Paul Offit: The Fate of Science in an Age of Darkness

April 04, 2017

While science was once the force that propelled humanity into an age of enlightenment, a pernicious fear of science and the unknown threatens to plunge society to into an age of darkness. So says Dr. Paul Offit, a groundbreaking immunologist, and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Offit’s new book, Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, comes at a time when the fundamental concepts of evidence, facts, and truth itself are being smothered by a miasma of misinformation.

Dr. Offit joins Point of Inquiry host Josh Zepps for a vital discussion about the prognosis for science under the Trump administration, the dangers of the anti-vaccination movement, the probability of future pandemics, and much more.

I’m Josh Zepps, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. Today’s guest is Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician who specializes in infectious diseases. He’s also an expert on vaccines, immunology and virology. I am wrapping up my time here on the show, so a huge thanks to the Center for Inquiry into the Richard Dawkins Foundation for making a point of inquiry possible as long as I’ve been a little part of it. 

I do encourage you to continue supporting those institutions as well as following me, of course, on Twitter at Josh Zepps and checking out my other podcast. We the People Live, which is a discussion show for planet Earth, the place that makes debate healthy again. You can find that by searching for we the people. All one word. Well, by following it on Twitter at WCP, underscore Leive pull off. Its new book is entitled Pandora’s Lab Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong. And I wanted to talk to him not just about the book today, but also about reason in general, about rationality in America, about science under the Trump administration and the future of science in America. And, of course, about his specialty vaccines, anti vaccines and pandemics. 

Pull off it. Thanks for being on point of inquiry. Thank you. Just give people a sense to begin with of who you are and what you do and most importantly, what your new book is. 

So I’m a virologist and immunologist. I spent most of my professional career studying a virus called rotavirus that ultimately led actually to the to my good fortune of participating with a team here at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia with Stan Plotkin and Fred Clark. They created the strains that ultimately became the bovine human reassortment rotavirus road attack, which was licensed and recommended for all children in this country in 2006 and now is used in many countries in the world. So that’s my professional, I guess, the professional accomplishment of which I’m most proud of. More recently, I’ve gotten interested in sort of writing and putting writing books and trying to educate the public about science, especially focusing on vaccines. 

How did you get into vaccines? 

Well, the usual sort of arbitrary and capricious ways in which we’ll get into things. I got into a fellowship here at Children’s Hospital Philadelphia with Stan Plotkin, and he was the inventor of the rubella vaccine. He did a lot of the primary original research on the rabies vaccine. So he was a vaccine guy. And I just was interested in infectious diseases, not vaccines specifically. But I trained with a person who was interested in vaccines, and that’s how it happened. 

What was it about infectious diseases that appealed to. 

I guess that we can do things about them, you know, infectious diseases, you know. You know, you have specific therapies. I mean, the germ theory is as well entrenched. And we know the specific germs cause specific disease and we can treat them. You know, if you look like rheumatology or dermatology, it’s it’s like steroids. No steroids. No for for us. We have these. And even better than that, we can prevent the diseases and even better and that we can eliminate certain diseases. We’ve eliminated smallpox. We’ve eliminated two out of the three three strains of polio. We’ve eliminated a virus called rinderpest, which is like measles for cattle. And vaccines can actually eliminate diseases from the face of the earth, which is one powerful thing. 

Do do you do have a certain respect for germs? Is this is this a kind of a cosmic battle between humankind, between Homo sapiens and the and the bugs that threaten to kill us? 

Yeah, well, generally, they’re smarter. I mean, in the case of smallpox, we were smarter. I mean, smallpox killed 500 million people in the world’s history. It changed it changed European history in many ways. And we eliminated now. Now, that said, there are no doubt rogue nations or groups that could use smallpox as a weapon, bioterror. We now have had a generations of people now in the United States who are susceptible again to smallpox because we stopped the media and immunizing our population more than 40 years ago. So so you never know. You know, you don’t want to trust humankind because in many ways we’re not trustworthy. But we do have the capacity to to eliminate diseases and polio. Or we can eliminate polio. We can eliminate measles. And I think if we were if we’re good about this and we don’t use these as weapons of bioterror, we can successfully eliminate them forever. 

Why haven’t we eliminated polio? 

