Monday, October 20, 2014

Ebola and Cholera and Non-Intuitive Truths

A leftie friend of mine on Facebook just asked why so many people are suspicious of science. Of course his thrust is clear. He wants to make it sound like questioning pseudo-science like the current climate change dogma — which used to be "global warming" — and theories of racial equality, etc., is somehow being "suspicious of science." Well, it isn't. It's suspicion of politicians, left-wing activists, and their academic enablers. Such enablers either intimidated into going along with whatever's trendy, or seeing a chance to win fame and money by kowtowing to the Zeitgiest. Right now such enablers are vacillating between assuring us that ebola is no big deal, nothing to worry about, and pointing out that the failure of Republicans to confirm a political hack as Surgeon General has been the cause of the great ebola catastrophe.

And for the rest of us who are tempted to follow such Judas goats, there is of course the desire to be liked and admired by the established order and the sheep that buy into it, and especially with respect what Greg Cochran terms in the quibcag "non-intuitive truths." Like, it's great fun to show your superiority to those who are a page behind you. Remember the kids in school who took great delight in telling other kids that whales aren't fish? That sort of thing. Some things that seem true aren't true, and you feel so clever when you happen to know about them. Well, that unfortunately results in a tendency to accept any trendy idea that seems non-intuitive, because it's so much fun to tell other people that they're ignorant.

And all this does relate to ebola, and to other diseases. Here's a historical perspective from Greg Cochran at:
http://westhunt.wordpress.com/

The Advent of Cholera

Most of this is stolen from William MacNeill’s Plagues and Peoples.
Cholera seems to have existed in the Ganges delta for a long time, but it only spread to the rest of the world fairly recently.  An unusually severe epidemic broke out in 1817: it spread by ship to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan between 1820 and 1822.  A British expeditionary force brought it southern Arabia in 1821, and from there is filtered down the east coast of Africa.    It moved up into the Persian Gulf, reaching Iraq and Iran, then Syria, Anatolia, and the Caspian.
In 1826 a new epidemic moved even further, spread through Europe and North America.
It had been some time since the last outbreaks of bubonic plague, and most of the techniques for limiting its spread had lapsed. Some places still remembered: Marseilles, for example, had experienced a late outbreak of plague in 1721 and annually commemorated it.
Two main factors interfered with an effective policy response to cholera (not counting ever-present human stupidity and obstinacy): bad science and 19th century liberalism.
Scientists at the time had convinced themselves that the germ theory of disease was just wrong.  Yellow fever’s decimation of the French force in Haiti made it important, and when yellow fever hit Barcelona in 1822, French scientists were all over it. They concluded that there was no possibility of contact between yellow fever victims in Barcelona, and ruled out contagion.  Mosquito transmission didn’t occur to them.
Worse yet, they generalized their error: they concluded that contagion was never the answer, and accepted miasmas as the cause, a theory which is too stupid to be interesting. Sheesh, they taught the kids in medical school that measles wasn’t catching –  while ordinary people knew perfectly well that it was. You know, esoteric, non-intuitive truths have a certain appeal – once initiated, you’re no longer one of the rubes.  Of course, the simplest and most common way of producing an esoteric truth is to just make it up.
On the other hand, 19th century liberals (somewhat like modern libertarians, but way less crazy) knew that trade and individual freedom were always good things, by definition, so they also opposed quarantines –  worse than wrong, old-fashioned ! And more common in southern, Catholic, Europe: enough said! So,  between wrong science and classical liberalism, medical reformers spent many years trying to eliminate the reactionary quarantine rules that still existed in Mediterranean ports.
The intellectual tide turned: first heros like John Snow, and Peter Panum, later titans like Pasteur and Koch. Contagionism made a comeback.  I am not an expert on that history, but I think that the classical liberals didn’t argue that it would have been better for people to die than survive due to state-imposed public-health methods.
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Quibcag: This is Marii from Joshiraku (じょしらく),. She often makes things up.

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