Tuesday, 23 March 2021

The Logical Fallacy Behind Anti-Vaccine Claims

Historically, anti-vaxxers have presented various reasons not to be vaccinated for diseases. If we include a proto-vaccine, inoculation for smallpox, these arguments go back to the early 18th century in Europe and Colonial America. (Image: Inoculation for smallpox, 18th century)

The first was the religious argument: injecting something into the body to prevent disease interfered with Providence, with God's power to decide whether to inflict a disease or not. If God's anger brought the punishment of epidemic disease, the proper response was to placate Him with prayer, repentance, and sacrifice. What God had sent he could remove, if people showed true repentance.

The second argument was medical: inoculation/vaccination was dangerous and /or useless. It might bring serious harm or even death, and all to prevent a disease one might never get. Better to take one's chances and rely on medicine to cure or relieve the sickness if infected. 

Both arguments recur in the dialogue over disease today. The religious argument retains strength among followers of certain sects and mindsets. "God made me, and he will protect and preserve me," they will say, ad nauseum

The medical argument that vaccines are dangerous is probably more powerful today because its proclaimers include the unchurched and secularists. Today, a major part of this argument is based on anecdotal evidence, often second or third hand. 

Here is an example, a comment on my arguments in this blog for getting vaccinated for Covid-19: "I lost two uncles, twin boys aged five to the smallpox vaccine, a requirement to get coming into the US through Ellis Island. The year was 1903." 

I think we can agree that the writer was probably not around in 1903, so the story must have been handed down in the family over two or three generations. It may have become embellished in the retelling. But that is not the real problem.

Here's an anecdote of my own: My family emigrated from Scotland to the USA in 1952. I was six years old. We also had to get vaccinated for smallpox to be allowed entry. Five of us were vaccinated. None of us died, got smallpox, or any other disease or complication. 

Which of these two anecdotes is useful from an epidemiological or  public health point of view? Neither. They are merely isolated incidents, and the first may have become distorted over time. Also, we have no evidence that the smallpox vaccine was responsible for the deaths of these two unfortunate lads. Maybe the cause of death was something else entirely. 

The writer's anecdote is an example of a logical fallacy that has bedevilled vaccines from the beginning: post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, because of this). This is the mistaken notion that just because one event follows another, that the first caused the second.

This fallacious reasoning is the at the root of untold numbers of erroneous beliefs. An example is medical remedies: "I had an upset stomach. I drank a concoction of powdered dog poo and it cured me. Believe me, it works." 

If I told you that, you probably wouldn't believe me. The idea of drinking powdered dog poo is repulsive to most of us. Interestingly, anti-vaxxers have claimed that being vaccinated is like eating dog poo. 

Historically, people have eaten/drunk such things and worse to cure what ailed them, including powdered flies, spiders, frogs, animal testicles, urine, etc. Urine is still popular. Some people were taking bleach for Covid not too long ago on the advice of Dr Trump.

The problem with this kind of post hoc reasoning is that two events constantly occur in sequence with having any causal relationship between them. To demonstrate causality in this kind of case, it is necessary to carry out carefully designed and implemented double-blind experiments, involving large numbers of subjects, human or animal. The experience of your uncles or my family isn't sufficient. 

If I can just get a few thousand people to volunteer for such an experiment with dog poo, I can show that it is effective -- or not. What are my chances? 



Wednesday, 10 March 2021

The Monarchy and the Media in Historical Perspective

Stunning! Shocking! Bombshell Revelations! The Worst Royal Crisis in 85 Years! (If we ignore recent pedophile charges against Prince Andrew.)

In case you've been hiding out on Iwo Jima since 1945, the Royals are at the center of yet another media frenzy. Americans, who pride themselves on getting rid of "Tyrant" George III, apparently can't get their fill of the Wonderful Windsors. Some Americans, not all. 

Many Brits are just as fascinated. The people of Greater Cockup eagerly await the latest news about the toilet training of royal grandchildren. The tabloids -- print, TV, and digital -- are happy to gratify them. On this occasion the news is less edifying, but it attracts even more readers, viewers, and people on the make. 

The irony is that the tabloids are among those under attack, but they are also among those profiting the most from the situation. They pretend to be aghast at racism in the Royal Firm, when they themselves have enabled if not fomented racist behavior and language. 

