The Greatest Enemy of Fanaticism

 

“To be able to hold comfortably in one’s mind the validity and usefulness of two contradictory truths is the source of tolerance, openness, and, most important, a sense of humor, which is the greatest enemy of fanaticism.”
β€” from The End of Education, a 1995 book by Neil Postman.

In August, the CDC released figures on coronavirus death rates and comorbidities which right wing social media users chose to interpret as confirmation that only six percent of reported coronavirus deaths were ultimately due to the virus, leading the current president and his cult followers to howl that previously published death totals were wildly inflated, no doubt for no better reason than to make President Dumpster Fire look bad. Some misinterpreted the report out of ignorance, surely, but others who fanned the flames on social media chose to misinterpret it to suit their political agenda.


Psittacism
PSITTACISM PSITTACISM“, a parrot meme created by Nick Connolly.

When a person gets stabbed to death by an attacker, the ultimate cause of death would be blood loss. That doesn’t change the fact that a knife wielded by a murderer caused fatal wounds to open up blood vessels which poured out the victim’s life. For that matter, every death could be attributed to lack of oxygen. But it’s not as if it’s an everyday occurrence that otherwise healthy people suddenly stop breathing and drop dead. There are contributing factors, and some less healthy people are susceptible to suffering catastrophic consequences from them when their body can no longer fight off an attacker. That attacker could be a coronavirus.


“Springtime for Hitler”, from the 1967 film The Producers, written and directed by Mel Brooks, and starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.

Social media consumers who jump on everything they see online that fits their distorted and often unreal worldview and then parrot it unthinkingly are not only a nuisance of the present era, but as the most important election of the era looms ahead such people are a menace to public safety. They read and digest vitriolic lies and then spew them out again, magnifying the reach of disinformation, much of it meant to cause harm. The most effective deterrents to the lies spread on social media by fools and evildoers are ridicule and facts. Hard as it may be in these times to keep a sense of humor, it is necessary not only for keeping one’s bearings, but for knocking down nonsense when facts alone won’t suffice.
β€” Ed.

 

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Money to Be Made

 

Garden centers around the country are very busy with the spring rush, and some may be even busier than in a normal spring on account of the many people who are staying at home due to coronavirus lockdowns and have more time on their hands than usual for gardening and home improvement projects. In most cases the garden centers can maintain social distancing through written reminders posted throughout their facilities, and by setting up physical barriers and limiting the amount of shoppers on the grounds at any one time. Social distancing at a garden center is probably most difficult to maintain in the confines of greenhouses.

 

Amanda-Tapping
Amanda Tapping, actress on the Stargate series of television programs, visited the Arctic in March 2007. U.S. Navy photo by Jeff Gossett, of the Arctic Submarine Laboratory. Note the ice crystals formed on the outside of her face mask by her humid exhalations.

Staff at garden centers may try to diligently follow an advertised policy of wiping down surfaces with disinfectants, but that is not always possible considering shortages of disinfectant supplies and the inherently dirty environment around potted plants and associated materials. Management may require staff to wear masks whenever they are dealing with the public, citing CDC guidelines for preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Many customers wear masks voluntarily, while others are encouraged to do so by posted reminders. Few garden centers or other retail establishments go to the controversial length of prohibiting customers from visiting their premises without a mask.

Social distancing and disinfecting of surfaces are reasonably effective measures in countering the spread of a virus that is only one micron wide; wearing a mask is far less effective, at least when it is the kind available to the average citizen. Yet somehow mask wearing has become the definitive symbol of the coronavirus pandemic, as if it were just as important and useful as the other two measures, perhaps more so. It has certainly become an important symbol for virtue signaling. The problem is not that wearing a mask is bad, because it isn’t; the problem is that it encourages far too many people to attribute to it nearly magical properties that the typical surgical mask simply does not possess, contributing to a false sense of security.

The reason masks have become the symbol of the coronavirus pandemic is money. Wearing a mask in public makes it possible to re-open businesses for people to visit, with consumers sure in the dubious knowledge they are not spreading the virus to others in their proximity. More importantly than its real effectiveness, wearing a mask is a sign to others that you are going about your bit as a consumer safely and responsibly. No doubt it is a good thing to get people back to work making money for themselves and their families, particularly in the case of working class people who were ill prepared to stay at home for weeks or months without income.

