A new word has been added to the public’s vocabulary – the Zika virus. It seems we have one more infectious agent to worry about. Here are the facts as we currently understand them regarding the recent Zika epidemic, and also some rumors and conspiracy theories that need debunking.
The Zika virus (of the viral family Flaviviridae, an Arthropod-Borne or arbovirus) is spread through Aedes mosquito bites, the same mosquitoes that also spread dengue fever, West Nile, and yellow fever. The infections themselves are usually mild, causing fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis. Many of those infected (about 80%) may even have a subclinical infection, meaning they do not notice any symptoms.
According to the World Health Organization:
Zika virus is diagnosed through PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and virus isolation from blood samples. Diagnosis by serology can be difficult as the virus can cross-react with other flaviviruses such as dengue, West Nile and yellow fever.
Peer review, a flawed but vital part of the scientific process.
When I lecture about the need for science-based medicine (SBM), I have to pause about half-way through my list of all the things wrong with the current practice of medical science, and I balance my discussion by emphasizing what I am not saying: I am not saying that medical science is completely broken. It is just really challenging, we need to raise the threshold for what we consider reliable higher than most people think, and there are some practical fixes we can do, some of which are already in the works.
It is easy, however, to “demonize” any person, institution, or philosophy by taking all the negative aspects that are inevitably present and wrapping them up in a frightening package, perhaps throwing in some conspiracy thinking or sensational alarmism.
Take, for example, a recent article by F. William Engdahl, “Shocking Report from Medical Insiders“. The headline alone warns you that you may be in for some sensationalism.
Yesterday, I spiffed up a post that some of you might have seen, describing how a particular medical conspiracy theory has dire consequences in terms of promoting non-science-based medical policy. Specifically, I referred to how the myth that there are all sorts of “cures” for deadly and even terminal diseases that are being kept from you by an overweening fascistic FDA’s insistence on its approval process is an important driving force behind ill-advised “right to try” legislation that’s passed in four states and likely to pass in Arizona by referendum tomorrow. I’m not exaggerating, either. If you have the stomach to delve into the deeper, darker recesses of alternative medicine and conspiracy theory websites, you’ll find words far worse than that used to describe the FDA, such as this little gem from everyone’s favorite über-quack Mike Adams basically portraying the FDA as Adolf Hitler. Even more “mainstream” advocates, such as Reason.com’s Ronald Bailey and Nick Gillespie, are not above using a version of this myth stripped of the worst of its conspiracy mongering for public consumption, claiming that the FDA is killing you.
Unfortunately, this sort of medical conspiracy theory is very common. Like all conspiracy theories, medical conspiracy theories tend to involve “someone” hiding something from the public. I like to refer to this as the fallacy of “secret knowledge.” That “someone” hiding the “secret knowledge” is usually the government, big pharma, or other ill-defined nefarious forces. The “secret knowledge” being hidden comes invariably in one of two flavors. Either “they” are hiding cures for all sorts of diseases that conventional medicine can’t cure, or “they” are hiding evidence of harm due to something in medicine. Although examples of the former are common, such as the “hidden cure for cancer,” it is examples of the latter that seem to be even more common, in particular the myth that vaccines cause autism and all sorts of diseases and conditions, that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous, or that radiation from cell phones causes cancer. In these latter examples, invariably the motivation is either financial (big pharma profits), ideological (control, although descriptions of how hiding this knowledge results in control are often sketchy at best), or even some seriously out there claims, such as the sometimes invoked story about how mass vaccination programs are about “population control” or even “depopulation.” Either way, “The Truth” needs to be hidden from the population, lest they panic and revolt.
Does anyone remember the H1N1 influenza pandemic? As hard as it is to believe, that was five years ago. One thing I remember about the whole thing is just how crazy both the antivaccine movement and conspiracy theorists (but I repeat myself) went attacking reasonable public health campaigns to vaccinate people against H1N1. It was truly an eye-opener, surpassing even what I expected based on my then-five-year experience dealing with the antivaccine movement and quacks. Besides the usual antivaccine paranoia that misrepresented and demonized the vaccine as, alternately, ineffective, full of “toxins,” a mass depopulation plot, and many other equally ridiculous fever dream nonsense, there was the quackery. One I remember quite well was the one where it was claimed that baking soda would cure H1N1. Then there was one of the usual suspects, colloidal silver, being sold as a treatment for H1N1. Then who could forget the story of Desiree Jennings, the young woman who claimed to have developed dystonia from the H1N1 vaccine but was a fraud? Truly, pandemics bring out the crazy, particularly the conspiracy theories, such as the one claiming that the H1N1 pandemic was a socialist plot by President Obama to poison Wall Street executives, which was truly weapons-grade conspiracy mongering stupidity. Oh, wait. That last one was a joke. It’s so hard to tell sometimes with these things.
Yes, pandemics and epidemics do bring out the worst in people in many ways, but particularly in terms of losing critical-thinking abilities. This time around, five years later, it’s Ebola virus disease. To the average person, Ebola is way more scary than H1N1, even though H1N1, given its mode of transmission, had the potential to potentially kill far more people. Now that cases of Ebola virus disease have been reported in the US, the panic has been cranked up to 10 in certain quarters, even though the risk of an outbreak in the US comparable to what is happening in West Africa is minimal. We’ve seen quackery, too, such as homeopaths seriously claiming that they can treat it and quacks advocating high-dose vitamin C to “cure” Ebola. The über-quack Mike Adams is selling a “natural biopreparedness” kit to combat Ebola and pandemics, while the FDA is hard-pressed to track down all the quacks, such as hawkers of “essential oils,” who—of course!—also think that their wares can cure Ebola. (more…)
Anyone publicly writing about issues of science and medicine from a pro-science perspective likely gets many e-mails similar to the ones I see every week. Here’s just one recent example:
Im sorry the medical community has become decadent and lazy as most that follow your stance could care less to study the real truth. I have also seen it much more deviant as many professionals know the risks and harm vaccination cause but continue to push it through there practices because of pure greed. Many are also scared of loosing there practices for not following the corrupt industry. Im sorry but the medical industry has become drug pushing decadent slobs that only care about there bottom line.
The e-mailer clearly has a particular narrative that he is following (in addition to the amusingly common poor grammar and spelling). He even writes at one point in our exchange, “the details really don’t matter at this point what matters is what the bigger picture…” He is certain of his big picture conspiracy narrative. The details are unimportant.
A common question of skeptics and science-based thinkers is “How could anyone believe that?” People do believe some really weird things and even some obviously false things. The more basic question is how we form all our beliefs, whether false or true.
Michael Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things has become a classic. Now he has a new book out: The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths It synthesizes 30 years of research into the question of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives.
Some of the content is repetitious for those of us who have read Shermer’s previous books and heard him speak, but the value of the new book is that it incorporates new research and it puts everything together in a handy package with a new focus.
I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know. How can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science.