Polio is harder. And that’s a lot of those people who have polio are asymptomatic. They’re shedding the virus. But don’t know if that wasn’t true of smallpox. There was no such thing as asymptomatic smallpox infections. Everyone who had smallpox had blisters. And usually those lesions or those blisters were on their face. So you knew who had smallpox. And therefore, you can sort of put these kind of rings of vaccination around those people, you know, everything. They came in contact with everybody who their contacts came in contact with. You could eliminate the disease. That’s where we did it. Polio, really only about one of two hundred people were infected with polio, were paralyzed by it. Many people shed the virus asymptomatically. So there’s a you’re just looking at the tip of the iceberg, which makes it harder. And, you know, now now we’ve confined it really to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria. But then we’ve got made two out of three. So we only have one more strain to go. 

Is there a is part of the problem here a cultural one? I mean, I’ve read stories about all kinds of myths and misconceptions on the Indian subcontinent about about not only the efficacy of vaccines, but also to the motives of the white people in white lab coats or even brown people in white lab coats who are trying to jab needles into into innocent villages, who might be people who locals suspect might be part of the problem. 

Yes, I think that’s been true for decades. The one common misconception is that, you know, the vaccines contain, you know, an agent which is going to sterilize them. And that’s you know, you’re always fighting that misperception, I would argue, with that much better in this country. Here we just think they’re going to cause autism. But, yeah. 

Well, let’s talk about that, because that is that’s where I’m headed with this. You know, we have this incredible panoply of resources at our disposal to attack these little these little bastards. And we choose willingly to not use them all the time. Can you Chout Forest, the rise of suspicions about vaccines and how you’ve kind of seen it unfold over your decades of work? 

I think it tried to put in perspective. My parents, for example, were children of the 20s and 30s. So they saw diphtheria as a common killer of teenagers. They saw polio as a common crippler of children and young adults. I was a child of the 50s and 60s. I had measles. I had mumps. I had German measles. I had chicken pox. I had all those diseases. So you didn’t need to convince me or my parents that vaccines were important. My children, on the other hand, who were twenty four and twenty two, not only don’t see these diseases. 

They didn’t grow up with them. So for them, vaccination is a matter of faith. They’re not scared by it, but by the disease because they were seeing them. 

Their friends have never seen them. 

So I think that in that setting it’s very easy to convince people that vaccines, you know, might be doing more harm than good, that any vaccine safe, the issue, real or imagined, is going to trump the the the the disease because people don’t see the disease. I think if you look at what happened in Southern California in 2015, 2016, that tells you everything you need to know. People in Southern California weren’t getting vaccinated. There was a reporter, actually an investigative reporter named Gary Bauer, who three months before that Disney outbreak that started in Southern California, then spread to twenty five states and two Canadian provinces. He published an article saying that I have just interviewed people in elementary schools in these upper middle class areas like Marina del Rey or Santa Monica, and fewer than 50 percent. The children in these elementary schools are getting vaccinated against measles. I predict there’s going to be a measles outbreak. And he published it in my favorite medical journal. The Hollywood Reporter. And and he was right. And then what happened was a measles outbreak. And then those people got vaccinated because they feared the disease. So I think I think fear trumps reason. And, you know, I think ever since we crawl out of ocean onto land, our amygdala and hippocampus were much better developed. I think we’re hardwired to run out of and run away from animals that are bigger than ourselves. I think our rerum, you know, was much was much too late to the game. I think we’re you know, if you look at the evolution of man, you see this Rieber gasping with the amygdala and hippocampus. We’re always there. So I think we’re we’re we’re more compelled by fear than reason. 

Then a person who’s suspicious of vaccines might be able to respond by saying, well, then where’s the great harm? If there is an outbreak that’s localized, then we’ll get vaccinated and we’ll be able to fix the problem. Why do I need to preemptively take risks with my child’s health by jumping in with all of these needles in such a short period of time? 

Isn’t it better to be precautionary and across the bridge of illness if or when it arises? 

Well, maybe vaccines are safe. So it’s not when people say they’re worried about getting vaccines, they’re worried about things that vaccines don’t cause. You know, the worry that vaccines are causing autism or diabetes or multiple sclerosis or other chronic disease disorders or chronic fatigue syndrome or chronic pain syndrome. Vaccines don’t cause those things. Therefore, their concerns are ill founded. I think if vaccines cause serious side effects that were, you know, that that would preclude their use to ensure don’t get them. But that’s that’s not the case there. I mean, we as humans obviously create or encounter far more in the way of immunological challenges during our normal day than we would ever get from vaccine. Vaccines are a drop in the ocean of what we normally encounter and manage every day. So so therefore we should get them. 

