are scientists who think this way. This is the same thinking of Christian Scientists who think God cures cancer (which they can’t see) but can’t cure broken bones that they can.

Over time, Lanka seems to have figured out that his reasoning about HIV applies to all viruses. Thus, his more recent crusades on Ebola and measles. In the latter case, Lanka thinks it is psychosomatic. This is ridiculous, of course. Novella exampled:

When you are dealing with something too small to see directly, or a process that is very slow or occurred in the past, we rarely have a single smoking gun that by itself establishes the reality of the phenomenon. Instead, the science is built upon a large body of evidence, direct, indirect, and inferential. In the case of measles, perhaps the ultimate test was the measles vaccine, which clearly works. If measles were a myth, then a vaccine would have been frustratingly impossible to develop.

You see, while testing the measles vaccines, they have done numerous double-blind studies where one group got a placebo. So if measles was just a psychosomatic disease, both the vaccine and the placebo would have worked as well. And they didn’t. Instead, the actual vaccine works remarkably well. But as Novella noted, Lanka is no dummy. He wrote, “Lanka is clearly, in my opinion, a crank, which is a specific flavor of pseudoscientist who makes sophisticated arguments to support a hilariously wrong conclusion.” That sounds about right. I’ve known many people like this. In fact, I may be, in a much more modest way, such a person.

But this business of making such “challenges” are really corrosive. In general the crank designs a challenge in such a way that it can never be met. And then they can go around for decades saying, “No one has ever met my challenge of proving that measles exist!” And in the US, I’m afraid this case would have gone very differently, as long as Lanka had enough money. As it is, it may still go differently, because he is appealing the decision. And as Novella wrote, “If they win the case on legal technicalities, they will generally claim they won on the merits, and will use the judgement as vindication of their pseudoscience. People who base their career on bending reality will bend reality.” We’ve seen this dynamic again and again in global warming in this country. It makes me despair.

Israel’s Labor Party Did Great in Election

Ben BirnbaumIn 2011, when then-Labor leader Ehud Barak bolted his own party, obituaries abounded for the party that had built the Israeli state and ruled it unchallenged for four decades. Since the 2000 collapse of the peace process, the party that signed the Oslo Accords had been discredited in the eyes of most Israelis. And in the elections that followed, it ceded the mantle of largest anti-right party first to Kadima and later to Yesh Atid. It contented itself with serving as a junior member of nearly every government.

Last night’s results were a disappointment when compared to the buoyant polls of a few days earlier. But compared to what was expected when Netanyahu called early elections three months ago, it was a miracle. The party’s 24 seats marked its best finish since 1999, when Barak reached the prime minister’s office with 26.

All signs point to Labor joining the opposition. The question is whether the party’s primary voters will reward Isaac Herzog or, as they have more often done, search for a new savior. There will be no shortage of candidates for the role. Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin — one of the subjects of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers — is somebody to watch.

—Ben Birnbaum
Benjamin Netanyahu Will Not Win Another Election

“Kill the Gays” Initiative Is a Good Idea

Martin LongmanToday, I learned from Martin Longman about some fun goings on in my home state of California, The Sodomite Suppression Act. It seems this lawyer in Huntington Beach, Matt McLaughlin, has filed to get an initiative on the ballot. It apparently involves “authorizes the killing of gays and lesbians by ‘bullets to the head,’ or ‘any other convenient method.'” Unfortunately — and I really mean this — it will never get on the California ballot. He needs to get well over a quarter million signatures. That seems unlikely.

The state of California is not pleased about this. It clearly isn’t a serious initiative, as McLaughlin himself must know, because such a law would be unconstitutional according to the state and the nation. And that’s a valid concern. The truth is that this guy is just wasting government resources to make some kind of a statement. And sadly, it may result in the filing fee for an initiative going up — perhaps way up — from its current cost of $200. I don’t like that idea, but it isn’t my main interest in this case.

I would be fascinated to see just how many of my fellow “liberal” Californians would vote for this “bullets to the head” law. I have no doubt that it would go down to a solid defeat. But I wonder if it might get as many as 30% of the vote. Or higher! Maybe I’m just cynical, but I’d like to know. In a lot of ways, there is too much political correctness. But when people enter that voting booth, they are all alone and they can have their bigoted say. I’d really like to know just where the rest of my state stands.

It’s possible, of course, that the proposition would go down to a stunning defeat with 5% — which could be written off to kooks and people who don’t know how to fill out a ballot. That would be truly awesome. It would make me proud to be a Californian. As it is, I don’t usually think of myself as a Californian. I think of myself as a left coaster. I’m a Bay Area boy and so I feel connected to Portland and Seattle, but not to Los Angeles. It isn’t that I don’t like southern California, but it is certainly a different culture. And it is distinctly more conservative. And let’s not even talk about the valley and the less populated parts of the state that are like something out of Deliverance (but with more money).

But if it came to a vote, I doubt it would be an occasion to feel proud. The initiative would probably end up with something like 20% of the vote. That would be lower than the level that would be horribly embarrassing, but certainly nothing to take pride in. And that would be high enough that some districts would have passed it. Regardless, I think it is good to know what people are really thinking. When it comes to LGBT rights, we are pretty much at the point where people know it isn’t cool to use certain words and talk too negatively. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a lot of fear and hatred. Now that I think about it, maybe we should put slavery for African Americans on the ballot. That might tells us something that many people want to ignore.

