Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Needle and the Damage Done

I've been reading Michael Specter's Denialism, which is about how life-saving rational science is being undermined by the forces of flaky chakra-balancers, coffee-enema enthusiasts, and other benighted snake-oilers. In his chapter on the current vogue for vaccine-denialism, he talks about the threat to so-called "herd immunity":
The term refers to the fact that if you are unvaccinated and everyone around you--the herd--is, there would be nobody who could conceivably spread the illness.
As Bill Clinton would say, it depends what the meaning of the word "is" is. In this case, by "is" Specter means "is vaccinated." But in this context it can be read differently, to mean you are unvaccinated and everyone around you is, too. To make the contrast clear, it should read: "If you are not vaccinated and everyone around you--the herd--is."

Later in the book, he takes issue with those who would rather see desperately hungry multitudes starve than have them be fed genetically-modified crops--that is, crops designed to grow in arid regions. Specter quotes at length from a press release of an opposition group, then says,
Not one fact in any of those sentences is true.
 But if they're not true, how can they be facts? Probably better to go with "not one assertion," or at least put ironic quotation marks around fact.

Anyway, Denialism is a thought-provoking read--even though it will never be read by those who most need to read it. Although I suppose that's what the author of "How to Balance Your Chakra for Fun and Profit" says about his book, too.