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What Steve said...
...being a potpourri of musings, ideas, opinions and conjecture.

On vaccines, science, and open minds

April 10th, 2014

I spend much of my time as a high-school science teacher trying to explain to my students how science works. The scientific method, as we rather pompously call the way science is done, is really quite a simple concept — observe, without preconceptions, and then draw conclusions based on those observations.

Of course, it’s not always that easy. There is an additional layer through which observations must be filtered — established science. If I start observing, let’s say, neutrinos travelling faster than c, the speed of light in a vacuum, a speed which for some time now has been understood to be God’s speed limit for the universe, then I’ve got some serious explaining to do, and my conclusions will need to take into account both the established understanding of why c has, until now, been understood as the fastest possible speed, and why it could be that particles have been observed exceeding that speed.

But even within this complication, the idea of c being the fastest possible speed in our universe is simply an observation, albeit one that has its basis in sound mathematical modelling and one that has been tested to within an inch of its existence over a century or more. If evidence to challenge that idea is presented, then that evidence must be similarly evaluated, tested, scrutinised, and, if the new evidence holds up, the theory that says that c is the fastest speed possible must be abandoned.

And so it should be with any scientific discourse. There is no room for dogma, for unquestionable facts, for ideas that have become so firmly entrenched that they cannot be challenged. But that is precisely what has happened in a number of fields — climate change is a classic example, but the one I’m going to risk looking at today is vaccination. Both of these topics is a battlefield of mud-slinging, of deeply-entrenched beliefs and opinions on both sides, that intelligent, open and honest debate is, at least in popular fora, all but silenced, with each side preaching to its own choir and hurling abuse at the other. This is not how we do science.

A recent blog post by Jennifer Raff of the University of Texas, Dear Parents, You Are Being Lied To, has made its way round the internet lately. It’s been picked up by the Huffington Post, and I Fucking Love Science, among others, and, rather sadly, it shows more clearly than ever the danger of science becoming settled, becoming canonised as dogma, being put so far beyond challenge and question that no intelligent debate about the topic can ever be tolerated, and that any debate that does take place is couched in such broad, simplistic terms as to be all but meaningless.

The debate about vaccination, such as it is, has descended so far into black-and-white, right-and-wrong binary bickering that it is now very difficult to find a sensible discussion of the matter. Dr. Raff offers a diatribe supporting vaccines, on that contains such gems as:

They say that vaccines haven’t been rigorously tested for safety.
But vaccines are subjected to a higher level of scrutiny than any other medicine. For example, this study tested the safety and effectiveness of the pneumococcal vaccine in more than 37,868 children.

They will say that doctors won’t admit there are any side effects to vaccines.
But the side effects are well known, and except in very rare cases quite mild.

Vaccines? Vaccines? This, right here, is the entire problem that we face. There is no nuance, no subtlety, no willingness to engage in sophisticated argument any longer. On both sides, “vaccines” is a thing, a monolithic construct much as “drugs” has become a single thing in much of American discourse, even as Colorado and Washington show the ability to distinguish between the deadly and the trivial and legalise marijuana while continuing to outlaw heroin.

The problem with the current discourse on vaccines is this very lack of nuance. Vaccines exist to address a wide range of medical needs, and must be considered individually, on their own bases, not as a single construct. Let’s actually do that, shall we? Let’s do some grown-up thinking.

Smallpox is a nasty, nasty disease. If it doesn’t kill you, you’ll likely spend a good amount of time wishing it would. The first vaccine was developed to combat this very illness — the story of Edward Jenner injecting test subjects with cowpox germs is quite well-known. And it has been quite splendidly effective — the World Health Organisation have declared it eradicated since 1979. We no longer vaccinate against smallpox. Clearly, some vaccinations are simply unnecessary.

Other illnesses have, similarly, become less essential. Take tuberculosis for example — I was vaccinated as a teen, as was standard practice in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s. But, given the effectiveness of the vaccine, TB is a relatively rare disease in the UK today, and vaccination is no longer a matter of course, but rather is administered according to assessed need. This, I would suggest, is a sane, rational, evidence-based approach to vaccination. It is also, I would argue, a proportionate response to a the risks of a very harmful illness.

Polio, similarly, is an awful disease, with a simple immunisation process and a very high success rate — last year saw less than 500 cases worldwide. The case for vaccination against polio is clear — it is still at large, and immunisation is required to prevent its spread outside the handful of countries where cases were reported.

