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.

Leave a Reply