Here’s here’s what I hear, though, from from people, which is kind of a misguided precautionary principle, which may be you may be able to counter it better than I can, which is something along the lines of you can’t prove a negative. You can’t be certain. Yeah. We’d may not have proof that vaccines cause autism, but there there’s been a rise in autism at the same time as there’s been a rise in increases in vaccinations of young infants. Aggressive vaccinations of young infants. So why not want to play it safe just because there’s simply no way to. You can’t demonstrate that it’s not causal. 

The precautionary principle, the principle, the principle of the precautionary principle or the mainstay of the precautionary principle is that you exercise caution absent harm if you choose not to get a vaccine. 

You’re taking a risk and it’s an unnecessary risk. And that’s what’s happened. So if you talk to, for example, you know, people and groups like Families Fighting Flu or Meningitis Association or National Meningitis Angels, I’m sorry, National Association of Meningitis Angels. You find that parents all say the same thing. I can’t believe this happened to me. I can’t believe that I didn’t get a vaccine and that my child suffered this disease. You sure you can’t believe it happens to you until it happens to you? I mean, you’re playing a game of Russian roulette, which admittedly doesn’t have five empty chambers. One bullet probably has one hundred thousand empty chambers. But you’re playing a game that’s dangerous and it’s you get you get nothing for you. In other words, you’re not going to avoid autism or all those other diseases you fear or you’re going to do is take a slight risk that you could be permanently harmed or killed by a virus or bacteria. There’s not a year that goes by at Children’s Hospital, Philadelphia, where we do not admit a child who dies of a vaccine preventable disease, invariably because the parent chose not to vaccinate. That’s a bad choice and it’s an ill founded choice. So it’s not the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle states that you exercise caution without in any sense putting your child in harm’s way. I mean, if you take a plasticizer out of a toy. That’s the precautionary principle. But choosing not to get a vaccine does not in any sense precautionary. 

Should the parents have the right to make the choice? 

I think I get a lot of hate mail for this, but I think the answer is no for the same reason. I don’t think they should have the right not to put their child in a car seat if they’re of a certain age or weight, which is true. I mean, in New Jersey, if you if your child’s not in a car seat or if they’re a certain age or weight, then you get a ticket. I think that vaccines are no different vaccines. You’re putting your child in the safest position possible. That’s your job as a parent. I don’t think it should be your inalienable right as a U.S. citizen to let your child catch and transmit a potentially fatal infection. 

Yeah, at the trance, the transmit bit there, I think is the strongest part of the argument. You know, if this was if you were able to somehow quarantine your own child and only punish them, then I suppose you could make some kind of libertarian parental argument about it. But I come down on the side of mandatory vaccinations largely because of the impact that it can have on other people and the impact on on herd immunity. Can you explain what herd immunity is and how one child can impact everyone else? 

Although I would say that you shouldn’t be allowed to have your child suffer either. Your child shouldn’t have to suffer your ill founded beliefs. I mean, you know, why forget the 14th Amendment? I guess that states that that everybody gets equal protection under the law, including children, including children whose parents have wrong ideas about vaccines. I think it’s OK for the government to step in and protect your child if you don’t get what I mean. 

Like, we can probably agree on that because we’re both rationalists who think that religion, religious ideas are a bunch of silly, silly ideas and unfounded supernatural ideas are a bunch of silly ideas. But I can also imagine a scenario in which a future administration disagrees with us about what’s right and wrong and true. And you can imagine a sort of not to overuse the word precautionary, but you can imagine a a a tentative kind of quasi libertarian interpretation which says which appeals to the individuality, the libertarian individuality of the family unit as being as being sacrosanct. 

And and even if that even if you bought that argument, you could still you could still uphold the principle of mandatory vaccination on the on the on the grounds that it impacts other people outside of that family unit is all I’m saying is that it certainly does. 

So so herd immunity is defined as it’s possible to immunize a a high enough percentage of the population, which then doesn’t allow that virus or bacteria to spread within that population. So so, you know, you don’t have to immunize 100 percent of the population to stop measles. You only have immunized sort of in the low 90 to bit, 90 percent range. We eliminated measles in the United States in 2000. We eliminated rubella from the United States in 2005. We eliminated polio from the United States in 1970, not with percentages of vaccines that were far fewer than 100 percent. So and that would have to be true, because in this population, which is about 314 million people, there’s about five hundred thousand people who can’t be vaccinated. They can’t be vaccinated because they’re getting know steroids for their asthma or they’re getting chemotherapy for their cancer or they’re getting other immunosuppressive therapies for their chronic disease or because they’re too young. So those people depend on us to vaccinate them to to to protect them. In fact, that’s why there was a bill and you probably know this as well as I do, the so-called SB 277 Senate bill, 277 in California, which basically overturned your philosophical exemption, leaving California only with a medical exemption that actually with the tie was this little boy, this five year old with leukemia who was in, I think, the inductions or the maintenance phase of this therapy. You got up to these at these meetings knowing that he couldn’t be vaccinated, knowing that he needed those around him to protect him. And he got up and he said, what about me? 

