Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Blame Star Trek for the Measles Outbreak

As measles, which used to kill hundreds of children every year before we eradicated it, comes roaring back, America is trying to find a scapegoat.  Time for a multiple choice quiz.  Why aren't parents vaccinating their kids? 

Is it the fault of:
a. The doctor who published the fraudulent paper linking the MMR vaccine and autism?
b. Jenny McCarthy who publicized it?
c.  Pharmaceutical companies who failed to explain the science and necessity of vaccines? 
d. Star Trek?
If you picked d, you've obviously read the title of this post.  Let me explain why, though.

And it's not because Kirk has space herpes.
Science is hard.  Really, really hard.  You may think learning the clarinet is hard, but that's just peanuts to science.  Listen...*

Students doing sciency things in a science library. Science
If you want to even begin to understand science, you have to not only be smart, but determined.  There are hundreds of books on the narrowest of scientific disciplines.  That doesn't count journals, papers, conferences, and all the other little bits you have to get to understand it.  Almost nobody but the most intelligent and studious men and women go into science as a career, building up the storehouse of human knowledge.

Shouldn't they all be in yellow?
A few of them try to explain science to the rest of us.  It doesn't usually work.  Sure, you took chemistry and physics in high school, but you probably only remember a few bits of terminology here and there.

That's the problem.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing as Alexander Pope said.  I bet you don't remember him.  Ha!  Science isn't the only thing we lose from High School.  Anyway, many people think they know something when they don't.

They vaguely remember Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle and decide nobody can never know anything.  They hear about the butterfly effect and think a butterfly really can cause a storm or change the whole world.  Some scientist theorizes cold fusion and they put it in a terrible movie.

A terrible, terrible movie.
Speaking of Star Trek...

Star Trek is responsible for popularizing science to a lot of the general public.  People learned about antimatter, computers, robotics, subspace, and wormholes.  Of course, Star Trek is a fictional show and the science has to fit into the framework of the story.  Transporters, for example, will probably never be invented.  Sometimes they had to make up science-sounding explanations to justify their stories.

They invented technobabble.  Some examples:

The writers of Star Trek realized you can make anything SOUND reasonable if you throw sciencey words in.  A lot of Here's one of mine from my book, Pinhole
“Instead of using gunpowder to make an explosive charge to suddenly and forcefully propel a bullet, a gauss pistol uses a string of electromagnets coiled along the barrel. As each magnet in the coil charges, it silently pushes the bullet along, turning it, and adding velocity. When the bullet passes the last magnet in the coil and leaves the barrel, it has achieved approximately the same speed and spin as a bullet from a traditional, gunpowder-based gun, but without the noise and the smoke.”
I have no idea if any of that would work in real life.  I just had an idea in my head and threw in the words electromagnets, coil, and gauss to make it sound reasonable.

Turns out I'm not the only one who uses technobabble to make myself sound reasonable.  We have movies (masquerading as documentaries) that use it to convince audiences of their spiritual views.  We have television personalities who use it to sell snake oil.
And we have the antivaxxers.  Here's a quote from a very-well written antivax site:
"They [babies] also are born with their immune systems in a “special” mode. If their immune systems were like normal adults or older children, then their mothers’ bodies would reject them as foreign. Their immune systems don’t come out of this special mode until at least 6 months, and some think not until 2 years (and every illness or vaccination overwhelms the immune system because it is unable to react properly, which delays this switch to normal functioning, and can eventually prevent it, leaving the child immuno-compromised).  What all of this means is that anything that is injected into a small child can pass the blood-brain barrier and can potentially cause neurological damage."
Compare that to Star Trek's:
"A few months ago I was running a neural scan and noticed some anomalous protein readings. I thought there must be some mistake, so I ran an amino acid sequence to be sure. But there it was again, the prion mutation rate had spiked. I couldn't believe it. It meant the anomalous proteins had to have a strong quantum resonance."
What's the difference between these two examples?  Well, one is complete bullshit and the other was a television show.  Also, neither of the people who said or wrote them said "Is that backed up by peer-reviewed academic journals?" or "Aren't you cherry picking data and misinterpreting facts?" or "Seriously, dude, do you hear the shit coming out of your mouth?"

And that's why measles is resurging.  When the next child in the United States dies (it killed over 15 million children in 1980, but not in the US because we were vaccinated), we can write "technobabble" as the cause of death.

*42 bonus points if you get the reference.


Kim said...

Matthew, have you read the reviews of Melanie's Marvelous Measles? I think you'll enjoy them!

Matthew Kagle said...

I've heard of it, hence my use of the cover art.