There is, quite clearly, a case to be made, a very strong case, in favour of vaccination against a wide range of dangerous, debilitating conditions. But there are also plenty of diseases on some countries’ vaccination schedules that really, simply don’t need to be there. Perhaps the most obvious example is chicken pox; in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control recommend “two doses of the vaccine—the first dose at 12 through 15 months old and a second dose at 4 through 6 years old.” Chicken pox is simply not a life-threatening or debilitating disease, and yet the CDC continue to recommend vaccination.

Chicken pox has been removed from the vaccination schedules of countries such as the UK and New Zealand. But in America, fail to have your child vaccinated against chicken pox and you can be labelled an “anti-vaxxer.” Anti-vaxxers are, apparently, anti-science; apparently, since I don’t agree with vaccinations against chicken pox, I’m an anti-vaxxer, and therefore scientifically illiterate, but I’m in good company, it would appear.

Much of the anti-vaxxer movement…wait, let me stop for a second. “Anti-vaxxer movement?” How can anyone engaging in scientific discourse be anti-anything? Unless, of course, you’re anti-(anything that’s not actual, real, supported by evidence science). And how can you have a movement in science? “I’m philosophically and morally opposed to leptons?” “Covalent bonds are of the devil?”

But anyway. Among those who argue against all vaccination — itself as weak a position as those who argue for all vaccination, since it’s a position that tolerates no nuance, no dissent, no close analysis — there is a fatal problem, in the shape of one of the most obnoxious abuses of science of recent years. The MMR vaccine controversy engineered by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 is well-documented, so I won’t rehash it in any great detail here; it’s enough just to remind ourselves that, despite deliberately falsified and fraudulent reports to the contrary, there is no established link between the MMR vaccine and autism. By all means challenge the appropriateness of vaccinating against measles (probably a good idea, especially if you’re in the third world), mumps (probably unnecessary; the complications for males, while quite unpleasant, are very rarely life-threatening) or rubella (highly recommended, for girls), but please don’t try to cite Wakefield’s comprehensively discrediting writings. You can’t — you simply can’t — make the case that vaccines, that huge, broad, vast class of medicines, cause autism.

Just because people who don’t vaccinate have shot themselves in the foot with the Wakefield fiasco, though, this does not mean that pro-vaccination types have won the battle, and it is now acceptable to condemn anyone who doesn’t totally buy into the vaccination schedule of the country you live in. As we’ve seen, the British and New Zealand health services could easily be condemned by American supporters of blanket vaccination as “anti-vaxxers,” since children in these two countries are not routinely given the varicella vaccine.

There is no such thing as “vaccines.” There simply isn’t, any more than there is such as thing as “drugs.” Some drugs are inherently dangerous, some are, when administered thoughtfully and carefully, very beneficial. The same is true of vaccines — there is plenty of merit in keeping a lid on polio, or tuberculosis, and there is a lot to be said for preventing rubella in girls before they can reach child-bearing age. But similar arguments cannot be made for mumps, or chicken pox, and yet it is impossible to hold even such a slightly shades-of-great opinion on vaccines without being labelled, by one side, an “anti-vaxxer” because I question the need for chicken-pox vaccines, or a “vaccinator” by another because I do see merit in vaccinating against polio.

Science is many things, but one thing it simply is not is settled. There is, and always will be, debate on either side. It is dangerous to scientific thought and progress to imagine that the book is closed on any area of science, on any branch of scientific endeavour or exploration. That includes the science of vaccination.

On Sabotage, and why some films just shouldn’t be made

April 1st, 2014

Sabotage, it just has to be said, is a film that simply didn’t need to be made.



The story is quite straightforward — a special-ops team within the American Drug Enforcement Administration carry out a raid, at the end of which a few million dollars appear to be missing. The members of the team are suspended, and their leader Breacher, played with precious little acting ability by Arnold Schwarzenegger, puts the band back together when the investigation into the missing money leads nowhere. The various members of the team then start meeting increasingly messy deaths. There is, quite possibly, the making of a decent film in there. Sadly, however, director David Ayer managed not to make that film, and instead put together a rather ugly mess of cliché, grunts and violence porn.

I did — I really did, I promise — go into the screening of Sabotage with an open mind, but Sabotage did little to impress. The character development, for example, is truly woeful: the DEA team, with their ruggedly and excitingly macho nicknames — there’s Tripod, and Grinder, and Neck — are so poorly drawn as to be utterly indistinguishable, the sole exception being Lizzy, remarkable simply for being the token woman on the team. There is nothing at all to distinguish the half-dozen members of the team Schwarzenegger’s Breacher leads; as a result, when they start to die, it’s hard to care. The characters are lazy clichés from the standard catalogue of action-movie casting — even when suspended, they appear to live together in some sort of DEA clubhouse, lifting weights, tattooing each other and tossing around unimaginative insults. Off-duty, we’re led to believe, they’re utterly undisciplined, but as soon as they put on their bulletproof vests, they’re an elite team. Sigh.

