The Measles Outbreak and American Anti-intellectualism

Ayn Rand wrote, “You can avoid reality, but you can’t avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

As of February 20, 2015, 154 cases of measles were reported in 17 states and Washington D.C. These cases were traced to the Philippines, where measles is still endemic. This latest outbreak follows 23 outbreaks in 2014, including 383 cases mainly seen in unvaccinated Amish communities in Ohio. Because it is early in the year, epidemiologists fear that the number of cases will continue to escalate rapidly.

After the widespread use of a measles vaccine was instituted in 1978, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that only 778 cases were reported in the first 14 weeks of 1981, while 3,897 had been reported the previous year during the same period. Prior to the use of the measles vaccine, over 8,000,000 deaths due to measles were reported worldwide. After widespread vaccination was instituted, that number dropped to 800,000.

There are complex reasons why people choose not to vaccinate. Ignorance, fear, lack of education and mistrust in authority all play a role, as do the innate characteristics of human beings.

Anti-intellectualism has been part of America since its founding. In 1964, Richard Hofstadter won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, which chronicles how American society has been underpinned by anti-elitist, anti-scientific and anti-rationalism concepts. However, it has recently become evident that this anti-intellectualist trend is growing. Susan Jacoby published The Age of American Unreason in 2008, in which she traces the current rise of anti-intellectualism and examines the historical trends responsible. Ms. Jacoby cites a number of factors that contributed to the rise, including a shift from reading to the use of videos to get information, and the prevalence of the Internet.

The Internet has made information accessible to more people than ever before, but there an no filters for online information other than the judgment of the person who accesses it. Social media has made it very easy to mount organized attacks on people and unpopular ideas (I’ve no doubt that this post will evoke some vitriolic comments, which will serve to prove my point).

Hofstadter discussed at length how traditional American ideals contribute to anti-intellectualism. The concept of democracy can lead to the idea that all viewpoints are somehow equal and that it is unfair or elitist to promote one over another. There are pervasive cultural issues at the root of this problem.

There is a widespread belief in subjectivism – the philosophy that one cannot know what is true and what is not, or that truth arises from consensus rather than from evidence. Subjectivism is exemplified by the statement, “It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” Subjectivism is rooted in a desire for fairness, to give all ideas equal credence, and to avoid cultural bias. The prevalence of subjectivism makes it difficult for a scientist to claim that something is absolute, even when there is a large body of evidence to support the claim, because the public has the perception that person claiming the absolute is somehow biased or condescending. The perceived bias may be attributed to the scientist’s employer (e.g., the government, a corporation, or even a university) or to other beliefs the scientist may hold (e.g., political or religious beliefs). But the net result is that claims backed by evidence are considered equivalent to those backed by anecdotes, or that arise from “common sense” or general “knowledge”.

The concept of America is also rooted in egalitarianism, which is the belief in the equality of all men. This belief is enshrined in our founding documents – “All men are created equal.” While this is true in some respects (e.g., the equality of individual rights, or equality before the law), it is obviously untrue in others (e.g., the equality of ability, intellect or expertise). Currently it is perceived to be at least impolite and at worst arrogant to assert that one person may be better than another, and by inference, that one person’s opinion should be given more credence than another’s. This has led to the asinine situation that the pronouncements of a celebrity are given more weight than those of a scientist.

Reversing societal anti-intellectualism will be difficult and will take many years, but it must begin with education, and not necessarily science education. The root belief that must be expunged is that all ideas are equally valuable or deserve equal consideration. That is the belief that encourages public debate of issues that are not debatable in the first place. People must be convinced to accept scientific conclusions not on the basis of authority, but because of trust based on an understanding of the process that produced the conclusion – the scientific method. Scientific communicators should emphasize that reason and evidence, not faith and opinion, are the path to knowledge and encourage critical thinking, rather than expecting their assertions to be blindly accepted as fact. Care should be taken not to denigrate particular political, ideological or religious beliefs, as this only serves to alienate people rather than allowing the evidence to convince the reader of the veracity of the argument.