Bill O’Reilly and the Mythical Independent

Bill O'ReillyDigby highlighted a very interesting segment with Bernie Goldberg and Bill O’Reilly on The Factor recently. Goldberg was providing what passes for the “reasonable” Republican position that the the Democrats and Republicans are pretty much the same when it comes to media coverage, “Liberal news organizations are going to play down liberal screw-ups, but Fox News is gonna play down conservative screw-ups.” O’Reilly was having none of it. He countered that his show featured people of all political orientations. That’s a laugh, but entirely typical.

I once had a conservative on this site trolling around. He would find some liberal opinion I made and say, “Aha! Liberal bias!” I was flattered that he was mistaking me for the “mainstream media,” but it was ridiculous. One of the biggest differences between partisans on the two sides is that conservatives live is bizarro world where they are somehow the center. I’m well aware that my opinions are far to the left in the context of this country. Maybe it is because the conservative media system is so cut off that it is easier for them to only see other conservative media. Regardless, it sets up a system where extreme conservatives like Goldberg are “reasonable” just because they are vaguely aware that they are conservative.

Digby observed something that I know only too well from my own experiences:

I personally know some older white men who do not see themselves as the right wing hacks they are and insist they are “independent thinkers” who “see the world more clearly” that others. They watch O’Reilly religiously. They believe he too is somehow “independent” and doesn’t follow the party line.

Exactly! This is where we get so many “independent” voters who are actually people who consider the Republican Party too liberal. They don’t consider themselves Republicans because they are disappointed with the Republican Party — it doesn’t always do what they want. In other words, they are just spoiled brats who aren’t willing to affiliate with any party unless it is perfectly aligned with their beliefs. Yet they still reliably vote Republican, although they may occasionally vote for the Constitution Party or, very tellingly, the American Independent Party.

It’s a funny kind of conceit. But I think it is more often just pure delusion. There is a reason why conservatism is so associated with rural areas. These people don’t get out much. All they see are people like themselves. And that makes it very easy to vilify people who are not like them, and deny other people their humanity. It also allows them to live in a bubble where all the things they get from the government are earned and all the things “those people” get are just giveaways.

There is a related issue with regard to this that I read about in Michelle Alexander’s excellent book, The New Jim Crow. People in high crime areas are less vengeful than people in low crime areas. So the people least likely to suffer from crime are the ones who think that people who commit the most minor offense should be given very long sentences. This is largely how we ended up with these horrible mandatory minimum sentences — especially for drug “crimes.” But I think it is primarily about lack of empathy. And that, above all else, is what defines Bill O’Reilly and his followers.

This makes these “independent” minds the hardest to deal with. They live in a world where they are convinced that they see the world without bias. And shockingly, they view the world this way even while being more conservative than I am liberal. How does one deal with such people who think that they define the very definition of “center”? In the land of Bill O’Reilly, a liberal is someone like Juan Williams who is an old fashioned conservative. In the context of modern American politics, he is just slightly center right. But to O’Reilly, he’s a liberal. And then people who are just slightly center left, like Dana Milbank, are “far left kooks.” I think such people are hopeless. And they are the basis of one of the main political parties in the United States, even while they won’t admit it.

Morning Music: Les Sans Coulottes

Faux Realism - Les Sans CoulottesToday, I thought we might listen to what it sounds like when Americans aspire to be Serge Gainsbourg. The one word answer: adorable. Thus, I present you to you Les Sans Culottes. It is a band out of New York that has made a whole career out of pretending to be a French rock band. So all their songs are in French and they speak with outrageous French accents. I don’t know what they do when they perform in France — which they did a few years back.

It is hard not to love the band. At least to me, they are the very definition of fun. They perform upbeat, slightly sexy, music. They are playful and often irreverent. And above all, they do not take what they do seriously, even as they perform admirably. The first song of theirs I heard was the infectious Allô Allô. You should check it out; it’s really good. But I wanted to show you something more along the lines of Gainsbourg. So below is “Les Sauvages” off their third album, Faux Realism.

The band is not terribly successful in a commercial sense. They don’t generally play more a couple dozen gigs per year — almost all of them in New York. They did do a short tour of France in 2009 and a west coast tour in 2008. No doubt as a result, they have a dizzying array of band members. Part of the problem is no doubt that I’m the kind of person who likes them: someone who doesn’t much go out to concerts. But we can enjoy their records at home. Or right here:

Birthday Post: Massasoit’s Treaty

Massasoit and John Carver Peace TreatyOn this day in 1621, Plymouth Colony signed a peace treaty with Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag people. It was thanks to this tribe that the Pilgrims managed to not die their first year in the new world. And that’s according to the Pilgrims themselves. But you know the old saying, “What have you done for me lately?” Within a couple of years, tensions increased. But Massasoit maintained his alliance with the colony for the four decades that remained of his life.

Massasoit was under siege from all sides. The Mi’kmaq were encroaching on the Wampanoag’s land from the north. The Pequot were encroaching from the west. And increasingly, the colonist were coming from the east. I think that Mel Brooks had it wrong: it sucks to be king. People are horrible. Eventually, Massasoit just sold land to the colonists rather than have them take it.

This all reminds me of one of my most visited articles, Ayn Rand and Indians. It involves Rand’s authoritarian and racist comments that it was right for western settlers to take the native tribes’ land because they had no concept of property rights. I actually don’t know of any example of people who didn’t have the concept of property rights. But the experience of the Wampanoag people should be clear enough. That’s the problem with basing a philosophy on ignorance and racism.

Ultimately, Massasoit led his people admirably. Things kind of fell apart after his death, however. But it is sort of a miracle that he was able to keep it together that long. It’s hard for me to imagine any of our leaders today guiding us through such difficult times.

Happy birthday Wampanoag-Pilgrim treat signing!