When I count that added, I think that made a difference. 

Yeah, I tried to explain. I would try to explain to my young, healthy colleagues who didn’t want to get vaccinated that it’s in my mind it’s a little bit like voting. I mean, if you think that you ought to vote, because even if your vote doesn’t count, you’re part of a wider pool where the principle of everybody being involved in the democratic process matters than everybody being involved in the process of not having young infants and sick people exposed to easily preventable diseases also matters. 

Does that analogy carry any water for you? 

Yes, I just I think that you could make this argument much more easily 50 years ago, that you could make it today, that there is this this film that was on public broadcasting called the Polio Crusade. It was Sarah called was the producer. And if you listen to those voices from 50 years ago, you were coming off know World War two and polio was was a disease that we had taken upon ourselves to try and eliminate because it was so devastating. 

If you listen to those voices, it was really you know, we think my polio was bad. You should have seen Johs. And it was just a real sense of society that I just don’t think you see as much today. You don’t hear those voices today? I think we’re a little more selfish. I think people think, you know, if you think your child should get vaccinated, vaccinate them. That has nothing to do with me. Even though does. 

What about the flu? The annual flu vaccine? I know a lot of people who will say, sure, yeah, we should vaccinate children because those are big, bad diseases. But the idea that every single. It should be getting vaccinated every single year for a vaccine that isn’t even particularly effective. We don’t know what the long term consequences of that are and why not. Again, just if you don’t need it, if you’re young and healthy, don’t get it. 

Well, there’s actually this paper that came out in Patric’s about, you know, flu deaths in children. And most of the children who died didn’t get vaccinated. The efficacy of preventing death for for the flu vaccines around 65 percent. So, you know, although you’re right, I mean, I think it’s it’s not it’s one of our weaker vaccines and that it’s not 90 to 95 percent effective. Still, if you can reduce your chance of dying, you know, by two thirds. It’s worth doing. And it’s not just children who die. Obviously, much, much more commonly, it’s the older adults. There’s about 30 to 35 that are as many as 30 to 35000 deaths a year from influenza. It’s killer. And unfortunately, it requires a yearly vaccine, which I think people interpret to mean that, you know, it’s just probably not that big of a deal or it’s not that good of a vaccine if you have to get it every year. But for right now, until we have a universal vaccine, it’s the best thing we can do to protect ourselves and our children. 

And again, it’s the case that some people who are older, infirm can’t get that, can’t get vaccinated for that. Right. 

Yeah. But remember, it’s a killer virus. So it’s not it’s the problem. It’s not a safety issue. It’s just an efficacy issue. I mean. 

But in other words, I’m asking, does my voting analogy still hold in this case that a healthy 25 year old who says, even if I do get the flu, it’s not going to be any big deal? It’s not going to kill me. 

That one could say, yeah, but it might kill the old person who is sitting next to you on the bus who when you get it and you give it to them, then the best example that is a paper was published in the journal Medicine evaluating Japan’s program where they immunize schoolchildren and found that not only was there with with influenza vaccine, not only was there a decrease in influenza associated hospitalizations in children, there was a decrease, a clear decrease in hospitalization and death in adults. So that program affected adults. 

Yes. You could certainly imagine that being more efficacious in Asia as well, where it’s more common for grandparents to live with with grandchildren than it is it is in the States. You wrote a piece recently in the daily base which targeted rubella as being and made some comparisons to Zika. Can you draw that draw that comparison for us? 

