Saturday, September 20, 2014


In my youth I read with great excitement Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People.  In it the hero, Dr. Stockmann, warns his city officials of a potentially dangerous outbreak of typhoid fever from bacterial infested waters of the town spas. Instead of springing into action and responding to Stockmann’s advice on how to prevent the epidemic, he is castigated and branded as an alarmist whose concerns would scare away tourists and shut down commerce.  I think of Ibsen’s play when I listen to the slow as molasses response the world is making to the outbreak of Ebola virus in now four African countries. The infections are spreading and shifting to exponential growth (every 21 days) because of public ignorance, a mixture of fatalism, belief in magic spells, suspicion of foreign sources spreading the disease, and denial.  When Nedra and I were on Semester at Sea and visiting Capetown in 1992, I found a similar wishful thinking that the spreading epidemic of AIDS in Uganda and Kenya would not reach Capetown. In Madras (now Chennai) I was told by some Indian professors that AIDS was not a problem to worry about because Indian males are monogamous and faithful. Sadly, both Capetown and Chennai have experienced a different outcome than their wishful thinking. No doubt, if tens of thousands were dying from Ebola virus infections each day, the world would spring into action but the problems of containing the epidemic would be far more challenging than early intervention with public health measures and effective quarantine and treatment. This indifference is unlikely to happen in the US because our Centers for Disease Control would quickly isolate each new or suspected case.  A very similar response occurs to concerns of the overwhelming majority of scientists who study oceanography, geography, atmospheric science, marine biology, and meteorology.  Despite the overwhelming physical evidence of climate change from the contributions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other industrial pollutants deniers have stymied action in the US and many other industrial nations.    They deny that massive discharges of these gasses from industry, home heating, outdoor cooking (for much of the undeveloped world), and energy used to drive cars, locomotives, jet planes, and ships at sea, have anything to do with the climate changes published in peer reviewed journals.  Instead, a number of reasonably educated individuals, like Dr. Stockmann’s peers in Norway, prefer to blame the messenger for false information, seeking to profit from worthless attempts to solve a problem that doesn't exist in their minds.  Unfortunately many people do not know the difference between science and magic, between pseudoscience and carefully reasoned, tested, or controlled evidence. Most of our elected officials have had no more than one year of science in a college liberal arts degree.  Most of those who complete a high school degree are fortunate if their biology course has not been purged of any science that might contradict religious, ideological, or political beliefs because of a fear that science will question the wishful thinking that governs much of our lives.  

No comments: