Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, March 6, 2017

Quiz March 14

Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Innoculation, 3-39. (Remember, we don't meet on Thursday 16th. Post 250+ words on Biss's first chapters.)

1. The stories of Achilles and the dragon imply what about immunity?

2. "A valuable asset placed in the care of someone to whom it does not ultimately belong" is Biss's definition of what? OR, it captures her understanding of what?

3. Our vaccines are now sterile, so anti-vaccine activists' greatest fear is not of bacterial but ____ contamination.

4. What is Dracula about, besides vampires?

5. Who said love is known "by its fruits"?

6. Contributions to the "banking of immunity" give rise to the principle of ____ immunity.

7. What's the most common way that infants contract hep B?

8. What raises the probability that undervaccinated children will contract a disease?

9. Who or what were microbiologist Graham Rook's "old friends"?

10. "There is never enough evidence to prove that an event _____ happen? (can/can't)

  • "No mortal can ever be made invulnerable." True? What do you see as the important implications of this for the issue of vaccination as public health policy?
  • Why does Biss dislike consumer confidence? What's wrong with conceiving of the public as "consumers" of health care?
  • Do you find anything sexual or vampiric in vaccination?
  • "Faith is that which enables us to believe things we know to be untrue." Is that fair? How does it apply to the vaccination debate?
  • Do you agree that one must enact and embody one's beliefs? What if one's beliefs imperil public health and safety?
  • "We owe our health to our neighbors." 20 But how do we persuade them, or ourselves, of this?
  • Have you heard anyone make the argument that public health measures are not for "people like us"? Did you construe it as covert, coded racism?
  • "Enlisting a majority in protection of a minority" is often a hard-sell in America. Is this a social justice issue, like voting rights?
‘On Immunity,’ by Eula Biss
Lucretius said to handle them with caution; Berkeley, not to handle them at all. Aristotle said that too many confound; Locke, that even one can “mislead the judgment”; Hobbes, that their natural end was “contention and sedition, or contempt.” Sontag said simply, they kill.

Pity the poor metaphor, so maligned, so alluring. We’ve been warned repeatedly — and, inevitably, in metaphors — that metaphors can do terrible things. (According to Sontag, the grotesque metaphors attached to AIDS and cancer contributed to their stigma and prevented people from seeking treatment.) And yet, it’s impossible to go without. Supposedly, we use one metaphor a minute, about one metaphor for every 25 words; we seem scarcely able to string together two thoughts without them (there goes one), they cast such clarifying, necessary light (and another).

The essayist Eula Biss is something of a specialist at handling our twitchiest, most combustible metaphors. In her 2009 collection, “Notes From No Man’s Land,” she picked apart the metaphors we’ve used to construct and report on race in America. In her new book, the subtle, spellbinding “On Immunity,” she goes under the skin. She asks why vaccination triggers such anxiety — anxiety so intense it lives in the language: The British call it a “jab,” Americans, a “shot.”

...Biss reports from deep inside the panic. “My son’s birth brought with it an exaggerated sense of both my own power and my own powerlessness,” she writes. The world became suddenly forbidding: There is the lead paint in the wall to fear, the hexavalent chromium in the water. Even stagnant air, she was told, can kill her child. “It is both a luxury and a hazard to feel threatened by the invisible,” she says. “In Chicago, where 677 children were shot the year after my son was born, I still somehow manage to find myself more captivated by less tangible threats.” Weaning proved especially excruciating. “As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory,” she writes. “I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time. ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ my mind screamed.”

We do love to pit the sacred against the profane, but breast milk, it turns out, contains traces of paint thinners, flame-­retardants, even rocket fuel. If it were sold in stores, some samples would exceed federal food-safety levels for pesticides. “We are all already polluted,” Biss learns. “We are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals. We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.”

Sontag said she wrote “Illness as Metaphor” to “calm the imagination, not to incite it,” and “On Immunity” also seeks to cool and console. But where Sontag was imperious, Biss is stealthy. She advances from all sides, like a chess player, drawing on science, myth, literature to herd us to the only logical end, to vaccinate. To refuse is to fall in love with our fears, to create a fantasy of our purity and vulnerability and forget all the ways we are dangerous. She writes of one mother resistant to vaccination to whom it had never occurred that her child might be strong enough to fight off a virus but might pass it on to someone more vulnerable — a baby, an elderly or sick person — who couldn’t. Vaccines were meant to enlist a “majority in the protection of a minority,” Biss writes. Today, “a privileged 1 percent are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99 percent.”

“On Immunity” concludes by inviting us to relinquish illusions of the body’s independence and acknowledge our participation in a web of interdependency. This isn’t a treacly take on “community,” though. It’s the blunt reality of blood banks and organ donors. Biss reminds us that we owe each other our lives.

But her realization that “from birth onward, our bodies are a shared space” posits a question. Didn’t “Notes From No Man’s Land,” open with the words “We are all connected, all of us”? Did she feel compelled to create a narrator for “On Immunity” who is more naïve than we know her to be? I suspect it’s more complicated — not a restatement of a theme but a deepening. The idea that all bodies are continuous is greatly important to Biss; she even plays with it textually, with one book leaking into another and the delayed attribution of quotations challenging our notions about what is native to the book and what is foreign. What she seems to be suggesting is that knowledge isn’t an inoculation. It doesn’t happen just once. There are things that must be learned and learned again, seen first with the mind and felt later in the body.

Biss’s “natural” delivery went wrong. After the baby was born, her uterus inverted, and she was taken immediately into surgery. “Alarms were sounded for me, doctors rushed to me, bags of blood were rigged for me,” she writes. “During the birth, when the violence to my body was the greatest, I was most aware not of the ugliness of a body’s dependence on other bodies, but of the beauty of it.” When she wakes, shivering, tethered to IV bags of antibiotics, she’s told: “You’ve had a lot of people’s hands in you.” No metaphors necessary.
‘On Immunity: An Inoculation,’ Essays by Eula Biss

The summer of 2010 was a bummer for many reasons. Heat waves stewed the East Coast into submission. Harvey Pekar and Tony Judt died. WikiLeaks dumped so many anxiety-inducing classified Afghan war documents that this sprig of dialogue from “Gravity’s Rainbow” seemed freshly plucked: “Everything is some kind of plot, man.”

That summer’s most sinister happening, the troll under the bridge to sanity, was the Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. The writer Eula Biss was home with an infant son in the wake of that mean summer. When she learned that the plastic on her baby’s mattress was possibly toxic, it was one shred of paranoia too many.

“If our government can’t keep phthalates out of my baby’s bedroom and parabens out of his lotion,” Ms. Biss cried aloud to her husband, “and 210 million gallons of crude oil and 1.84 million gallons of dispersant out of the Gulf of Mexico, for the love of God, then what is it good for?”

Her husband took a deep breath. He said, “I hear you.” He added, “Let’s just get a new mattress for now. Let’s start there.”Continue reading the main story
The Panic Virus
In 1998 Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist with a history of self-promotion, published a paper with a shocking allegation: the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine might cause autism. The media seized hold of the story and, in the process, helped to launch one of the most devastating health scares ever. In the years to come Wakefield would be revealed as a profiteer in league with class-action lawyers, and he would eventually lose his medical license. Meanwhile one study after another failed to find any link between childhood vaccines and autism.
Yet the myth that vaccines somehow cause developmental disorders lives on. Despite the lack of corroborating evidence, it has been popularized by media personalities such as Oprah Winfrey and Jenny McCarthy and legitimized by journalists who claim that they are just being fair to “both sides” of an issue about which there is little debate. Meanwhile millions of dollars have been diverted from potential breakthroughs in autism research, families have spent their savings on ineffective “miracle cures,” and declining vaccination rates have led to outbreaks of deadly illnesses like Hib, measles, and whooping cough. Most tragic of all is the increasing number of children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases.
In The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin draws on interviews with parents, public-health advocates, scientists, and anti-vaccine activists to tackle a fundamental question: How do we decide what the truth is? The fascinating answer helps explain everything from the persistence of conspiracy theories about 9/11 to the appeal of talk-show hosts who demand that President Obama “prove” he was born in America.
The Panic Virus is a riveting and sometimes heart-breaking medical detective story that explores the limits of rational thought. It is the ultimate cautionary tale for our time. (continues)
...he really hits his stride when he turns to the social history of autism advocacy; his section on the actress Jenny McCarthy is a tour de force. To promote her 2007 book describing the purported vaccine-induced autism of her young son and his subsequent cure, Ms. McCarthy staged a media blitz, a medical tent show writ large. Blond and charismatic, she waved away the science, energized the people who wanted to believe her message (the not inconsiderable “I feel, therefore it is” segment of our society, as Mr. Mnookin puts it) and managed to do quite nicely for herself as well, netting a deal with Oprah Winfrey’s production company.

“So, as you can see, health care is so complicated you may never get well.” New Yorker
Informed patient? Don't bet on it. Most patients don’t have any idea what they have agreed to let their doctors do to them.

Get Out of Here: Scientists Examine the Benefits of Forests, Birdsong and Running Water
In “The Nature Fix,” Florence Williams looks at new research on how spending time in nature makes people happier and more creative.
The Future of Humans? One Forecaster Calls for Obsolescence

A Brief History of Tomorrow
By Yuval Noah Harari
Illustrated. 449 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $35.

“Organisms are algorithms,” Yuval Noah Harari asserts in his provocative new book, “Homo Deus.” “Every animal — including Homo sapiens — is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution. . . . There is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that nonorganic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass.” In Harari’s telling, the human “algorithm” will soon be overrun and outpaced by other algorithms. It is not the specter of mass extinction that is hanging over us. It is the specter of mass obsolescence.

