Tag Archives: Nerve Gas

Seven Stories Of Science Gone Wrong

What, with all the attacks on science and scientist these days, we may not want to be focusing on those times when science goes off the rails and makes a huge mess of things. But, science at its best and scientists at their best, will never shy away from such things.

Dr. Paul Offit just wrote a book called Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, which not about an evil black dog that escaped from a box, but rather, seven instances when the march of scientific progress headed off a cliff rather than in the desired direction. People died. Many people died. Other bad things happened.

Note: I interviewed Paul Offit about his book on Atheist Talk Radio. This interview will be aired on Sunday, May 28th, and will be available as a podcast. It should be HERE.

Readers will have different reactions to, and ways to relate to, each of the seven different stories, because they are far flung and cover a great deal of time, diverse social settings, and a wide range of scientific endeavors. Some readers will get mad because he talks about DDT and Rachel Carson, though I assure you his argument is mostly reasonable (I did disagree with some parts). All readers will be amazed at the poppy plant and all it can do and has done, and astonished at the immense apparent ignorance displayed by that plant’s exploiters, from back in the early 19th century to, well, yesterday. Those interested in race and racism, the use of poison gas to kill people, will find things you didn’t know in Offit’s carefully researched histories. Also, don’t forget to take your vitamins. Or, maybe, forget to take your vitamins.

The chapter “The Great Margarine Mistake” is a great example of the very commonly screwed up interface between food science, food production and marketing, and the shaping of food preference among regular people. You know, that thing where “They tell us not to drink coffee. Then they tell us to drink coffee. They don’t know nothin'”

My biggest disagreement with Paul is over malaria. He did not incorporate an often overlooked fact about the disease into his discussion, and had he done so, may have written a somewhat different chapter. Briefly, in zones where there are two wet seasons (or one long wet season and a very short dry season) there has never really been success in curtailing malaria. In zones where there is a very long dry season but it is wet enough for part of the year for the mosquito that carries malaria to exist at least most years, malaria is relatively easy to beat down using a wide range of techniques, no one of which is supreme. So, for example, today, the distribution of malaria in South Africa, where it is not actually that common (thousands of cases in a normal year among tens of millions of people) is determined mainly by how wet the eastern wet season is, integrated with the movement into that area of people, usually refugees, who are a) infected and b) not getting medical treatment. (See this.)

Malaria was wiped out in country after country prior to the use of DDT, then the DDT came in and helped a great deal, in those relatively dry countries. But the wet countries, not so much. Indeed, in a place like Zaire, there are absolutely no reliable statistics on how common Malaria is or ever was over most of the country, but when I lived there in the 1980s, it was as common as the common cold in New Jersey, and DDT was theoretically in use. (That is a second correlation with causation: the wetter the equatorial country, the less we actually know about disease. I recall leaving the deep rain forest to visit the “city” to get hold of a few courses of leprosy medicine for a handful of people who visited our clinic who had it, where I had dinner with a guy from the UN who was on his victory lap for having wiped out leprosy in Africa.)

In some ways, Offit’s final chapter is the most interesting, the eighth chapter (combined with the Epilog) in which he does two things. One is to identify the kind of reasoning mistake, or methodological mistake, each of his seven examples exemplifies. Such as failure to pay attention to the data, or failure to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. The other is to go quickly through what may end up being similar stories of science gone wrong just starting to brew today or in recent decades, such as the long term unintended effects of widespread use of antibiotics.

A question that Offit’s book raises, indirectly, is this: When a Pandora-like box opens and some sort of monster creeps out, why did the box open to begin with? Sometimes it is jostled open, like in the case of unintended negative outcomes from the use of antibiotics. Sometimes it is opened because someone can’t resist the treasures that may be inside. Sometimes it is opened because science is an open process and must always seek knowledge etc. etc. I wonder if the recent development of an engineered polio virus (three instances), or the Spanish Flu, is an example of such. Sometimes it is opened because of (Godwin Warning!) HITLER. Seriously.

I don’t know what knowing these reasons gets us, but one possibility is this: when we find ignorance as a root cause of calamity, perhaps an appreciation of knowledge is gained. That is certainly the lesson of Offit’s review of the products of opium, their invention, intensification, deployment, and use. Apparently addiction was simply not understood at all until fairly recently, and that lack of understanding caused science, medical technology, and medical practice to do the exactly wrong thing over and over again.

And of course, lobotomies. The invention of the latter method of doing this useless and horrible procedure is something that, if put in a movie as a plot element, would kill the movie because it is not possible to suspend disbelief to the degree necessary to stay seated in the theater.

Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong is a great read and a necessary addition to the bookshelf of any practicing skeptic or science enthusiast.

Paul Offit, who is a pediatrician and the inventor of a rotavirus vaccine (see this for an interesting podcast on a related topic), is the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology and Professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. He is also chief of Infectious Diseases and director of Vaccine Education at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Aside from Pandra’s Lab, he also wrote Do You Believe in Magic?: Vitamins, Supplements, and All Things Natural: A Look Behind the Curtain, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, and Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine.