Sure. We’re all scared of Zika. I mean, it has sort of a scary name because it’s, you know, from Uganda. And it’s it’s it’s what it does is the worst thing, which is that, you know, way if you’re infected with this virus as a pregnant woman, you know, you increase your chance of delivering a child who has severe neurological deficits manifested grossly as microcephaly or small heads. But, you know, it affects your mentation. It affects your ability, affects your eyes, and so it affects your boat. See, I mean, it’s it’s it’s a bad virus, but it pales in comparison to rubella. You know, if you if you’re infected with Zeke in your first trimester of pregnancy, depending on whether you have a symptomatic race, dramatic infection, you will have to have a 30 percent to one percent chance, respectively, of getting having a child who has birth defect with with rubella. It was 90 percent. If you’re infected with REBELL on your first trimester, it’s a general rule. People chose to to get a therapeutic abortion because it was that common. And also, rubella doesn’t just affect the brain or the of the eyes. It affects every organ. So, you know, it’s and it’s rubella. On the other hand, not being spread by mosquitoes. It’s spread by simply talking to somebody who’s infected with rubella. And so it’s it’s much more common, you know. And I think you’re where Zika affects has been shown to be in about 60 countries. Rubella is in more than twice that number of countries. So so when people are traveling, I think they’re probably thinking more about Zika and less about rubella, but they should be thinking about both. 

Presumably, most of us have been vaccinated against rubella, right? 

That’s right. But but when you start to see measles outbreaks and you start you see that in children, for example, who aren’t being vaccinated. It’s the MMR vaccine. You can assume that they’re also not that side of rubella. So we’re starting to raise a group of people who are now rubella susceptible. Right. 

This dangerous game, because MMR stands for measles, mumps and rubella. It’s three vaccines in one, right? Exactly. Well, how do you feel about the conversation that’s going on politically about about vaccines almost? Well, I think a majority of the of the Republican candidates in the final stages of the GOP race last year had raised suspicions and concerns about vaccinating kids. Whether or not that’s just pandering to a base or whether or not they actually believe it, including a physician, Ben Carson is remains to be seen. But Donald Trump has tweeted about the ostensible dangers of other vaccinating children. What’s happening here? 

A person was just one for this, Rand Paul also was good. Oh, yes. God, he’s a duck. Yeah. 

What’s going on? Why is this Republican thing? I don’t personally I don’t think it is just a Republican thing. Just so we’re clear. I think that. So the anti vaccine folks can be found on both sides of the aisle. And I think that if, for example, when in 2008, when when John McCain was facing off against Barack Obama, neither of them were good on vaccines. Barack Obama, who obviously who I think was actually very good for science, said that, you know, he was worried about vaccines cause autism. That the science wasn’t in yet. Even by 2008, the science was clearly. So. And John McCain said the same thing. I think you’re right. I think they pandered to the base. I think they’re they see themselves as being sympathetic to parents of children with autism by saying things like that. In fact, they’re doing exactly the opposite. They’re only scaring people unnecessarily about vaccines and putting children in harm’s way. So they’re not being sympathetic, really. But I think and also because the liberals I think for the Republicans that usually, you know, burdensome regulations and the buck that causes them to make bad decisions about science or their climate change, then I was revolution to nine of us, a creationist before the Democrats. If you look at the liberals, if you don’t believe that there’s a liberal anti science movement, just walk into a Whole Foods store, BPA free GMO for a gluten free. It’s all it’s just all up from beets. 

Yeah. It’s funny how I think you’re right that the in the case of Republicans, I think it’s I think the the fear of the policy outcome that it might lead to is what negates the desire to go to accept the science in the first place or in the case of climate science and vaccine science. Both. It’s it’s the idea that if we actually believed in this science, then we then we would be leading towards some kind of horrifying socialist government overreach because you’d be bossing around children and bossing around oil and coal companies. But in the case of in the case of the left, it’s more interesting. Isn’t that it’s a it’s a suspicion towards corporations. It’s suspicion towards the establishment. 

It say some kind of maybe misguided desire to believe in holistic, airy fairy dumb, because I suppose too much of a too much faith in bureaucrats and scientists can lead to a calamity among the among the perspective of some people on the left. Talk to us about gluten, about GMO is about BPA. About this kind of fuzzy thinking. The Whole Foods thinking on the left. 

I think for the left, it’s sort of everything that’s natural is good. Everything that has a chemical name is bad. And anything made by a company, especially a pharmaceutical company, is really bad unless it’s made by people who make dietary supplements. I think that’s right. I think that’s the liberal bias. It’s just very easy to appeal to that. And in part, I guess the most upsetting part of that is, is the gluten thing is, is I think it’s estimated that roughly one percent of people in the United States have a true hypersensitivity reaction. 

Good. Which is to say that they have a reaction to gluten such that they have gluten specific antibodies, their bloodstream. If you look at their intestines, the those those projections, those finger like projections and the tests are very much blunted. And they have the malabsorption syndromes that comes with with celiac disease. 