A brief, entertaining overview of magical thinking.

To that limited extent, the promotion of mask wearing by the CDC, probably under pressure from the White House to get the economy moving again, has been a decent nostrum. If people feel safer going out to stores when they are wearing a mask and the shopkeepers are also wearing masks, then fine, for as far as that goes. But people should not lose sight of other more effective, less publicly identifiable measures, such as keeping your distance and cleaning hands and surfaces regularly, or just continuing to stay home as much as possible. Wearing a mask does not suddenly entitle one to get up in someone else’s face, for good or ill. Wearing a mask may be helpful while shopping at a greenhouse for supplies for a coronavirus garden. Greenhouses can be tight quarters, but everywhere else at a garden center, inside or outside, that mask you’re wearing and perhaps entrusting too much with your safety and that of others is scant protection that doesn’t amount to much if you’re aren’t taking more effective, less magical measures to keep the virus from spreading.
β€” Izzy

 

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I.C.U.

 

The surgical masks many people are wearing in public now are less effective at preventing coronavirus infection than they probably realize. The cloth masks and bandanas are even less effective. What’s the point of wearing them then, if they do almost nothing and social distancing and hand washing are far more effective measures? It comes down to signaling in a number of ways.

Use of Cloth Face Coverings to Help Slow the Spread of COVID-19
Guidance* from the CDC. Odd that the person in the illustration has no eyes. The mucous membranes of the eyes can be an avenue for the coronavirus into the body. As in the illustration, the masks most people wear do not cover their eyes.

In East Asian societies, where conforming for the sake of the greater good is the usual practice, wearing a mask during a public health crisis signals to others that you care enough not to pass along to them your potentially toxic exhalations. In Western societies, wearing a mask more often signals the opposite, which is that you do not want to catch anything from someone else’s infectious effluvia. However you look at your reason for wearing a mask, the ultimate effectiveness of the typical mask is minimal, though preventing yourself from infecting others puts it to better use because it stops most droplets you produce by sneezing and coughing from getting into the space of others.

Wearing a mask when almost everyone else is wearing one signals you are in on the latest information from the public health service. You know and understand everyone has to do their part in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Never mind that wearing a surgical or cloth mask is not an important defense against a virus that is one micron in size, tiny enough that thousands of them can flow through the gaps in the material as well as around the laughably poor seal at the edges of the typical mask. It’s not rational to expect much from these masks, but people wear them either out of ignorance or because they want to signal they are considerate of others in the public space.

Another kind of signaling that comes with wearing these masks is being done by companies that are still open for business and dealing with the public more or less face to face, such as in retail establishments. Some companies have started requiring their employees to wear masks, and some even require customers to wear them if they want to do business inside the store. The owners and managers no doubt mean well, and there is no reason to expect they would be any wiser to the relative ineffectiveness of the masks than the general public, but there is still a taint of virtue signaling in their new policies. They say they are merely following Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, and so they are. Meanwhile it doesn’t hurt their bottom line to trumpet to consumers the safety measures they have undertaken on their behalf, even though one of those measures – wearing masks – is almost entirely cosmetic.

From the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme, Talking Heads guitarist and singer David Byrne and bassist Tina Weymouth perform “Heaven”, with backup vocals by Lynn Mabry offstage.

The worst part of requiring employees to wear masks at all times when dealing with the public is that it may increase the workers’ chances of becoming sick with the coronavirus. It is one thing for a shopper to don a mask for half hour or hour stints, and quite another for a worker to wear a mask for an entire eight hour shift. A mask is often uncomfortable and requires frequent adjustment, leading the wearer to touch their face more frequently than they might if they wore no mask at all. Unless a worker exchanges their mask daily for a fresh one, the result can be unhygienic to the point of defeating any purpose to its use. The cloth masks and bandanas can be especially bad unless they’re washed or exchanged daily. Go ahead and wear a mask if it reassures you and others you encounter in these troubled times, just don’t harbor any delusions about its effectiveness, leading you to neglect the crucial measures you can take to stay healthy, like washing your hands frequently and keeping your distance from those others you’re trying to signal.
β€” Ed.