Hitler, Assad, Trump, Spicer, Godwin, Sarin, Zyklon B, Chemical Weapon, Termites

Why Hitler is Different

Hitler is not entirely different from Pol Pot, Stalin, and the other mass killers. He is not entirely different from other fascists. But there is a short list of people, with Hitler on that list, who have this characteristic: They were so bad that we can not and should not compare their badness to each other outside of certain limited academic contexts, and they were so bad that any comparison made between them and their works to anyone not on that list, or to their works, threatens to devalue their badness.

We can not devalue the evil of Hitler or his kind. Historically, Hitler is our contemporary. His Holocaust was horrible and it could happen again. Oh, and this: It really happened. “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”*

The third or fourth most common fallacy on the Internet is that Godwin’s Law prohibits making references to or comparisons with Hitler or Nazis. This is untrue. Godwin is not a law, but an observation, that among certain sorts of internet denizens, given enough time, someone would make a Hitler or Nazi comparison. And, it was a joke. It was Godwin’s Joke.

But, that fact that Godwin’s Law does not actually exist does not mean blithe comparisons to Hitler or Nazis are not frequently unwise. However, the fact that such comparisons are frequently unwise does not mean that they are always unwise for the same reasons.

When people compare Donald Trump to Adolph Hitler appropriately (meaning, in a defensible manner helpful to understanding current events by reference to history) they are potentially doing a good thing. Making that comparison to Hitler that devalue Hitler’s badness is always bad, even though that is usually not the intent of the comparison. Simply saying that Trump and Hitler are the same is an example of that. The comparison that I’ve seen that does potentially make sense, and that does not devalue the horrors of the past, is really one comparing the people and politics now to the people and politics then.

Here is the argument for that.

If we regard Trump as a demagogue who has never shown one iota of respect for the democratic process, then we may be very concerned that when push comes to shove, he’ll push the Constitution and the law out of the way and shove whatever he wants down our throats. He has said many things that indicate he is capable of this, and has even said things suggesting that he may be planning this. Since we can’t tell the difference between Trump’s purposeful bloviating and his incidental ignorance, we must assume that when he tells us that his popularity would go up if he murdered someone, that Trump murdering someone is on the list of possibilities. When he tells us that he intends to make Mexico pay for a wall, and since we know that the only way to force another country to pay for something they refuse to pay for is to take over their government, then the possibility that an invasion of Mexico is in fact on the table, as outrageous as that sounds.

If Trump is heading in the direction of tossing aside democracy, which as I’ve argued elsewhere would not be difficult in our system, given the fact that he is in charge of the most powerful country in the world, the possibility of a Hitler-resembling result has to be considered. Trump is a democratically elected leader of a country with elections. Hitler was too. Hitler became a fascist dictator. Trump talks like a fascist dictator, like a person who wants to be a fascist dictator. It is said that Trump’s followers feel dispossessed and that is why he won the election (I do not fully subscribe to that but it is said…) Same with Hitler’s supporters. Polls have indicated that many of Trump’s followers disdain democracy and would be OK with a dictatorship as long as it is their guy in charge. And so on.

The comparison between any rising leader with fascist tendencies supported by people who are not appalled by fascism, on one hand, with any or all actual historical fascists, is not only acceptable but necessary. “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1” becomes “As the prospect of a fascist taking over the country grows larger, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” No longer a joke, is it?

Spicer’s Sin

Sean Spicer, the hapless presidential press secretary, made that Hitler comparison the other day, and outraged people. Then, of course, the Internet got it all wrong.

Spicer said,

We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II … You had someone as despicable as Hitler didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons. If you’re Russia, you have to ask yourself if this is a country and regime that you want to align yourself with…When it comes to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing…In the way that Assad used them where he went into towns and dropped him down on innocents in the middle of town was not the same.

The Internet, in response, said,

Of course Hitler used chemical weapons on his own people, that’s what the Holocaust was, stupid! Zyklon B is what Hitler used, and that is a chemical weapon!

And, references to Zyklon B have increased dramatically. Zyklon B was one of the killing tools used during the Holocaust, the preferred gas chamber chemical.

The Internet is wrong about his in two important ways.

First, Spicer’s reference was not a sin because he messed up the chemical weapons problem (we’ll come back to that in a moment). His reference was a sin because he totally messed up history while at the same time equating Assad with Hitler. Now, nobody likes Assad, and it is quite possible (if not likely) that this jerk would be just as bad as Hitler if he was in Hitler’s boots. But he wasn’t, and therefore he didn’t. Hitler was Hitler because of what he thought and what he did, and whom he cultivated and surrounded himself with, and the historical contexts of his time allowing him to get away with certain things, and so on. Assad in a Tardis, replacing Hitler in 1938, might have even been worse than Hitler. But that didn’t happen. The comparison devalues Hitler simply because Assad, in the big historical pictures, is a real jerk, but in fact, a minor jerk. Hitler, by comparison, and Hitler’s Holocaust, is on the list of the worst things that happened ever.