That’s one percent of the population. Yet as much as a third of the population believes the gluten free foods help them. Now, on the one hand, most people who have a true gluten hypersensitivity, meaty grath celiac disease aren’t diagnosed successfully with it or aren’t diagnosed correctly. So eighty five percent of people out there who really have celiac disease don’t know they have it on. However, for those who do have it, the sort of the gluten free craze has helped them because it’s given them many more choices than they would have had otherwise. So that that is good news. The bad news is gluten free goods were expensive. It’s always been more money to do it, doing it. And it also sort of caters to the whole anti science notion that that everybody thinks they’re allergic, whether or not. What about that? 

What about the organic food movement? Because in an era where concentrated animal farming operations have become, you know, represent a a significant majority of all the meat that we eat. And they raise their own environmental concerns. They raise their own ethical concerns. I can see an argument for let’s get back to a scenario in which we are more at one with the with the ecosystem. But the problem is that can rapidly kind of chip into we will as well. 

What’s the what’s the rational approach to this? 

You know, I completely agree with you. I think that the ethics of it is that, you know, if we treat animals better, that that’s a more humane thing to do. And if that’s part of the sort of the organic food ethos, I think that’s great. But the notion that it’s this that a chicken raised in one situation versus another is more likely to be better for you is is largely wrong. So I think that’s where you get caught up in the world. 

Right. But I mean, you can taste that. I mean, you can literally taste the difference between the flesh of a chicken that’s been rummaging around on my grandparents farm in New Zealand eating bugs all day and the kind of chicken that I buy from it, from the discount. Been at Ralph’s supermarket on Hollywood Boulevard. Right. 

Right. Great. Okay. Well, that settles that, then. The the anti carb movement, let’s let’s go from gluten to there, because I think part of the problem with a lot of this this wuv stuff is that, as you say, there’s a kernel of truth in it. 

There is something it bumps up against, something that’s desirable, as in the case of my my chicken analogy. And I’ve found it useful when I want to lose a bit of weight to just cut out simple carbohydrates and essentially have a sort of a paleo style diet. And that’s just an easy rule of thumb to get rid of sugar and similar similar carbs out of your diet. 

It then also bleeds into a larger philosophy about the I around the idea that we should be eating exactly what people what cavemen eight and becomes a kind of a religious dietary position, somewhat akin to veganism, in that there are rules that have to be followed and you almost have to feel bad if you break the break the rule as if it was like a some kind of religious dogma. Where do you land on the slow carb, low carb, no carb paleo spectrum? 

I think I think people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables. 

I think that they shouldn’t be too crazy about their diet because I think as you draw these sort of ever towering lines, you run the risk of food phobias or food fetishes. And, you know, there are diseases like anorexia. Bulimia are killers. You know, there’s about certainly there are far more people that die every year in the United States because of this. These food fetishes and phobias than ever, dog food, hypersensitivity. So I think you have to be careful when you do these diets that they don’t enter the world of religion and make you a crazy person, because I think then you’re going to suffer. 

Well, what would your advice be to people who are expecting parents? I’m an expecting parent myself. I’m going to have twins in September. Knock on wood. Obviously, there’s a lot of people in my life who are shouting a lot of people pieces of advice at me. And I’m trying to be a scientific and rational about my approach as possible. Is there a is there a rule of thumb? Is there pull off? It’s handy handy chart in 25 words or less about how to navigate that and just use use your common sense. 

I don’t you know, don’t. I think, you know, our children are older now. My wife is a pediatrician, just a great mother. So she always kept me from being too crazy. But we are you know, I just think it’s a matter of not being too restrictive. You know, just just I think use your common sense as a human being for what you know, what you expect of your children and for how you treat your children and, you know, just stop. I just think it’s a matter of sort of common sense not getting too caught up in the craziness, especially if you’re in Southern California. I think should not a car. 

You have my alternatives are not that hot either, because one of those would be Australia. And there are parts of Australia that are just as we will as Southern California. I can assure you, when you talk about not getting caught up in in the craziness, I feel like at least politically, we are living through a time of greater craziness than at any time when I’ve been politically conscious. And I wonder what your take is on the overall rationality of humankind and where the hell we’re going. Do you wake up in the night and think about that? 

I think what’s happened is that with this sort of this outburst of fake news is that now people sort of don’t trust anything. 