Having grown up in the 1960s, I can still remember the interest and enthusiasm generated by the space program and the popular excitement of seeing a human being walk on the moon. Even though some die-hard conspiracy theorists even deny that sublime accomplishment, it was science that brought humanity that victory, and most people understood that on a visceral level. It is that trust and respect that scientists must reclaim.


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Genomic surveillance elucidates Ebola virus origin and transmission during the 2014 outbreak


Another follow up to Ebola – The New Black Death on Tekrighter’s Science Blog

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Ebola

-The 2014 outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa has the world on high alert. Currently deemed an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus has racked up more than 1,060 deaths and sickened 1,975 – making it the deadliest Ebola outbreak ever.


Here’s an update to my post Ebola – The New Black Death? on Tekrighter’s Science Blog.

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Online collaboration: Scientists and the social network

Giant academic social networks have taken off to a degree that no one expected even a few years ago. A Nature survey explores why.


A great article on how social networking is enhancing research collaboration!

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Mars One medical director outlines next round of selection

In this short interview, Dr. Norbert Kraft, the medical advisor of the Mars One Project, describes the next round of selection, which will take place over the next few months. LINK: Mission to Mars…


Here’s a follow-up to my post on Mars and the Future of Humanity.

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Ebola – The New Black Death?

Ebola. For those who are familiar with it, that word strikes fear into the heart. It is the name of a tropical disease, which has been back in the news recently due to an outbreak in several West African Countries. Ebola is a disease in a class known as hemorrhagic fevers, which are endemic to Africa. It has a high mortality rate, usually killing over half of those who get it ̵ sometimes as many as 90% of patients may die. Because of its fairly rapid progression and gruesome symptoms (uncontrollable internal and external bleeding), it has become a staple for thriller writers and conspiracy theorists, many of whom imply that it could become a weapon for terrorists or the next great global pandemic.

Ebola was first identified in Zaire, in Central Africa, in 1976. While there were only a few hundred cases over the course of the epidemic, the mortality rate was horrific – 88% of those who were diagnosed with the disease died of it. It even wiped out 11 of 17 staff members at a hospital where many of the patients were treated. Thankfully, after a couple of months, the disease vanished as silently as it came. Subsequently, the disease has reoccurred periodically, always in Africa, infecting a few hundred unfortunates at most.

What is Ebola?

Ebola is caused by a virus. A virus is an infectious particle, consisting of genetic material enclosed in a protein coat, which is sometimes surrounded with a membrane. There has been an ongoing debate among scientists as to whether viruses are even alive. It is important to understand that viruses are not bacteria, which are cells. Unlike most bacteria, viruses cannot propagate on their own because they do not contain the cellular machinery necessary to replicate themselves. In order to reproduce, they must infect a host cell, where they hijack the host’s reproductive mechanisms, often killing the host cell in the process.

Ebola is an example of a zoonosis, which is a disease that is transmissible between humans and some animal species. Often, zoonotic viruses are less deadly to their animal hosts than to humans, which means that the virus can be constantly maintained in the animal population. Recurring epidemics are a characteristic of zoonotic diseases, as they are periodically transmitted from the animal host to the human population. It is often difficult to identify the natural reservoir for a zoonosis. Since we know that Ebola also occurs in anthropoid apes, it is strongly suspected that they are the reservoir for the disease.

Disease Progression

At onset, most viral diseases present similar signs and symptoms, making them difficult to diagnose until the secondary symptoms appear. Early Ebola symptoms are flu-like, including tiredness, fever and chills, a sore throat, headache, and general body aches and pains. Unlike some other viruses, an Ebola infection is usually systemic, meaning that multiple bodily systems are affected, including the respiratory system, the circulatory system and the nervous system. One of Ebola’s more frightening symptoms is internal and external hemorrhaging, which can present as black marks under the skin or bleeding from bodily orifices. However, death from Ebola is rarely due to blood loss – rather, it is caused by multiple organ failure brought on by internal clotting and disruption of the body’s fluid balance.

The incubation period for Ebola is about a week or two, meaning that the patient is infected but shows no signs or symptoms during that time. The disease typically runs its course in two to three weeks. It is largely unknown why some people survive infection, and others do not.