The royals and the media exist in symbiotic relationship. The royals benefit in popular opinion from the sentimental rubbish about them the tabloids spew forth on an almost daily basis. On the down side, the media can turn rogue when it promises to boost their profit margins. For the tabloids there is no downside. Stories about the royals sell, toadying or tacky.  

The Oprah interview with Meghan and Harry and its sequels have blown almost everything else off the news cycle. Trump is gone (we hope); we were bored of Covid and Brexit; and we never did pay that much attention to the sufferings of the planet and its lesser mortals. 

As was the case 85 years ago, in 1936, the current royal brouhaha centers on an American woman, who is either evil or brutally mistreated. On that occasion, it all ended in the abdication of King Edward VIII. He and his beloved Mrs. Simpson then went off to meet and greet Herr Hitler, and live a life of luxury amidst the carnage of WWII. Tears for them are verboten, or should be. 

In this latest scenario, there is no abdicating King, no Harry IX, merely a well down-the-inheritance-list prince and his lady withdrawing from royal duties. 

Under unpleasant circumstances, to be sure. I don't have a dog in this fight. Why do I need to? Having said that, my sympathies lean more towards Meghan and Harry than anyone else, certainly not with the tabloids -- or the people who buy their rubbish. 

Tabloid customers and viewers (voyeurs?) tend to be older, more imperialistic, and let's face it, more racist than younger and often better educated people. They, the tabloids, and the royals live in a fantasy world  -- a world  where Britannia continues to rule the waves and the "lesser breeds" are happy to be under British tutelage. British, or more often nowadays, English is best, we don't care a fig for all of the rest.  

Before we get our knickers in a twist over Oprahgate, however, we should put this domestic squabble into perspective. Historically, the media has fawned upon or denounced the royals, sometimes at the same time. By historically, I mean primarily since the 18th century, when newspapers and magazines first began to emerge as significant sources of information for the general public. 

In the same historic sense, the royal family has nearly always been dysfunctional. Members of The Firm have often treated each other with disdain, or even hatred. Sometimes they killed one another. That goes back at least to the Norman and Plantagenet lines. And Henry VIII -- well, no need to detail his treatment of family. 

Let's begin with the first two Hanoverian kings, George I and II. That's when the media and the royals first developed a serious relationship. The first two Georges were unpopular in Britain, to put it mildly. For one thing, they were foreigners, always a problem in the insular kingdom. Ask the EU. (Images: George I and George II)

The press skewered them for spending too much time in Hanover, although they spent more time in England. They never went to Scotland, Wales, or Ireland. Sorry Celts. Queen Victoria was the first British monarch to spend any time in Scotland. 

Critics accused the first two Georges of not speaking English. In fact, they could speak it, but not well, and they generally communicated in German or French.

Opposition politicians, and the press they controlled or influenced, made the most of the monarchs' failings, real or perceived. Some of the criticism was true, some not. 

George I was not a nice man. He was probably responsible for the murder of his wife's Swedish lover. He was definitely responsible for imprisoning his wife for life. Possibly his worst failing was that he was dull and awkward in public. I share a birthday with him but there the resemblance ends.

The opposition media often heaped ridicule upon him. They made fun of his mistresses, real and alleged. They characterized him as a borderline political idiot, which was far from the truth. Some Tories schemed treasonously to replace him and George II with the exiled Catholic Stuart "Pretender" James "III" because they favored the Whigs in Parliament. 

George I survived a couple of attempted and botched "Jacobite"*  rebellions and handed the throne to his son, George II. Here it is important to note that father and son hated each other. That would become a royal family tradition.

George II and his eldest son, Frederick, Prince of Wales, also despised one another. They engaged in many nasty domestic battles. Frederick took revenge by supporting the political opposition to his father's ministers. 

A mock epitaph someone wrote for Prince Frederick when he died in 1751 is indicative of the public disdain for the first two Hanoverians:

"Here lies Fred, 
Who was alive and is dead.
Had it been his father,
I had much rather.
Had it been his brother,
Still better than another.
Had it been his sister,
No one would have missed her.
Had it been the whole generation,
Still better for the nation.
But since t'is only Fred,
Who was alive, and is dead,
There is no more to be said." 
Quoted in W. M. Thackeray, The Four Georges.

