Thursday, January 20, 2005

Wild Assertions, Flagrant Fallacies, and Incredible Blunders

Turn right for the fiction-based community and left for the reality-based community.

While composing an earlier posting, I visited some Rumpole web sites and learned that Rumpole's appellation for his wife, "She Who Must Be Obeyed", came from H. Rider Haggard's adventure/fantasy book, She. In which - coincidentally? - two of the three main characters are Leo (as in McKern) and Horace (as in Rumpole)!

After reading She, I picked up Haggard's Doctor Therne, a fictional account of a doctor sacrificing his scientific integrity for political ambition. The novel was written in response to the British government relaxing the compulsory smallpox Vaccination Acts in 1898. The British government's capitulation to the anti-vaccinationists reminds me greatly of how the current U.S. president and his coterie are attempting to set science and society back 100 years or more in so many areas.

The title of this posting is the characterization by Dr. Francis T. Bond, honorary secretary of the Jenner Society, of Alfred Russel Wallace's anti-vaccination arguments, the debate between the two being carried on via Letters to the Editor. The Society is named for Edward Jenner, who performed the first smallpox vaccination in 1796. From what little I could gather about Wallace's role in the controversy, he was apparently correct in criticizing the statistics presented by the pro-vaccinationists, but wrong on the issue. (There were too many other variables involved at that time to make the statistics reliable.)

From the Author's Note at the beginning of Doctor Therne:
Some months since the leaders of the Government dismayed their supporters and astonished the world by a sudden surrender to the clamour of the anti-vaccinationists. In the space of a single evening, with a marvellous versatility, they threw to the agitators the ascertained results of generations of the medical faculty, the report of a Royal Commission, what are understood to be their own convictions, and the President of the Local Government Board. After one ineffectual fight the House of Lords answered to the whip, and, under the guise of a "graceful concession," the health of the country was given without appeal into the hand of the "Conscientious Objector."
And Doctor Therne in the text:
Had I spoken the truth, indeed, I should have confessed my inability to support the anti-vaccinationist case, since in my opinion few people who have studied this question with an open and impartial mind can deny that Jenner's discovery is one of the greatest boons -- perhaps, after the introduction of antiseptics and anaesthetics, the very greatest -- that has ever been bestowed upon suffering humanity.

If the reader has any doubts upon the point, let him imagine a time when, as used to happen in the days of our forefathers, almost everybody suffered from smallpox at some period of their lives, those escaping only whose blood was so fortified by nature that the disease could not touch them. Let him imagine a state of affairs -- and there are still people living whose parents could remember it -- when for a woman not to be pitted with smallpox was to give her some claim to beauty, however homely might be her features. Lastly, let him imagine what all this means: what terror walked abroad when it was common for smallpox to strike a family of children, and when the parents, themselves the survivors of similar catastrophes, knew well that before it left the house it would take its tithe of those beloved lives. Let him look at the brasses in our old churches and among the numbers of children represented on them as kneeling behind their parents; let him note what a large proportion pray with their hands open. Of these, the most, I believe, were cut off by smallpox. Let him search the registers, and they will tell the same tale. Let him ask old people of what their mothers told them when they were young of the working of this pestilence in their youth. Finally, let him consider how it comes about, if vaccination is a fraud, that some nine hundred and ninety-nine medical men out of every thousand, not in England only, but in all civilised countries, place so firm a belief in its virtue. Are the doctors of the world all mad, or all engaged in a great conspiracy to suppress the truth?
For those who wish to tear down the Social Security Insurance program, let them "imagine a time when, as used to happen in the days of our forefathers", the elderly lived in poverty and were dependent on their children.