Evolution, Immunology, and Vaccines: Tomato, Tomahto, Tomater!


A *big* "THANK YOU!!" to The Thinking Atheist for recording and producing these videos (all of the speeches will be up on his YouTube channel). He brought all the equipment, the audio is great, the video is great, he integrated in the slides from my PowerPoint, dealt with uploading everything to YouTube (I know thats a headache), and on top of it all, he was a super sweet guy. And youll be able to see that for yourself when his speech gets uploaded!!


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Glad you liked, Gurdur! First time Ive tried that talk-- total experiment-- and think its a good start!

Yup. Majorly excellent. You're a natural. (esp the way words are rendered distinct from each other. It's like you're unAmerican, or something.)

The sidebars in Opera chop off the right-hand side a smidge, and that might be tweaked a little somehow... (getting more popcorn)

By sasqwatch (not verified) on 12 Aug 2011 #permalink

Abbie I really enjoyed your speech. Very informative and entertaining. I bet you didn't flip that dude the bird, but if you did...YOU GO, GIRLFRIEND!!!

Oh, I'll just cross-post from the Monument:


Please don't take this the wrong way, but I found your talk very interesting and would like to shag some more. Do you want to come to my bedroom for a hot cup of sex?

Mmmhh... That didn't come out the way I intended it to.

I will now watch the talk again and take notes for further questioning...

Quick question: what is the selective pressure working against antibodies along the way to getting one that works the best?

By Skepcheck (not verified) on 12 Aug 2011 #permalink

I just watched it and even though it covers mostly things I already knew for the "general public" it seems like a great introduction and went deeper at places with knowledge I will surely use at some point in an argument.
I only have one criticism: when you addressed chicken pox you gave numbers for "deaths before" (which were around 120) and for "deaths after" (3), what you didn't address was "number of complications" which, in my experience, is a lot harder to argue against compared to your every day "vaccines cause autism" tin foilers since it's actually a valid concern.

A very informative & interesting talk.
I shall have to watch it again to "get" the diagrams.
I suck at biology and chemistry.
(At Uni, chemistry was the first lecture of day, and of course I was habitually late, had to at the back, near the top, where the warm air rose, and spent most of the lessons asleep!.
Mathematics, computer science & physics (esp particle physics) are more my areas.

Interesting talk Abbie. Thanks for posting it here.

I think you've come up with a good 'hook' for the talk (the parallel with debunking creationist propoganda/anti-vaccination loons) and made that point well at the start. I also liked the twenty or so minute overview of immune system functionality although you might think about spending a little more time or placing more stress upon your slide on the components of our defense mechanism just to give your audience a very firm structure for understanding what content comes later in your talk. It might just have been me being slow on the uptake but while the slide is fine I thought your explanation of it right at the start of the talk was a little rushed and so lost a tiny part of its benefit.

Your presentation style struck the right balance between informal and formal that seemed appropriate for the audience so congratulations on that as pitching that wrongly can be a common mistake. The slightly 'breathy' delivery was fine and I think was just the result of nerves but you might consider a tip an actor friend of mine gave me about public delivery on how to prevent yourself from revealing the adrenalin coursing through your veins; match your delivered words to the rhythm of a discreetly-tapped finger that acts like a metronome ticking-out every OTHER pulse-point. If you manage that you'll find your delivery being measured, more declarative and even more clear than you managed. As someone said above, your diction was very good.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the talk, thought it was a success and culminated in a fine performance in the Q+A section where your obvious mastery of the subject shone through as did your passion for making the audience just a little smarter than they were to begin with; a goal you achieved in spades. Bravo!

Someone nicked Ogods commented on youtube:

There is plenty of good science behind being skeptical of flu vaccines especially "emergency vaccinations" ordered by the WHO, a wholly-owned subsidiary of big pharma. Ms. Smith seems completely ignorant of the realities of finance and big business on drug research.

My answer:

She might be "completely ignorant of the realities of finance and big business on drug research.", but she's more than informed about the realities of biology and the immune system. Because some big company is cashing off on it doesn't mean it's not justified. It's like saying "we don't need food to survive" because McDonald's cashes in on food products.

Is that a good analogy?

@Phil; you don't need an analogy. Just ask them for the evidence. What Ogods is indulging her/himself in is a logical fallacy; a version of the 'ad hominem' one where they are casting doubts upon the motives of their opponent by alleging improprieties. Just ask them for the detailed evidence which demonstrates that the WHO is only 'ordering' flu vaccinations on an emergency basis in order to line their own pockets rather than for health reasons or feel free to ignore their input and remind everyone else that they should too.

