Monthly Archives: November 2014

Scientists really CAN be trusted.

So, a short one about how scientists, for the most part, are who you should trust when you ask questions about, well, science.

Ebola. If you’re not a scientist, chances are good that a month ago you were at least a little bit freaked out when you heard that word. Possibly you were a lot freaked out. And now? You’re not remotely worried, are you?

I’m just going to take a moment to point out that the scientific community has been right on pretty much every level in this one:

1. We said: We should be paying attention to Ebola in West Africa. This outbreak is different. It’s going to get really bad if we don’t stop it.

It got really bad when we didn’t stop it. Bodies piled up outside of clinics bad.

2. We said: Ebola is difficult to spread through casual contact, and is definitely not airborne.

The reason you’re not terrified right now, the reason Dallas still exists at all, is because Ebola is difficult to spread and is not airborne. If it was either airborne or passed from an asymptomatic person to others, Dallas would be lousy with Ebola patients today. Instead, yesterday, Dallas ended its Ebola watch, with a total of three infected patients, all of whom were in very intimate contact with one another. Not even Thomas Eric Duncan’s family got sick.

3. We said: people aren’t contagious if they’re not symptomatic. See above.

Clearly also true, otherwise we’d have infected airline hosts/hostesses and passengers on public transit, and a variety of other people who had casual contact with the Ebola patients in the U.S.

4. We said: with good medical care, Ebola is a survivable illness.

Of the nine patients cared for in the U.S., one has died, for a mortality rate of 11%. This is comparable to Diptheria, Meningococcal disease, Legionnaire’s Disease…you have been vaccinated for Diptheria and Meningococcal disease, right? I figured. (If you said no, REALLY?) Overall, outside of West Africa, 4/19 cases have resulted in death, so that’s about 21%. Similar to Polio. Which you’re also vaccinated against, right? Just checking.

So, if you get sick in a country with excellent medical care, you live. This is why improving treatment in West Africa is so important. See #1, above.

Also, just a note: the outbreak in the U.S. is over, for now, with a total of nine cases, only three related to one another directly. Again, see #2.

My point? A month ago, when I was telling everyone not to panic? It was because the science said “don’t panic”, and the science is really well-understood. And two weeks ago, when I was arguing that it’s a violation of a woman’s civil rights to lock her up when, even if she WAS infected, she’s clearly not infectious? Ditto.

The broader point: while we are obviously not infallible (there have been some major failures over the decades and centuries), science is a process by which we approach the right answer to a given question. When almost every scientist you can find is giving you the same answer, and with confidence, that means we’ve chased the correct answer long enough to be pretty sure we’re right.

On that note: see “global climate change” and “evolution” for other examples. These are as close to “scientific fact” as you get. We agree, or more than 99% of us do, on these. Which means we’re really sure we’re right.

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