Last night was rainy and cold for April, and I was
alone. So after watching part of the
first episode of Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish until 6:15 or so, I popped over
to Lucky 32 for supper -- smoked salmon and breaded , deep-fried balls of
mashed potatoes. I’m always saying to my
students that there’s no such thing as perfection in this world, but that meal
was pretty damned close. Given the
weather and my recent illnesses, I was definitely in the mood for comfort
food. And Laurelyn Dosset was there
playing rainy-day songs, which was very nice.
Of course, I had to be a killjoy by bringing along my
advance copy of David Lewis’s Science for Sale. I’ve been slogging through this
book a little at a time for a couple of months now. It’s a complex story, and Lewis doesn’t tell
it that well. He tries to personalize
it, but the way he inserts his anecdotes of human folly are more distracting
than illuminating. He could really use
an editor and a timeline – actually a series of parallel timelines, because of
all the multitasking.
Before we get into the actual controversy, to set the stage,
you know who David Lewis reminds me of?
Captain America! Lewis is sort of
this Super-Soldier of Science, innocently running rings around Falcon and the
reflecting pool at the Washington Monument.
The quality of his science is just better. The quality of his morals is just better. He’s patient, and careful, and brave. He never gets tired of getting screwed over
by Hydra, never gets depressed and drunk and pitiful, never freaks out and murders
one of his own superiors for testing bargain-basement versions of the Super-Soldier
Serum on poor black GIs like Isaiah Bradley.
The main difference is that the good Captain usually wins.
In the largest sense, plot-wise, Science for Sale is structured a lot like The Winter Soldier, except the situation is worse – more complicated,
more decentralized, more insidious. In
the book, self-serving bastards have infiltrated not just S.H.I.E.L.D., but
every government agency that funds science, every university that receives
government grant money, as well as the journals that report scientific results. The movie has a single world domination
doomsday conspiracy; the book shows a web of little conspiracies designed to
empower individual competing groups (like Steve Jackson’s Illuminati game). Lewis focuses on three specific little
conspiracies that he encountered during his scientific career. I will treat them as separate episodes, like
a comic from the 60s, instead of interweaving them into a longer arc, like a
ONE. People don’t
clean their surgical instruments properly, and this spreads disease. Dental drills suck blood into their
interiors. If they aren’t sterilized
properly, they can transfer bacteria and viruses from one patient to another. The same goes for the flexible endoscopes
that proctologists stuff up people’s bums to take pictures of the inside of the
colon, or to remove cancerous growths that show up on the photos. Half-assed cleanings do not in fact sterilize
these instruments, and occasionally an individual gets sick for no apparent
reason. These kinds of rare events are
easy to imagine, but documenting them is quite difficult, requiring a lot of
effort that most people are not willing to put in. It’s not even a proper conspiracy, just a
bunch of lazy doctors and dentists who aren’t following the manufacturer’s directions. Angie’s List could take care of this problem.
Tired of lousy service and HIV infections?
Hail HYDRA! Full dental!
TWO. Lewis wades into
the vaccine controversy. Just to show
how unclear the scientific community itself currently is on this issue, I had
two postdoc guests at Science Cafe last month repeat the British Medical
Journal’s claims of scientific fraud against Andrew Wakefield. They did not mention his name, and given the
mocking and dismissive tone they used, I don’t think it was out of respect or
restraint. I don’t think they knew his
name. I’m not knocking them; I didn’t
know the story either until our favorite shield-slinger David Lewis told
it. I think I may have even linked to
the hack job at some point (for which I apologize, and if I find that link I
will remove it). The basics are that the
British government did a hack job on Wakefield.
According to Lewis (and this is easily checkable), Wakefield never said that vaccines cause autism. He said in one paper that the MMR vaccine was
correlated with a particularly nasty form of bowel inflammation. He said in a different paper, based on
different subjects, that autism was correlated with gastrointestinal ailments
(not at all controversial, according to my two Science Cafe guests). The hack job conflated these two papers and
then invented evidence to prove that he was wrong about something he never said
Lewis’s deconstruction of this is long, detailed, and
complicated, going back to medical reports and histology slides of samples of damaged
tissue from the bowels of patients.
There’s a link to his previous work on endoscopes, but a lot of his involvement
seems to be Cap-like, that he’s out looking for trouble, searching for wrongs
to right. Like he doesn’t have enough to
do running his own lab at the EPA. What
kind of Super-Scientist Serum is this guy on, or is he just mainlining some
kind of caffeine-amphetamine cocktail through his spinal cord like Bane?
THREE. Here’s the big
one, the mind-bender, the unbelievable rot that goes all the way to the top. Take all the human shit from a wastewater
treatment plant. This is not just normal
human shit full of friendly members of the human microbiome. This includes shit from nursing homes,
hospitals, prisons, whatever – full of unfriendly, antibiotic-resistant
pathogens. It also includes the actual
antibiotics and other drugs that patients have taken. It also includes whatever regulated industrial
wastes that have been “accidentally spilled,” as well as the unregulated stuff
that we don’t even know about. Take all
of that stuff, which is totally illegal to leave in the water or the air, and
dump it on farmland. Call it
fertilizer. Get the EPA, the same
organization that enforces the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, to fund
university scientists to say that this is a good idea. Claim that the organic material (the shit)
prevents the toxins from entering the food chain, when any first-grader who
watched the Lion King knows that the
whole point of organic material is that it breaks down and “becomes the grass.” Push this sludge magic farther and claim that
shit can bind existing toxins, and start spraying it on lead-contaminated
Baltimore neighborhoods. Hell, just start
feeding sewage sludge pills to prisoners.
See what I’m talking about?
Any one of those could be a movie, or a sub-plot lasting months in a
comic. The overall arc could span a
couple of years. In reality, these three
(or four) plots consumed years of David Lewis’s life. The sludge monsters never tried to
assassinate him like Nick Fury, but they got him fired from the EPA (or “retired,”
in bureaucrat language). He still hasn’t
given up like a normal person would. He’s
still fighting these battles as part of the National Whistleblower’s Center,
funding his research Robin Hood-style, with money from court settlements. But he’s also apparently a good Christian,
with no hate in him.
I’ve always been much more a fan of Captain America than The Punisher (even Batman doesn’t go around with a big-ass skull on his chest). I think
revenge is usually counter-productive. Marvel
has definitely moved in the direction of fighting fire with bullets (see
previous post on their movie version of Falcon), and this bothers me some. I prefer poetic justice. I wonder how fast this issue would get
resolved if these biosolids were instead dumped on million-dollar estates and
gated communities? Or on Disneyworld –
you know they own Marvel, now, right?
How would they tell this story if they thought it was important? Would they address it directly, or continue
nibbling abstractly around the edges of institutional corruption? Which is more effective, long-term?
Captain America: TRUTH: Red, White & Black