* Update: This news story illustrates how the CDC has bent to the political winds blowing from the White House, to the detriment of the health of all Americans as well as the CDC’s outstanding reputation.

 

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Everyone Has an Opinion

 

The measles outbreak in Clark County, in the southwestern corner of the state of Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon, has brought national attention to the beliefs of people who do not get some or all vaccinations for one reason or another, because vaccination rates in Clark County are far below the national average. The term many have come to apply to these people is “anti-vaxxer”, though it unfairly lumps everyone together, including people who are less against vaccines as they are for personal liberty, or who object on religious grounds. Since vaccination is a public health issue, however, the reasons for not getting vaccinated do not matter as much as the effects.

 

The history of the differing reasons for vaccine opposition goes back to the introduction of the smallpox vaccine, primarily by Edward Jenner, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England. The idea that to combat a disease a person should voluntarily introduce a weakened form of it into his or her body ran counter to reason. Vaccination methods of the time were far cruder than today, and since sterilization of wounds and bandages were little understood, infection often followed upon vaccination. The alternative was death or disfigurement from a full force smallpox infestation, and some religious folks actually expressed preference for that because it was “God’s will.”

Bracing for a short, sharp jab
In Merawi, Ethiopia, a mother holds her nine month old child in preparation for a measles vaccination. One in ten children across Ethiopia do not live to see their fifth birthday, with many dying of preventable diseases like measles, pneumonia, malaria, and diarrhea. British aid has helped double immunization rates across Ethiopia in recent years by funding medicines, equipment, and training for doctors and nurses. Photo by Pete Lewis for the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID).

Measles world map-Deaths per million persons-WHO2012
World Health Organization (WHO) 2012 estimated deaths due to measles per million persons, with bright yellow at 0, dark red at 74-850, and shades of ocher from light to dark ranging from 1-73. Gray areas indicate statistics not available. Map by Chris55.

Those who didn’t object to vaccination on grounds of cutting into a healthy body and introducing a light case of the disease or a bad case of infection, or of meddling in God’s will, objected to the perceived unnaturalness of the procedure since the vaccine ultimately came from cows infected with cowpox. To those people, introduction into the human body of something from an animal was unwholesome, even dangerous. Never mind that people do the same thing all the time when they eat meat, presumably from animals and not from other people, without the ill effects these folks foresaw, such as taking on the traits of animal whose parts were introduced directly into human flesh. On the other hand, perhaps they were taking the dictum “you are what you eat” to a logical extreme somehow unimpeded by the process of digestion.


It is probably best not to overload these viewpoints with the rigors of logic. People have their opinions, and they often do not bother to make the distinction between opinions and facts. The fact is that through vaccination programs, smallpox has been eradicated worldwide since the middle of the twentieth century, roughly 150 years after introduction of the vaccine. Similarly, measles in the United States disappeared around the turn of this century after nearly 50 years of vaccinations. About the time measles was going away in this country, in 1998 a doctor in England, Andrew Wakefield, published a report in the English medical journal The Lancet linking the MMR (Measles, Mumps, and Rubella) vaccine to autism and bowel disorders, and though the findings in the report and Dr. Wakefield himself were soon repudiated by the majority of other medical professionals, some anti-vaxxers latched onto the link with autism and have been running with it ever since, regardless of the lack of evidence to support the link.

 

Measles US 1944-2007 inset
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics on U.S. measles cases (not deaths). Chart by 2over0.

The problem with anti-vaxxers of one stripe or another running with opinions mistaken for their own version of the facts is that vaccinations are needed most by vulnerable populations such as the very young, the very old, and people with suppressed immune systems. Infants cannot be vaccinated against measles at all. Many of these vulnerable people are in the position of having decisions made for them by responsible adults. In the case of children, that would be their parents, who of course have the best interest of their children at heart. The difficult point to get across to those parents is that in a public health issue involving communicable diseases, their decision not to vaccinate their children affects not only their children, but those other most vulnerable members of the greater society as well. Public health is a commons, shared by all, like clean water and clean air, and the tragedy of the commons is that a relatively few people making selfish decisions based on ill-informed opinions can have a ripple effect on everyone else. Personal liberty is a fine and noble ideal, but when it leads to poisoning of the commons then quarantine is the only option, either self-imposed or involuntary.
β€” Vita

 

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