There is no specific treatment for Ebola disease. Since it is cause by a virus and not a bacteria, antibiotics are not effective. There has been some work with antiviral drugs, but human tests have yet to be done. Currently, treatment consists of supportive care. It is possible to develop an effective vaccine against Ebola, but such a vaccine is likely years away because of economic considerations, as well as the periodic nature of the outbreaks.

Is Ebola the Next Global Pandemic?

While Ebola is of grave concern in the regions in which it is endemic, it is not a good candidate for the next global pandemic, for several reasons.

One measure of the ease of transmission of a communicable disease is the basic reproduction rate, known as R0. R0 indicates how many secondary cases of a disease develop from each primary case. So an R0=2 means that an infected person is likely to infect two other people. For a disease to spread throughout a population, R0 must be greater than 1. For example, the R0 for measles, a highly communicable disease, is 12 -16. R0 is lower for other communicable diseases such as diphtheria and smallpox. The R0 for Ebola is estimated as 1 – 4. This value is low, likely because Ebola is principally transmitted by direct contact with the blood and body fluids from infected patients, and not by casual contact. This implies that Ebola is not transmitted during the asymptomatic incubation phase. Further evidence for the poor transmissibility is that Ebola epidemics die out rather quickly. For comparison, The Black Death (bubonic plague) in Europe lasted some seven years, from 1346 – 1353, and the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic lasted two years. The lifetime of an Ebola outbreak is usually measured in months, not years.

The devastating symptoms of active Ebola also disqualify it as a good candidate for a pandemic or a weapon. Patients are likely to be hospitalized and quarantined, not walking around among the population like a flu patient in the early stages would be. The fact that Ebola kills rather quickly also works against it becoming widespread in a population.

The persistence of Ebola in Africa is due to the fact that it is a zoonosis, with a natural reservoir in the primate population. These host animals are not found in other locations. The virus would have to mutate to become suitable for a different host in the wild in order to become established in a different area. Compare this with another zoonosis, bubonic plague. The natural reservoir for that disease was a flea that lived on a rat that was found virtually worldwide.

Finally, medical care and public health policies in other parts of the world are superior to those in the poor countries where Ebola now rages. It is likely that the disease would exhibit both lower mortality rates and transmissibility in more developed countries. It would come under control and die out sooner.

Global air travel and perfunctory inspections when crossing national borders make the possibility of a global pandemic very real, but thankfully, it does not appear that Ebola will be the disease that causes it.


Photo credit: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith – Public Health Image Library, #10816 This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #1081

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NASA: Earth escaped a near-miss solar storm in 2012

Back in 2012, the Sun erupted with a powerful solar storm that just missed the Earth but was big enough to “knock modern civilization back to the 18th century,” NASA said. The extreme space weather that tore through Earth’s orbit on July 23, 2012, was the most powerful in 150 years, according to a statement posted on the US space agency website Wednesday.

However, few Earthlings had any idea what was going on. “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire,” said Daniel Baker, professor of atmospheric and space physics at the University of Colorado. Instead the storm cloud hit the STEREO-A spacecraft, a solar observatory that is “almost ideally equipped to measure the parameters of such an event,” NASA said. Scientists have analyzed the treasure trove of data it collected and concluded that it would have been comparable to the largest known space storm in 1859, known as the Carrington event. It also would have been twice as bad as the 1989 solar storm that knocked out power across Quebec, scientists said.

“I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did,” said Baker. The National Academy of Sciences has said the economic impact of a storm like the one in 1859 could cost the modern economy more than two trillion dollars and cause damage that might take years to repair. Experts say solar storms can cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything from radio to GPS communications to water supplies — most of which rely on electric pumps.


They begin with an explosion on the Sun’s surface, known as a solar flare, sending X-rays and extreme UV radiation toward Earth at light speed. Hours later, energetic particles follow and these electrons and protons can electrify satellites and damage their electronics.

Next are the coronal mass ejections, billion-ton clouds of magnetized plasma that take a day or more to cross the Sun-Earth divide. These are often deflected by Earth’s magnetic shield, but a direct hit could be devastating.


I have touched on this topic before in my blog (Is Technology a Trap for Humanity? – Perhaps it’s time for an update.

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