And I think that, you know, that’s what I worry, is that science loses its position as as a platform for truth, because I think a part of that, at least in the world of science, is that people confuse science with scientists. You know, scientists get it wrong all the time. That’s OK. I mean, science is a probing, questioning, mutable, changing thing. But but but science doesn’t get it wrong. I mean, ultimately, if you if you’ve published a paper that’s wrong. Time will show that it’s wrong and and truths emerge. So so, for example, climate change that’s affected by human activity is a fact. Evolution is a fact that MMR doesn’t measles, mumps, rubella vaccine doesn’t cause autism is a fact. These things have emerged as facts, as truths. But I think when people see that scientists get things wrong, they’ll say, see, that’s why you can’t trust science. But that’s not true. That’s why you can’t. That’s why you should be skeptical of anything any scientist puts out there until it’s really thoroughly reproduced. And then you can trust and I think that’s where people get confused. 

As a science communicator, do you do you worry about your your ability to cut through that in the future? 

Sure. I think that especially in the current administration, you’ll see that I think with Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency, you see that is a noble or a really energize the anti vaccine. They feel like they’ve got their guy in the White House. I mean, just like them, he’s not evidence based either. So great. Now, we live in an era where, you know, it’s the great Antine light. You know, we’re moving we move from the age of the gates of darkness into the age of enlightenment because of science. And I feel like in some ways, you know, he’s sort of it’s just encouraging people to move back there. So back to the age of darkness. And it’s it’s a little frightening. You know, I think this has been true for a while, though, this kind of postmodern thinking that that my attitudes and beliefs are just as valid as anybody else, independent of what that other person’s expertize or experience is, that if I’ve experienced it, then it’s true. The Jenny McCarthy goes on Oprah and she says, you know, my child was fine. He got this vaccine and then the soul left his eyes. And I don’t care what the CDC says. I don’t care what all these studies say. I know what I saw, which is to say that this temporal association association can only be helpful because I saw it. And, you know, and she’s unshakable and I believe which is which is frustrating it. 

And it’s it is quasi religious, isn’t it? 

It’s funny that you call it post-modern, because at the moment, with the whole fake news thing, it’s associated with the with the ultraright and with the with the rise of these fake made. It first sprang up with these fake news factories in places like Macedonia that would just producing click bait headlines about how Hillary Clinton had murdered an FBI agent or something. And it would get a note, an enormous amount of traffic among a narrow band of Trump’s. It is, but that has now bled into the Twitter feed of the president, the United States, and this and this suspicion that there is any difference between fact and falsehood, as you say, is sort of reminiscent of 1960s French philosophy and university students suddenly realizing in first year philosophy that that there is no absolute truth. 

I haven’t really thought about that. But do you think that those two things are linked? 

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. But the fact is that. See, the thing is, it’s like religion is debatable. Philosophy’s debate or politics debate? Well, there are two sides. Science isn’t that. Science is. 

You know, you you a state, you formulate a hypothesis, you establish burdens approved, you subtract those proved to statistical analysis. And ultimately, over time, truths emerge. Gravity is a fact. The germ theory is a fact. You know, there’s there’s there’s it’s not debatable yet. People debated, you know, chiropractors really chiropractic separated from traditional medicine in the late eighteen hundreds around the time of the germ theory. And at least the purists, the pure sort of chiropractors don’t believe in the drum theory. 

Hence they don’t believe in vaccines because why prevent specific infections of blacks in specific infections don’t cause, you know, living organisms don’t cause the disease. So what do you do about that? It’s just enormously frustrated. 

Yeah. I mean, fortunately for us, I think about as many chiropractors actually believe in the dogma as the number of Christians who believe in the literal truth of the of the Old Testament. So we’re kind of we’re kind of shielded in some in some sense that people don’t actually take their ridiculous believes beliefs as seriously as they might. 

Good to hear. 

Although, you know, what’s the current administration? You’re not. Well, that’s true. That’s true. I mean, he’s a he’s a creationist, is climate change denier. He’s seen as an extreme conservative views. I mean, he he was he was terrible. He might pants, you know, the vice president. Only a an impeachment away from the presidency is now, you know, he was he basically, when he was the governor of Indiana, didn’t let his state health commissioner talk about the HPV vaccine. Anybody who was in the Indiana State Health Department had to submit a presentation to him before his office, before they gave a talk. There was a Indiana cancer consortium, had a pamphlet that talked about cervical cancer. He didn’t support that because it mentioned cervical cancer. I mean, for a man who stood up at the Republican National Convention, said, I’m a Christian, I’m a conservative and I’m a Republican in that order. He got the order wrong because he’s an extreme conservative. And to me, he left. I mean, I’m not a religious person, but I think, you know, were I were I a Christian, a religious Christian, I would. And reading the New Testament, I would see Jesus as someone who stood up for job. I don’t know why he seems to be so capable of rejecting them. 