Great talk, entertaining and watchable, and accessible even for biology n00bs like me. And if ThinkingAtheist really did all the work to produce the video on his own, he deserves thanks as well, he did a great job.

So you have B cells in your body that recognise interlopers and produces a response to help overcome them.

And you have /b/ cells in your blog that help recognise interlopers and produces a response to help overcome them.

It is a terrible analogy, but it is the best you're getting on a weekend.


Same here: just double click the video and watch it full-screen.

ERV: Quick Q. - do you know sign language? (I noticed the way you counted one from your thumb- most people don't.) Very nice talk - hope you wonât feel offended if I pop it up on my blog as lazy weekend post.

A metaphor I often use for vaccines is it's like basic training: it's designed to train your immune system without actually getting shot at. Yes, real combat experience is better, but some preparation reduces the risk of serious injury or death while you're getting that experience.

Now, as for deliberate inoculation with chicken pox as opposed to a vaccine: another disadvantage is that, like HPV and the closely related herpes simplex virus, it's a retrovirus, and ALL RETROVIRUSES CAUSE CANCER. Ionizing radiation causes cancer because it blows a hole in your DNA. Retroviruses make holes in your DNA to insert themselves. Either way, if the hole is in the middle of an important regulatory gene, the brakes can fail.

And thank you, Abby, for posting your talk. Very informative, especially for a layperson like myself.

That was a great talk, Abbie!

Very informative and just pitched at the right level to make it understandable and clear for non-scientists. Also, your passion for your work really shines through and makes it even more engaging for us viewers.

Great speech. I loved it. If only I could have watched this before my last biology test of last year. Maybe I'll show it to my biology teacher so she can use it for next year or use it to improve her teaching.

I was re-watching the video, and I'm not entirely clear on the mechanism of which the B cell cuts/pastes DNA together? Does it consist of fragments of the DNA in the B cell to begin with, or is it cutting its own DNA and re-pasting it, etc.?

Excellent talk! As one of those lay-persons with no formal education in the sciences beyond the High School level, it was quite straightforward & easy to understand.

Hi, I've read your blog quite a bit over the years, but I've never commented. Just thought I'd say the talk was really interesting, thanks very much for posting it!

By Steve Tallach (not verified) on 13 Aug 2011 #permalink

Excellent talk! I loved the analogies --especially the flip flops at a party. (You could teach Mooney a thing or two about science communication.)

By Sister Chromatid (not verified) on 13 Aug 2011 #permalink

Thanks Abby, great talk.

By mind over splatter (not verified) on 13 Aug 2011 #permalink

Gotta love Google's automated transcription:
"The skeptical community as a whole is always very supportive of science and scientists" becomes "The skeptical community as a whole is it was very supportive of us.... in debt"

Great talk Abbie. I'm also curious to hear what you have to say about the "broad spectrum antivirals" paper (Gamma's link).


as for deliberate inoculation with chicken pox as opposed to a vaccine: another disadvantage is that, like HPV and the closely related herpes simplex virus, it's a retrovirus

None of those are retroviruses. You might be thinking of their capability for latent infection, but they don't integrate into the host genome to do that. (Viral genes can get integrated later in HPV-caused cancers, for example, but that's not part of the normal life cycle of the virus as it is for retroviruses.)

windy@29: Um, oops. Big, public embarrassing oops.

Yes, by their nature, retroviruses cause genetic damage (which causes cancer if there's enough of it). But you're right, I was confused by the latent infection and thought Herpesviridae were retroviruses.

I have held this belief for some years and had extrapolated from it. Big mistake. Thank you for correcting me.

Phil @20: Look critically at what I wrote; it's apparently less than half true.

thought I might share this with you, recently someone has figured out a way to make the possible the eradication of most viral infections by using the RNA... He's calling the treatment Deacon, here is his research paper... I am sure you will understand it significantly better than I. Sorry if this is redundant, as you may have heard of this before.

The journal entry:

Postscript: thank you ever so kindly for the easy to grasp format. It was highly informative

By Trevor Kelly (not verified) on 14 Aug 2011 #permalink

Correction, die to the autocorrect on my HTC, sorry, the treatment is being called DRACO.

To quote NEWSCIENTIST's take on the journal submission:

"Rider and his colleagues glued PKR to apoptotic protease activating factor 1 (APAF-1), a protein that triggers cell suicide by unleashing a team of destructive enzymes. Healthy cells normally reserve APAF-1 for extreme situations â to trigger self-destruction in a cancerous cell, for instance â but as part of the new antiviral drug, APAF-1 is activated as soon as PKR identifies and binds to lengthy molecules of double-stranded RNA in an infected cell.