And, being an elite team, they don’t have to conform to anything resembling police procedure or protocol — on a tip-off, they storm a flat, shoot so many holes in the walls it’s a miracle the roof stays up, and kill anyone they decide is Bad Guys, in their self-appointed role as judge and executioner. Regular city coppers, of whom a handful appear in the film, including Caroline, played by Olivia Williams, who really, really should know better, take the trouble to swear affidavits in order to get warrants, but our heroes simply kill Bad Guys. I don’t necessarily expect absolute by-the-letter adherence to the police handbook, but at the very least I’d like to see something plausible.

Which brings us nicely to the acting. I still struggle to understand how Arnold Schwarzenegger has managed to build a career beyond bodybuilding — a pact with the devil, perhaps, or he has very, very compromising Polaroids of every single producer in Hollywood in a shoebox under his bed — but build several he has. He has, let’s be fair, made decent films — Terminator II is a genuinely excellent film, and when he realised that he was becoming a parody of himself, he embraced this development in True Lies and, especially, Last Action Hero. But with Sabotage, someone, it would seem, has told him that he’s an actual actor. He’s not. He simply isn’t. He’s a bag of muscles with an absurd accent, topped with an even more absurd multi-coloured wig. Somebody needs to take him outside, sit him down and explain, patiently, that if this is the best he can manage after, astonishingly, 45 years in films, then his career is less due to any actual thespian talent, and more to sheer, boundless good luck. And let’s not even ask why it is that nobody bothers to wonder why a character named John Wharton has an utterly laughable Austrian accent — credibility is stretched every time he opens his mouth, and really can’t withstand any further strain.

The rest of the cast might, possibly, be quite gifted and excellent actors, but Sabotage isn’t the platform to showcase their talents. The dialogue is appallingly dreadful, most of it shouted over explosions, or shouted over gunfire, or, well, just shouted. Attempts at sharp, witty buddy dialogue are simply grating. In the end, the script simply serves to connect the action sequences.

And many are those action sequences. This is a violent film that revels in its violence in a way that can only really be described as pornographic. When people are shot, especially in the head, there will inevitably be some blood, and too many films do tend to shy away from showing the unavoidable messiness of death. But Sabotage revels in it, with blood splattering at every possible opportunity once the killing starts in earnest. Blood covers floors, splashes against windows — Quentin Tarantino did something similar during the climax of Django Unchained, and it didn’t work there either, but at least the preceding hour and a half of Django Unchained had been sufficiently excellent that you could forgive a little squelchy bloodiness. Sabotage doesn’t earn the right to shock — it simply tries to shock for the sake of shocking, and doesn’t quite seem to care, especially during the climax, how many innocent, anonymous bystanders its unremarkable characters take out with them. It doesn’t quite have the courage to cross over all the way into full-blown torture porn, keeping at least one foot squarely in the safer territory of basic genre action, but this is a film that likes its violence front-and-centre, revelling in its squelchiness.

This is not a pleasant film. Films don’t have to be pleasant — going back, again, to Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs is a relentlessly unpleasant film, but it’s also an astonishingly excellent one. Sabotage is just bad.

On performance pay for teachers, and why Hekia really doesn’t know whence she speaks

March 13th, 2014

Performance pay — yes, it’s a great idea. Let’s embrace it. It is, quite clearly, the way ahead, the best way to wring the last few drops of effort out of any worker. It’s fantastic. I like it.

And so let’s see it in action, then, shall we? Let’s apply it to…oh, let’s see, let’s apply it to Members of Parliament. MPs, you see, make a decent salary, but they have no incentive to work harder, to do more for their constituents or the country. Performance pay’s how we’re going to get value for money from our MPs. And where better to start than with Hekia Parata, our Minister for Education? Hekia makes $257,800 per year as a cabinet minister — well over a quarter of a million dollars, or, if you prefer, about three and a half times the highest salary on the secondary teachers’ pay scale — and that’s before we even start to look at the various non-cash entitlements that she receives to make her job easier. And this salary is fixed — it’s not based on her competence. Which is, for her, perhaps as well — given the fact that she only holds one portfolio, and even then couldn’t manage the ongoing debacle that is Novopay, and continues to mismanage the reconstruction of Christchurch’s schools, if her salary were to be based on her competence, she’d be owing the Crown millions by now. But mercifully for her, her salary is guaranteed, no matter how devastatingly and magnificently incompetent she manages to be. (more…)

On 12 Years a Slave, and why cinema isn’t purely for entertainment

March 4th, 2014

I finally saw 12 Years a Slave last night, the day after it won this year’s Best Picture Oscar — a well-deserved award. I had been wanting to see this film since I first heard of it, last year, but, rather than obtain a dodgy copy from a less-than-official Internet source, I waited until it came to my local cinema. A film like this rather needs to be seen in a cinema.

