Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Et Tu, Shermer?

Among so many valid statements, did Michael Shermer really need to say this in the course of chiding Bill Maher's suspension of reality-based thinking on H1N1 and vaccinations? To answer my own question: no, Michael Shermer did not need to say it, and he should not have:

In fact, the very principle of how vaccinations work is additional proof (as if we needed more) against the creationists that evolution happened ... Our immune system “adapts” to the invading pathogens and “evolves” to fight them, such that when it encounters a biologically similar pathogen (which itself may have evolved) it has in its armory the weapons needed to fight it.

The metaphor comparing species-level adaptation and individual-level immune response is too big for the scare-quotes in which Shermer couches it. Species do not either survive or perish from novel environmental challenges in the same way that the immune system either kills or succumbs to novel pathogens; immune systems do not consist of individuals that differentially reproduce based on varying ability to fend off novel pathogens. Beyond the level of "stuff changes to aid survival," this metaphor makes a slapdash mess of the science Shermer is trying to defend.

There's plenty to admire in Shermer's criticisms of Maher, and I share in his hope that Maher will broaden his commendable pro-reality bias to embrace the relevant science, but it does no favors for evolution or scientific medicine to throw them together in such a distorting, unnecessary way.

By way of background, here is Bill Maher achieving what I would normally find unthinkable -- an atheist debating a right-wing Christian, with the right-wing Christian taking the pro-science side:

Sigh. Bill Maher, please rejoin reality, and lest I overstate my objections to Michael Shermer's letter, he hits exactly the right note with this:
Vaccinations are not 100% effective, nor are they risk free. But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and when communities in the U.S. and the U.K. in recent years have foregone vaccinations in large numbers, herd immunity is lost and communicable diseases have come roaring back. This is yet another example of evolution at work, but in this case it is working against us.


Elizabeth said...

Ergh. Especially irritating, since if Shermer had reversed it, it WOULD be an example of evolution at work: human immune systems are a selecting force on viruses, with viruses adapting and evolving in response. No scare quotes needed at all.

Dale said...

Elizabeth -- agreed. It's really odd. Shermer has written some well-regarded things in defense of evolution; it's just plain weird that he'd whiff this so completely.