The drug "catches the virus with its pants down", by destroying the cell before new viruses have been assembled inside it, explains Rider. Even if fragmented virus molecules escape the obliterated cell, they will be missing the protein coat that helps them to travel between cells, and so will not infect surrounding healthy tissue. Rider calls his drug double-stranded RNA (dsRNA)-activated caspase oligomeriser (DRACO)."

By trevor kelly (not verified) on 14 Aug 2011 #permalink

Sorry Abbie, this presentation was crap. You displayed a complete lack of geek chic clothing, credentials relevant to the topic, understanding of the subject, and not nearly enough calling out members of the audience. Who do you think we are!?

By tas121790 (not verified) on 14 Aug 2011 #permalink

First, a very relaxed, clever and lucid presentation, as usual.

*golf clap*

*Italian kissy fingers*

"Ms. Smith seems completely ignorant of the realities of finance and big business on drug research."

Mr. Prom is not.

There is profit in the palliative and the appliance (due to the inevitability of obsolescence and successive versions).

FYI what you are looking for as a pharmaceutical investor is pips (patents in the pike) because they indicate a market snowball and price spike, then you dump jump before the rash of litigation from the FDA fast track and find the next company with lots of symptomatic pip while keeping an eye on the C gain tax obligations.

The capture agency is the FDA, not WHO. WHO is a PhARMA( the actual lobbying organization) customer through the NGOs so they never have any money, just a lot of advice.

Since Abbie's area is preventative (curative) it is the highest initial R&D for the lowest and slowest return and that makes her grant scramble dramatically more difficult than say a chemist working in pain management R&D.

I always find it deeply weird when people climb out from under rocks to accuse Abbie of being a Big Pharma shill.

P.S. Are there elevators in the Tulsa Unitarian Church?

If not, where are all the new little Unitarians going to come from?

By Prometheus (not verified) on 15 Aug 2011 #permalink

I think that was a rather good presentation for a general audience. Interesting stuff.
But damn you for making me notice that I've forgotten way too much about the immune system. Sometimes I think I should have gone on to become a nurse, but no, I ended up as an IT worker bee.

I noticed the way you counted one from your thumb- most people don't.

I'm from Europe, most people around here do start with the thumb. :-)

ETLA @30: Biology likes to trip you up like that. It's the Nelson Muntz of the sciences.

ahh abbie: that was wonderful...and I'm kinda with #35 above...I have forgotten sooo much..but then again, alot of this wasn't figured out when I got my degree...

the last post, and with kevin's post..only took me about 6 reads before I got it!

who doesn't start with their thumb?

Just finished watching and thoroughly enjoyed it.

You kept rolling despite technical difficulties, the mob boss analogy was hilarious and the way you lit up both during your talk and the Q&A session made for an engaging and informative presentation. Well done!

That was a really great talk Abbie. You rock like Fraggles

"If people are descended from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?"

That's like asking "If Italian-Americans are descended from Italians, why are there still Italians?"

Hi Abbie
I enjoyed your talk. I have question if you can answer it.

Vaccines invoke our immune system to create the right antibodies to kill the pathogen.
1) Given Antibodies replicate by random recombination of genes(D,J,L,K) , how does the body preserve the particular successful Antibody producing B-cell for the rest of the lifetime? i.e wont the successful B-cell decay over course of time?
2) Do Antibodies have a life period or do they get flushed out periodically

Tommykey @40: You callin' Italian Americans monkeys?!?


Although this article came up a while ago in my RSS feeds I was pretty busy at work to view it. But I just came across this again via richarddawkins.net and I've now had the opportunity to view it. Thanks, it was very informative. I loved the bit on herd immunity. PS I got chicken pox when I was about 30 years old...don't want to go through that again. I heard of the "pox parties" concept last Friday and at first I thought that it was a good idea but your video soon explained the errors of my ways.

Thanks Abbie,

excellent talk on a complex subject.

Hi Abbie. I watched this today (at your recommendation on the c0nc0rdance blog). I had a vague understanding of the arguments for vaccination but your talk has filled in many gaps. I now feel armed to defend vaccination if the need arises :) Thank you.

I have one question from the talk: In the evolution of immunity, with random mutation and natural selection, what is the survival "advantage" of a more effective variant? What makes the "better" variants live on, while the less effective ones die off?