If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last decade-plus of blogging about medicine and alternative medicine, it’s that any time there is an outbreak or pandemic of infectious disease, there will inevitably follow major conspiracy theories about it. I saw it during the H1N1 pandemic in the 2009-2010 influenza season, the Ebola outbreak in late 2014, and the Disneyland measles outbreak last year, when cranks of many stripes claimed that either the outbreaks themselves were due to conspiracies (usually, but not limited to, conspiracies to promote the “depopulation” vaccination agenda of—who else?—Bill Gates) or that nefarious forces were seizing on the outbreak to take away our freedom. The second thing I’ve learned is that inevitably people will try to impose their ideology on to the disease and try to use outbreaks to push their own ideological agenda. Indeed, the Ebola outbreak, for example, was rapidly seized on by politicians to promote quarantines and to halt immigration from the affected countries. This year, the biggest infectious disease-related story thus far is the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil that has been linked to microcephaly and other birth defects, and it’s a case of the same stuff, different year.
The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne flavivirus related to dengue virus and transmitted primarily by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. On the surface, this virus would appear to be relatively benign, with 80% of those infected by it remaining asymptomatic, while the other 20% suffer from what is usually a self-limited, relatively mild illness characterized by fever, rash, arthralgias (joint aches), and conjunctivitis. In the grand scheme of things, after decades of being endemic in many tropical areas Zika virus infection probably didn’t seem so bad and didn’t appear to be much of a public health priority in the regions where Aedes aegypti mosquitoes live, mainly tropical regions in South and Central America, Africa, southeast Asia, and the Pacific islands. Then came the evidence that prenatal infection might cause microcephaly, and everything changed. Not surprisingly, conspiracy theories galore arose with social media speed, as did the ideologically motivated overselling of proposed solutions, such as bringing back DDT to combat the mosquito carrying the disease.
I have yet another grant deadline to deal with, this time for the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, this time around its Breast Cancer Research Program. Unfortunately, that put a high degree of time pressure on me. Fortunately, there’s still stuff in the archives of my not-so-secret other blog that I deem quite appropriate for this blog and that can be updated with minimal effort. If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I refer to my not-so-secret other blog, then it’ll definitely be new to you. If you haven’t been reading that blog for at least four and a half years, it’ll be new to you as well. And even if you have seen it before, I think it’s worth revisiting.
Why? It came up because of an encounter I had on Twitter with Jane Orient, MD, who, as you might recall, is the executive director of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). I’ve written about the AAPS before. You can get the details in the link, but if you don’t have time suffice to say that it is an entire organization of libertarian-leaning “brave maverick doctors” who think Medicare is unconstitutional, don’t believe that the government should have much, if anything, to do with regulating the practice of medicine, and reject evidence-based guidelines as an unholy affront to the independence of the physician. Along the way, the AAPS, through its journal, The Journal of American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (often abbreviated JPANDS), promoted antivaccine views, including the discredited concept that vaccines cause sudden infant death syndrome, HIV/AIDS denialism, and the scientifically unsupported idea that abortion causes breast cancer (a topic I might have to revisit, given the activity promoting it recently).
In any case, two or three weeks ago, I was having a bit of an exchange with Dr. Orient over anthropogenic global climate change (often abbreviated as AGW, for anthropogenic global warming, for short), the well-accepted science that concludes that CO2 generated by human activity is having a serious warming effect on the earth’s climate. As you might expect, she’s not big on this particular scientific consensus. I forgot about it, but then the other day saw this Tweet exchange between Dr. Orient and Ed Wiebe:
Editor’s note: This weekend was a big grant writing weekend for me. I’m resubmitting my R01, which means that between now and July 1 or so, my life is insanity, as I try to rewrite it into a form that has a fighting chance of being in the top 7%, which is about the level the NCI is funding at right now. This weekend, I buried myself in my Sanctum Sanctorum and tried like heck to try to pound the revision into a really good draft that I can distribute to my colleagues for feedback. Fortunately, I have some old posts that I can pull out, tart up (i.e., update a bit, as in correcting the parts that led me to groan as I reread them, thereby hopefully making them better). I think they’re quite good, if I do say so myself; so hopefully you will too.
There are some arguments made in blogs, articles, or books that strike me so hard that I remember them, even three and a half years later. Sometimes I even file them away for later use or response if the issue raised by them is interesting, relevant or compelling enough to me. Although this topic is a bit broader than many of the topics I write about for this blog, I think it also goes to the heart of science-based medicine and communicating scientific skepticism about medicine to the masses. A few years back, a Swedish blogger named Martin Rundkvist made a rather provocative observation about skepticism. Specifically, he argued that a “real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.” Among his reasons was this one:
Science presupposes that all participants have a skeptical frame of mind and arrive at conclusions through rational deliberation. If a large group of knowledgeable people working in this way arrive at a consensus opinion, then there is really no good reason for anybody with less knowledge of the subject to question it. Informed consensus is how scientific truth is established. It’s always provisional and open to reevaluation, but as long as there’s informed consensus, then that’s our best knowledge. Humanity’s best knowledge.
Although at the time I saw where Martin was coming from, I found this viewpoint somewhat disturbing, leading me to echo Martin’s own words in response to his own rhetorical question asking whether accepting a scientific consensus is nothing more than “kowtowing to white-coated authority”: Well, yes and no.
It seems that for every established science there is an ideological group who is motivated to deny it. Denialism is a thriving pseudoscience and affects any issue with the slightest political or social implications. Sometimes, even easily verifiable facts can be denied, as people seem willing to make up their own facts as needed.
Denialists have an easy job – to spread doubt and confusion. It is far easier to muddy the waters with subtle distortions and logical fallacies than it is to set the record straight. Even when every bit of misinformation is countered, the general public is often left with the sense that the topic is controversial or uncertain. If denial is in line with a group’s ideology, then even the suggestion of doubt may be enough to reject solid science.
We see this when it comes to the effectiveness of vaccines, the evolution of life on earth, and anthropogenic global warming. A recent Pew poll shows that the campaign of global warming denial has been fairly successful – while the science becomes more solid around the consensus that the earth is warming and humans are contributing to this, the public is becoming less convinced.