(Image: Frederick, Prince of Wales)

George II survived the media attacks, and the last and most serious of the Jacobite Rebellions in 1745. He died in 1760 aged 76 and handed the throne to his 23 year old grandson, son of Frederick. 

George III was born in England. He avoided Hanover, and these things immediately made him more popular than the first two Georges. His reign of 60 years, the longest ever until then, saw many ups and downs in his popularity, however. The media treated him and his family with both contempt and veneration. Here is an example of the former, in which John Bull, symbol of England, is farting at the king's portrait:

The family dysfunction continued. George III's relationship with his eldest son resembled that of his predecessors. George, Prince of Wales, like Frederick, supported the political opposition once he obtained adulthood. He tried to get his father declared mentally unfit to rule.  His critics mocked him as the Prince of Whales for his gluttony and rotundity. 

George IV had no problem with his heirs. His only child, Charlotte died in 1817, before he became king. Her death paved the way for his niece Victoria, born in 1819. 

But George's relationship with his wife Caroline became a public scandal. They had been estranged for years when he ascended the throne in 1820. 

George tried to have her excluded from the Queenship, but most of  the British public was on her side. He failed and Caroline became Queen. Only her death the following year saved George from that indignity continuing. His death brought his elderly brother to the throne, William IV. He also had no children and his reign was short. In 1837, 19 year old Victoria became Queen. She would reign until 1901 and give her name to an era.

Enough! I could go on to Queen Victoria and her mess of trouble-making children and grandchildren (including Kaiser Wilhelm) but I think I have made my points: 

1. To expect good behavior from royals is just as hopeless as to expect it from other mortals. 

2. To expect the media to forego opportunities to sell their "product" to a salivating public is a non-starter. Unless you enforce strict censorship.... 

*From the Latin for "James" (Jacobus)


Thursday, 4 March 2021

Smallpox and the First Vaccine: A Lesson for Our Covid Time

The greatest weapon human beings possess against infectious disease is vaccines. They are also one of the most cost-effective, because they prevent serious disease and therefore costly hospital and medical procedures. 

This lesson needs to be hammered home repeatedly, because humans have short memories and short attention spans. They are also prey to charlatans peddling misinformation about medical procedures. 

Vaccines have saved hundreds of millions of lives in our lifetimes alone. The new vaccines for Covid-19 are now promising to release us from our lockdowns as well. They may be the only hope beyond herd immunity, which will cost many millions of lives. 

The terms "vaccine" and "vaccination" derive from the Latin "vacca" for cow. The reason is that the first effective vaccine used pus from a mild skin disease, the so-called cowpox, to immunize people against the deadly smallpox. 

"Cowpox" was in fact horse-pox, which sometimes infected cows. Most people who got it worked with cows or horses.

The cartoon below by James Gillray, c. 1800, shows Edward Jenner, usually given credit for the procedure, vaccinating people, who are turning into cows. Although satire, the cartoon shows the fears the procedure aroused in many people. 

The use of the vaccine derived from observations that people who worked with cows and got "cowpox" never got smallpox. Jenner was not the first to use the procedure. A farmer, Benjamin Jesty, pictured below, had employed it about twenty years before.

Jenner (below) was the first to publicize it and get credit, a knighthood, and a ton of money from Parliament.

Before the use of "vaccine" an immunization using actual smallpox pus from human cases had been in use, in some places for centuries. Inoculation, or variolation, as it was called, was intended to induce a mild case of the disease and lifelong immunity. It was not always mild. It had a mortality rate of about 1% inoculated and it sometimes left ugly scars. Image below compares inoculation and vaccination effects on arms.

The natural disease, however, often killed 20% or more of the infected, which explains the attraction of inoculation, especially during epidemics. Its use had become widespread by the time Jenner popularized vaccination. 

Vaccination was much safer than inoculation, but it was soon discovered that it did not provide lifelong immunity. Once that was understood, periodic re-vaccination became standard in the later 19th century. (Image below shows people being vaccinated in the US in 1870s.)

Public resistance to vaccination remained high in many countries for a long time. But access to it was a bigger problem, often because of cost or lack of health care infrastructure. 

By 1979, a global vaccination campaign headed by WHO had eradicated smallpox, the greatest killer disease known to mankind. Its success had also led to the development of many other "vaccines." The polio vaccine has nearly eliminated that disease. Vaccines have many other diseases on the run. 

The lesson: Get your jab!