Yeah. I mean, there’s there’s clearly a fixation in the church. I’m on your wobbly bits, isn’t there? And you think that’s and that’s that that actually trumps your apartment. Word Trump, but it trumps all other considerations to not have to talk to young people about sex because there’s something evil, inherently evil about sex. 

I mean, what are your thoughts about that? Because having been raised in the Australian education system and with Australian healthcare, which is just a Medicare for all system. I remember when we were 12 or 13, we were putting condoms on on dildos. I remember there were ads all over the Australian television which were extremely shocking about AIDS. And as a result, Australia’s anti AIDS measures were among the most successful in the world. And God got them down to extremely low rates very quickly, despite having a very out and proud gay population as well. And then I came here and many of my friends here had basically no sex education and no real education about HIV transmission until they had to learn it for themselves when they were at university age. What’s what’s that all about? 

I just think it’s sort of our Puritan background, the way that we sort of grew up in this country was as pure as somewhat one. And that’s that’s sort of just general notion that there’s something evil or about about sex. I think just sort of still hangs over one. Although, you know, as when my daughter was little, when she was five, I told her she could date whoever she wanted, whenever she wanted. She just had to wait till three days after I was dead. 

So it’s like, okay, should I be worried about a pandemic? 

Sure. I mean, you know, I think, you know, influenza virus can it can certainly cause pandemics. And yeah, I think yeah, I think so. You know, if you if, for example, global warming with global warming, I think you could assume that that diseases that currently are seen only in unusual places will start to march northward. So zinc Zica. Chicken Gunya, Dad. Give me some of these are pretty serious infections for which there aren’t vaccines. And, you know, you worry that that that, you know, they will then enter temporary climates, which you’re starting to see with Zika to some extent, even dangling good to some extent. So this is the downside of many of the downsides of one of many of the downsides of global warming is that influenza can always cause a pandemic and it can cause a great pandemic. 

You know, we don’t have a specific treatment for influenza, nor a minute ACE inhibitors or at best a band aid. And, you know, we can be overwhelmed by that virus. 

And, you know, we saw, for example, in 2009, there were there were far more deaths in this in this country from influenza. There had been in previous years, we had five deaths from influenza in our hospital among children, whereas typically we only have about one. 

So, yeah, I think what about what about the viruses that the CNN goes crazy about? And Wolf Blitzer stands in front of jumbo screens complaining about for three days every three years. And then they and then they go away and people forget about them, whether it’s a swine flu or a bird flu, the possibility that one of these things leaps over the species barrier and is both extremely virulent and extremely deadly, but not deadly enough that people die before transmitting it. 

I think we’ve been lucky. And you’re right. He stands up there. He talks about SaaS or he talks about bursary talks and a virus. He’s 68 and we hear that. And then it goes way we think, great. This was this not a prop? This is not us. Maybe this is happening in Africa, but it’s not happening here. So we’re good. But I think we’ve been lucky. You know, there’s there’s a surprise. And they actually did Saar’s, which is a coronavirus, you know, sort of came and went because there was every reason to. It might not. And I think we’ve been lucky so far, but we shouldn’t be too complacent was an doing that. 

We managed to make it come and go. Was that just just blind luck. 

Blind luck. Hmm. 

Are there systems that we could be putting in place that we should be putting in place to do a better job of being prepared? 

Well, I think with what H5N1, with the bird flu virus, when that sort of fear arose, I think CONI factory is head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, really did start to put in place systems that allowed us to respond quickly. It ended up being that that wasn’t a pandemic. No, there were a lot of reasons to believe that it was going to be a pandemic. And although people got upset with people in the government for sounding a false alarm, I think the good news from all of that was we did start to put systems in place to respond. So I think we can respond. Are you with Zika? No. There are 20 programs out there that are moving forward on a Zika vaccine. And Tony Fouchier said he’s confident there’ll be a Zika vaccine by 2020. I think that’s true, but it does. It thought these things don’t happen quickly. 

I think people want a vaccine the next day. Never having sex early in the book. 

All right. Dr. Paul, if it’s a new book, is Pandora’s Lab Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong? Paul, great to have you on the show. Thanks for being here. Thank you so much. 

Those fun inquiries and production at the Center for Inquiry become a member and support the advancement of science and reason by going to center for inquiry dot org slash membership. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.