To understand how Harari arrives at this conclusion, we might turn to his earlier book. “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” was an attempt to write a genetic, anthropological, cultural, social and epistemological history of humans over the last 100,000-odd years. Historians, scientists and academic pedants carped about its audacity of scope — but the book, modeled after Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (a book that also received its share of carping and academic envy), presented a sweeping macrohistory, often marvelously. From the birth of a slight, sly, naked ape somewhere in the depths of Africa to the growth, spread and eventual dominance of that species over the world, “Sapiens” split the story of humankind into three broad “revolutions.” The first, the “cognitive revolution,” resulted in humans acquiring the capacity to think, learn and communicate information with a facility unprecedented in the animal kingdom. The second — the “agricultural revolution” — allowed humans to domesticate crops and animals, enabling us to form stable societies and intensifying the flow of information within them. The “scientific revolution” came last. Humans acquired the capacity to interrogate and manipulate the physical, chemical and biological worlds, resulting in even more potent technological advances that surround us today.

“Homo Deus” takes off where “Sapiens” left off; it is a “brief history of tomorrow.” What is the natural culmination of the scientific revolution, Harari asks. What will the future look like? “At the dawn of the third millennium,” he writes, “humanity wakes up, stretching its limbs and rubbing its eyes. Remnants of some awful nightmare are still drifting across its mind. ‘There was something with barbed wire, and huge mushroom clouds. Oh well, it was just a bad dream.’ Going to the bathroom, humanity washes its face, examines its wrinkles in the mirror, makes a cup of coffee and opens the diary, ‘Let’s see what’s on the agenda today.’ ”Continue reading the main story

Siddhartha Mukherjee is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. His latest book is “The Gene: An Intimate History.” He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.”
The Quest for Artificial Intelligence — and Where It’s Taking Us Next
By Luke Dormehl
275 pp. TarcherPerigee. Paper, $16.

Our Future in a World of Artificial Emotional Intelligence
By Richard Yonck
312 pp. Arcade Publishing. $25.99.

Books about science and especially computer science often suffer from one of two failure modes. Treatises by scientists sometimes fail to clearly communicate insights. Conversely, the work of journalists and other professional writers may exhibit a weak understanding of the science in the first place.

Luke Dormehl is the rare lay person — a journalist and filmmaker — who actually understands the science (and even the math) and is able to parse it in an edifying and exciting way. He is also a gifted storyteller who interweaves the personal stories with the broad history of artificial intelligence. I found myself turning the pages of “Thinking Machines” to find out what happens, even though I was there for much of it, and often in the very room...

Continue reading the main story 
The Anti-Vaccine Movement Gains a Friend in the White House
Vaccine opponents, often the subject of ridicule, have found fresh energy in the election of a president who has repeated discredited claims linking childhood immunizations to autism and who has apparently decided to pursue them. With President Trump’s support, this fringe movement could win official recognition, threatening lives and making it urgent that health officials, educators and others respond with a science-based defense of vaccines.
Vaccines have saved lives by protecting children and adults from diseases like measles, polio, smallpox, cervical cancer and whooping cough. And there is no evidence whatsoever that vaccines or a preservative used in flu shots cause autism. Scientists have also shown that parents who refuse to immunize their children are threatening to undo decades of public health gains.
Yet, activists like Robert Kennedy Jr. continue to push pseudoscience about immunizations. The terrifying thing is that they appear to have Mr. Trump's ear. After a meeting with the president last month, Mr. Kennedy said that the president would name him to head a new committee on vaccine safety; the government already has an advisory group that is meeting this week. And last week, during a news conference with Robert De Niro, Mr. Kennedy offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who could prove that vaccines are safe for children and pregnant women. (continues)



  1. "Faith is that which enables us to believe things we know to be untrue." Is that fair? Religiously, this is not accurate. It's not about fair or not, but it's about the accuracy and how the term and its definition relate to the topic, such the religious topic. For instance, Paul Tillich in his work "Dynamics of Faith" theologian and philosopher of religion, Tillich examines the nature of what it means for a person to have faith. In the first chapter entitled "What Faith is" Tillich argues that faith is a state of being ultimately concerned about something unconditionally.

  2. I think that some level of objective uncertainty is required for something to be considered "faith" rather than "belief". Faith is a continual striving toward the object of the faith, in the face of challenge and uncertainty. However, asserting that faith allows us "to believe things we know to be untrue" is pretty unfair, as it hints that one cannot both participate both in faith and critical inquiry.

  3. Another quiz question: What is the name of the disease that was discovered by teams of scientists that was responsible for killing 5 people in China?

  4. Additional quiz questions:

    1) What blood type is the universal donor?

    2) The World Health Organization arranged a collaboration between labs in 10 different countries to discover _______. p. 21

    3) Who came up with the hygiene hypothesis? p. 30

    4) What active ingredient in most antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers is also found in the blood of a bottle-nosed dolphin? p. 34

    5) What, according to NYT, are involved in more accidents than any other consumer product? p. 37

  5. "No mortal can ever be made invulnerable." True? What do you see as the important implications of this for the issue of vaccination as public health policy?

    I don't think it's possible to be completely protected from all possible maladies of the world. Viruses and bacteria are always mutating and changing that there is no way to be forever safe.
    Therefore it's essential for people to be vaccinated to prevent disease from spreading. We are not invulnerable and it's very likely we never will be so we should constantly be careful and mindful of our health and the health of others.