White Coat Underground

A crank is a crank

I’m told that mathematicians and physicists get a lot of mail from folks with “big discoveries”. These discoveries are often of the “Einstein was wrong and I figured out the Theory of Everything” variety. Many of us refer to these folks as “cranks”, a catch-all, derogatory term for people who, through their own arrogance and ignorance, think they have, despite little education or work, disproved ideas that have taken lifetimes to assemble.

Enter the anti-vaccination cranks. Immunoprophylaxis—the manipulation of the immune system to prevent disease—is centuries old, and over those centuries has become more refined and sophisticated. We have moved from inoculating people with smallpox pus to using recombinant DNA to create safer vaccines. We have moved from the Royal Experiment, in which a few prisoners were inoculated and counted, to sophisticated epidemiologic methods of evaluating the burden of disease and the efficacy of vaccination. We have eradicated some diseases, and could, with adequate commitment, eliminate more though mass vaccination programs. In the two centuries since smallpox vaccination became an accepted technique, biology, medicine, and epidemiology have become modern, science-based fields that allow for creation of methods and materials to prevent disease, and the means to evaluate their efficacy.

But human beings are superstitious animals. Like the ancients, we use our personal experiences to create generalizations about how the world works, generalizations that often fail when examined in a more rigorous manner. If we get a flu shot, and then get sick, we blame the flu shot, despite the flu shot’s inability to cause a rhinovirus infection.

Individuals can hardly be blamed for making intelligent guesses about their environment. But in order to have a functioning, modern society, we need experts. I can’t design and build a bridge, so I rely on engineers to do it. To let “just some guy” do it would be foolish. If someone says that they have a “big discovery” about bridges, most of us would laugh it off. But what if they managed to convince lots of others that modern bridges designed by fancy engineers with fancy degrees were unsafe, that “just some guy” had found a new way to build safer, better bridges, bridge free from the nefarious influences of no-bid contracts and government corruption.  He enlists famous people to help sell his idea, to convince people to avoid “dangerous modern bridges” and to use “safer bridges, bridges that take into account individual differences, bridges that you, as a parent, can feel good about.” If he convinces one or two people to do this, we write them off as fools. If he convinces hundreds or thousands, we call it a cult and get worried. If he convinces politicians and other people with influence to support his idea, we call it a public health menace.

There is no difference between alternative bridge builders and anti-vaccination activists.  They are a cult driven by delusional ideology.  When the bulk of the evidence fails them, they claim that “the fix is in”, that a conspiracy has created the data with which they disagree.  But science is more brutal than they realize.  Science has only a fleeting tolerance for fads and for corruption.  Scientists as human beings are corruptible.  The methods they practice are as well, but for long.  This is because science is not a set of beliefs about reality as much as it is a set of methods for discovering reality.  We can corrupt the answers some of the time, but not all of the time.  No conspiracy is vast enough to create widespread and enduring scientific lies because somewhere, competing scientists want to show everyone how wrong you are. 

Anti-vaccinationists are nihilists with little understanding of science or scientists.  What they do understand, and practice exquisitely well, is how to manipulate fear and ignorance in the furtherance of their belief system.  This makes them not only ignorant but immoral.  

Comments

  1. #1 daijiyobu
    November 8, 2009

    Per:

    “what they do understand, and practice exquisitely well, is how to manipulate fear and ignorance in the furtherance of their belief system.”

    I’ve been watching the naturopaths furthering their agenda by playing on such, http://www.oand.org/index.php?page=h1n1-flu-virus :

    “a Naturopathic Doctor can provide you with expert advice on what works […] it is particularly important to avoid processed or sugary foods.”

    Oh, and guilt.

    They are really good at preying on the guilty-ridden as well.

    -r.c.

  2. #2 Mike Olson
    November 8, 2009

    I really liked this entry. This is a great analysis and very well stated. One line in particular jumped out at me and it was not about the specific subject at hand, “…science is not a set of beliefs about reality, as much as it is a set of methods for discovering reality.” Great line…just a great line.

  3. #3 Uncle Glenny
    November 8, 2009

    Yes, I want safer, better, bridges, ones I, as a pet owner, can feel good about – not bridges designed by experts.

    (Sorry, PAL, couldn’t help myself – you had to pick bridges!)

  4. #4 Uncle Glenny
    November 8, 2009

    I should add that a crank would therefore dismiss all subsequent bridge technology, for ever and ever.

  5. #5 Daniel Rendall
    November 8, 2009

    The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was indeed something of a failure, for reasons which were only fully appreciated in retrospect. But bridge engineers learned from the experience and now build better bridges.

    Compare and contrast the inability / unwillingness of the alt-med and anti-vaccination crowd even to recognize when they’ve made a mistake, never mind actually learning from them.

    (I know you mentioned this in jest, but I just want to get a retaliation in first in case a loon comes along and attempts to run with it…)

  6. #6 Samia
    November 8, 2009

    We’ve had a recurrent measles epidemic here in Switzerland (warning: link in French), and the saddest thing is the plight of parents who are not opposed to vaccination per se, but who are so swayed by the anti-vaccination rhetoric that they no longer know what to do. Years go by in hesitation…and when they bring their adolescent children to an ER with severe measles, they tell us ‘Oh, but I wanted to have him/her vaccinated next year!’.

  7. #7 Jen
    November 8, 2009

    Per:
    I’m told that mathematicians and physicists get a lot of mail from folks with “big discoveries”. These discoveries are often of the “Einstein was wrong and I figured out the Theory of Everything” variety.