Spicer was, however, trying to make a valid point but because a) he is ignorant of history and b) insensitive to the Hitler problem, totally screwed it up. Or at least, I think he was trying to make a valid point. Here is how I might have said it, subject to revision:

Assad’s use of chemical weapons goes against a global disdain for such things, that has been embodied in international law for decades. The Hague made them illegal at the end of the nineteenth century, and their occasional use has universally been regarded with disdain.

By the way, Hitler produced chemical weapons and had artillery shells armed with them, but never used them. There were plans for significantly expanding their production, never finished by the end of the war. While the Japanese used chemical weapons during that war, the Germans did not really do so. The reasons are not clear and this is a point of controversy among historians. The Germans relied a great deal in some theaters on horses, and despite their efforts, the Germans were not able to make an effective equine gas mask. The allies were known to have large stockpiles of chemical weapons, despite them being illegal, and Hitler was sufficiently afraid that they would be used in retaliation of German use that he never allowed armed munitians to be near front line officers, who might go rogue and fire them off.

What the Germans did do, in the war theater, was to use chemically produced gasses to clear mainly Russians out of underground bunkers, and in one or more cases, to kill large number of people hidden underground, in Odessa and various locations in the Crimea (See: “Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War”).

The second thing the Internet got wrong was the seemingly innocent but in fact very dangerous conflation of the idea of gassing people on the battlefield using a chemical weapon and gassing people in death camps as part of the Holocaust. The word “gas” is used in both places, but there is a nearly complete (see below) and critical distinction between the two. This may seem like an academic nitpic, but it is not.

At some point in the future, the future version of Colin Powell is going to explain to the UN, the US government, Congress, the American People, etc. that we need to invade a certain country because they have weapons of mass destruction. But it might be a lie, like it was last time. And, following our most recent bout of self inflicted ignorance, that lie could rely on the conflation of killing gasses used in warfare with killing gasses not used in warfare.

The former are restricted by international law and highly monitored. The latter are routinely produced in numerous factories around the world and used in agriculture and other areas. Zyklon B was an insecticide, then it was used to kill about 1 million people in the Nazi death camps. Then it was an insecticide again, and it still is. It is not the most commonly used insecticide, but it or a close version of it is still produced in various countries, and a wide range of roughly equivalent gasses are produced widely and used widely. If we want to say that these are “chemical weapons,” which is exactly what the Internet is insisting that we say right now, then we are handing Future Colin Powell Clone an argument to invade.

Now, I need to add an important detail. Even though Hydrogen cyanide (which is what Zyklon B delivers) is primarily an insecticide these days and not generally useful as a weapon of war, dropped on enemy troops or people and the like, it has been used for this. Zyklon A (called just “Zyklon” before “Zyklon B” came along) was actually used (not extensively) during World War I (called “The Great War” before “World War II” came along). So called “blood agents” using Hydrogen cyanide are among the chemicals listed as “chemical weapons” but they are not considered very effective or useful on the battlefield. Also, note, while Zyklon B was used to kill more people in the Holocaust other gasses were used that would have made even less effective chemical weapons, such as CO.

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 9.29.53 AMIt is not sufficient to say, as some will I’m sure, “it is too a weapon because it was used to harm or kill therefore it was a chemical weapon therefore shut up.” But that is simply wrong. Again: someday someone is going to argue for an invasion of some place because of WMD’s and the WMD’s are going to be pesticides manufactured in a legal and normal factory in that country for use in agriculture or other legal contexts. That’s going to happen no matter what. Let’s not lay the groundwork to make that easier.

The other part of Spicer’s remark that is clearly wrong is the idea that Assad attacked his own people last week, but Hitler “did not use gas” against his own people. The difference between using real chemical weapons vs. some other kind of gas on his own people is in this context a pedantic point. That it is pedantic in this context does not mean it is also pedantic in the context of what a Weapon of Mass Destruction is. It is partly because of Spicer’s ham handed treatment of the discussion that we might end up making this mistake where making the mistake has significant material and life threatening consequences. Yes, of course, Hitler attacked his own people. No, it really wasn’t using “chemical weapons” as they are defined by treaty and conventions of warfare. But no, it does not matter in understanding the idiocy of Spicer’s remarks — not the remarks but the idiocy. Never mind the additional complexity that the Jews and others were not Hitler’s own people according to Hitler, or that the Syrian “rebels” are not Assad’s own people according to Assad.

My advice to Spicer: Don’t ever make any references to history, because you know nothing about history. Try, generally, to say less because you almost always screw up whatever you say. Consider a different job, like the job you formerly had in the White House, as shown in the illustration to the right. And just, well, shut up.