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

This is not, you will understand, a nice film. It’s not a happy film, hurried redemption at the end notwithstanding. It’s not even a terribly easy film, in many places, to watch. What it is is a quite brilliant telling of a story that is only made more heartbreaking by the fact that it is true. The story is one that’s been discussed at great and extensive length over the last few months — Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black northerner, is lured to Washington, in the slaver-friendly District of Columbia, where he is kidnapped and sold to a series of slave owners in the South. This, apparently, was far less uncommon than one might hope; what makes Northup’s story remarkable is that (and no, I really don’t think, at this stage, we can consider this to be a spoiler; even the title of the work hints at this) he manages to escape his captivity and, eventually, write his story.


On Vampire Academy, and why some things are best left well alone.

February 26th, 2014
Vampire Academy

“They suck” possibly isn’t the best comment to use in an advert for this film.

The fact that I confused Vampire Academy with Vampire Diaries probably should have been the clue I needed to realise that this wasn’t about to be the best film I’ve ever seen, or indeed the best film I’ve seen this month (that honour goes to 12 Years a Slave. Obviously.).

The film had promise, though: director Mark Waters made Mean Girls, and his brother Daniel, who wrote the screenplay, also wrote Heathers. One can only imagine studio execs positively wetting themselves with glee at the thought of the creators of two classic high-school comedies making a vampire high-school comedy — Heathers with Fangs, perhaps, or Mean Vampires.


On Robocop, and how not to stuff up a remake

February 6th, 2014

I’m not, usually, a huge fan of the massive-explosions-and-little-else end of the science-fiction spectrum. Robocop, then, the remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original, didn’t climb to the very top of my “I simply have to see this film” list, and I went, primarily, because I was offered a ticket to last night’s press screening at Event CinemasIMAX cinema on Queen Street (thanks, Sarah, by the way). And the consensus among press types as we all left the viewing was, well, they really didn’t stuff that up as badly as they might. And that, let’s be honest, simply isn’t fair to the film. It was, surprisingly for its genre, really rather entertaining. (more…)

On teaching, and why National have got it wrong, again.

February 3rd, 2014

The Prime Minister’s new education initiative, unveiled last week and featuring four new roles for teachers and principals, looks fantastic – hundreds of millions of dollars spent on education, with the goal of raising achievement.

But looks can be deceiving. The four new positions – lead and expert teachers, and executive and change principals – will attract substantial amounts of funding, but are unlikely to raise student achievement in any meaningful way. Instead, they are simply a means of sneaking in performance-related pay by stealth. (more…)

On Francis, the pope we needed.

May 27th, 2013

Pope Francis has been in the job barely a couple of months, and already the man is proving himself, with some high-quality poping to be a powerful force for good in a Church that has long need some powerful good.

The stories of his humility, his down-to-earth-ness, his humanity, were legend before the white smoke of his election had cleared. That he walked to his cardinals to receive their allegiance, rather than have them climb steps to his throne, was emblematic of what was to come. That he took the time to phone his newsagent in Buenos Aires to cancel his paper delivery speaks of a man who has not — at least not yet — forgotten who he is. That he has declined to move into the Papal Palace of the Vatican, staying in a much smaller set of rooms, puts a tiny bit of substance behind his insistence that the Church must belong to the people, to the poor. (more…)

On racism, immigration and Louise Mensch

May 26th, 2013

I’ve been busy these last few years, and this blog has been something of an extended hiatus, and I suppose I’ve been waiting for a topic to show itself that would spur me into restarting it; racism has done the job.

I started following Louise Mensch on Twitter after seeing her on Have I Got News From You, during which appearance she gave every indication of being an articulate and intelligent woman. I’m still happy with the “articulate” assessment, but increasingly she’s making me doubt the “intelligent.” I won’t dwell too long on her irritating low-level sexism; rather, it’s her UKIP-tastic racism that’s finally given me the drive to start opinionating online again. (more…)