    I had no idea this was a phenomenon until hearing this piece on This American Life
    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1251
    Act Three. Sucker MC-Squared.
    As Ira Glass says, “The trouble is when you have a little bit of information.”

  8. #8 Sam C
    November 8, 2009

    Bridges are an interesting example: they stand there immobile and you can’t (usually) tell by looking at them whether they are on the verge of collapse or could withstand forces many times larger than they will experience. So it requires calculation (and obviously detailed inspection) to assess their integrity. So you can’t really see how well bridges are performing as structures (but anybody can see how well they are performing in getting people and vehicles from one side to the other).

    An even more absurd example would be somebody saying that our current television systems are rubbish promoted by a conspiracy and he could produce a small holographic projector that would be much better. He wouldn’t even be laughed at, it would be a simple case of “oh yeah? show me and I’ll consider it”. That doesn’t require any technical skill on the observer’s part.

    Yes, evaluating the invisible is difficult.

  9. #9 dean
    November 8, 2009

    While I was in graduate school my professors would get LONG rambling letters (not emails) from people who claimed to have shown how to square the circle, show pi to be rational, and many more esoteric things. My advisor would receive notes explaining to him that any statistical procedure that wasn’t based on least squares was doomed to failure – so these crank things most definitely aren’t new.

    A question: take a look at conservapedia (sorry). you’ll see relativity, complex numbers, proof by contradiction, and other science/math ideas “discussed” so badly that you have to come away thinking dishonesty rather than misguided ignorance is behind it. So, should the folks there be considered cranks, or is there another term?

  10. #10 Denice Walter
    November 8, 2009

    I’ve come across a new crank- a *crankeuse*,actually- Janine Roberts, a Brit who lives on a boat and has “revealed” the mysterious skulduggery (secret memos and secret meetings)that has occured in Dr.Gallo’s lab and (of course)in the CDC.She has manufactured ammunition for the anti-vaxxers and grist for the fantasy mills of the AIDS denialists:to Roberts, there is *no* link between HIV and AIDS and vaccines *cause* autism- she *uncovers* all the deception.She has a website and a book- the title says it all- “Fear of the Invisible”…I’m afraid of the “invisible” too, usually bizarre ideas are “invisible” until the *auteur* articulates them, disseminates them, and/or acts upon them.(While I may present information in a somewhat flip manner, I am always painfully aware of the potential and actual damage pseudo-science creates in the real world.)

  11. #11 Skeptico
    November 8, 2009

    If someone says that they have a “big discovery” about bridges, most of us would laugh it off. But what if they managed to convince lots of others that modern bridges designed by fancy engineers with fancy degrees were unsafe, that “just some guy” had found a new way to build safer, better bridges…

    That’s already been done: Alternative Engineering.

  12. #12 DaleP
    November 8, 2009

    Quote:
    Scientists as human beings are corruptible. The methods they practice are as well, but for long.

    Did you mean “but _not_ for long.”?

  13. #13 Donna B.
    November 9, 2009

    #10 — great link. Swung Phooey, indeed!

  14. #14 Uncle Glenny
    November 9, 2009

    Daniel Rendall @ 4:
    (I know you mentioned this in jest, but I just want to get a retaliation in first in case a loon comes along and attempts to run with it…)

    Yeah, it was late so I didn’t elaborate. It was indeed intended as parody.

  15. #15 longsmith
    November 9, 2009

    Thanks Skeptico. Just spewed water all over my keyboard!

  16. #16 Calli Arcale
    November 10, 2009

    Speaking of “alternative engineering”, the illustrious Wayne Hale covered that in his blog a while back. Wayne Hale was the Shuttle program director until recently, when he was reassigned to a post in DC, and he’s been telling all kinds of fascinating (and highly eloquent) stories on his blog. Periodically, people come up with all kinds of solutions to major engineering challenges which they believe are novel and effective. Most of the time, however, somebody else has thought it up before, it wouldn’t work anyway, and it displays a tremendous ignorance of what’s actually going on. After the Columbia loss, as NASA was exploring ways to fix the foam shedding problem on the ET, they got so many letters suggesting application of chicken wire that they had to write up a form letter explaining why this would not work.
    Wayne Hale’s Blog: Just put chicken wire in it!

    In the post, he also refers to Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design. Many are applicable outside of spacecraft design, particularly #19:
    The odds are greatly against you being immensely smarter than everyone else in the field. If your analysis says your terminal velocity is twice the speed of light, you may have invented warp drive, but the chances are a lot better that you’ve screwed up.

  17. #17 Calli Arcale
    November 10, 2009

    BTW, the full text of Akin’s Laws can be found here. It’s well worth reading.

  18. #18 James Sweet
    November 10, 2009

    This is because science is not a set of beliefs about reality as much as it is a set of methods for discovering reality. We can corrupt the answers some of the time, but not all of the time. No conspiracy is vast enough to create widespread and enduring scientific lies because somewhere, competing scientists want to show everyone how wrong you are.

    Indeed. Although it seems counter-intuitive, I actually point to the Vioxx fiasco as a demonstration of science’s immunity to corruption, rather than its vulnerability. Here we had a concentrated effort on the part of a pharmaceutical company to conceal evidence of harm. I mean, that was the conspiracy that the cranks are always alleging, or at least as close to it as you ever get in real life. And how long did they get away with it? Five years?

    I don’t want to minimize the tragedy of all those people who died unnecessarily as a result. Five years was a long ass time. But the point is, you cannot hide from science indefinitely. It just doesn’t work, because there’s always somebody else waiting in the wings to trip you up. Data will out, whether the “conspiracy” likes it or not.

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