While watching the rather breathlessly done “Dark Matters: Twisted but True” (link to the episode if you’d like to watch) on the Science Channel, I got a reminder on just how stupid people can be when clinging to false beliefs that support their feelings of self-worth and I started ruminating on how this still happens now. The show does do a service in showing that science and its very human scientists aren’t perfect. Anyone who knows research understands this.
Back in the very early 1900s, people were dying of a disease called pellagra (fair warning, the photos are a bit much for the squeamish) by a particularly nasty set of symptoms: dermatitis (not a rash, your skin was coming apart), diarrhea, dementia and death. We know now that it is most often from niacin deficiency, vitamin B3, which is part of the protein processing in the human body. It was caused from the ignorance of human beings when it came to eating maize (what you call corn….). The Native Americans used lye to break down the grain so the proteins in it were available to us without 4 compartment stomachs. The Europeans who came to the Americas ignored what the “uncivilized natives” were doing, sure that their ways were superior. Their willful ignorance became a problem in any place that was eating a lot of maize but wasn’t processing it correctly.
In the early 20th century American South, this was a big problem, and the United States federal gov’t, through the United States Public Health Service, supported a research project on what was causing this awful disease. It was widely thought that it either was communicable or it was caused by a toxin in the corn. Joseph Goldberger, by experimentation on prisoners (and we’ll get to that), figured out that it was diet that was causing a deficiency in something and that a return to a diet with meat, fruits and vegetables cured the ravages of the disease (he also figured out that brewer’s yeast also worked; it has those important vitamins in it). Goldberger never found exactly what caused pellagra but humans did, and in 1938, Time Magazine hailed them as Men of the Year. Hard to believe that the United States suffered a huge number of deaths due to malnutrition, but we did. Here’s a fascinating bit in the Kentucky Medical Journal from May 1921 about the scourge of pellagra.
One of the issues with this disease is that prisoners were used as lab rats to figure it out. One can take into consideration the time and place, long before antibiotics, and no standard labs at all to do work in. It’s still questionable, even though the prisoners were promised their freedom for their participation and were given it when they were through. Unlike many other questionable human tests, this did come out with beneficial ending. However, this is not the focus of this post. Google “medical ethics” if you want more on this topic.
The other issue with this disease is that the medical community and the federal government resisted the answers that the scientific method gave them. It was demonstrated by Goldberger that it was diet that was the culprit, but if this was true, then problems with social equality was the root cause. Few wanted to hear from a “New York Jew” that their ideas based on narrow religious interpretation and on social Darwinism were wrong. No one wanted to hear that the poor weren’t being somehow “punished” by a god or that they were not “inferior” beings *choosing* to live in squalor and getting germs. They preferred those answers, were sure that talking about such things would cause the south to lose popularity, and thus made the path to a cure that much harder to navigate.
Regrettably, in the 21st century, we have much the same attitudes about the much the same things. We went through this with AIDS and now with women’s healthcare. Rep. Todd Akin is now the poster child for willfully ignorant conservatives when it comes to science, but he is scarcely the only one. The Republican platform for the 2012 presidential race also clings to beliefs that support the very human desire to believe that those who need protection, that need help are only the “inferior” and the “punished”. It removes any responsibility to help. The presumptive presidential and vice-presidential nominees Romney and Ryan evidently also go with this platform. They have done nothing to demonstrate otherwise and no matter how much Reince Priebus insists otherwise in the face of overwhelming evidence, the platform of the Republican Party *is* the platform of Romney and Ryan.
They wish to claim that women have some magical biology that would prevent a “virtuous” women from becoming pregnant from rape, even though science has shown this to be a lie. It’s easy to then declare that anyone who is so “bad” should not be helped and protected. It reaffirms that their narrow interpretation of one sect of one religion is the only “good” one.
They wish to claim that the poor and destitute are completely at fault for their position. They ignore the data that demonstrates that much of the problems the poor have are rooted in the lack of spending on infrastructure, the lack of equality, the lack of education, the lack of health care, etc situations that most Republicans encourage with their constant and continued attempts to defund such things. Their ideas of religion and class reaffirm that wealth and power do not come with responsibility or with assistance from the rest of the community, that it is a “gift” for the “righteous” to do with as they will.
As we’ve seen in the case of pellagra, such attitudes are harmful and it should make anyone ill and angry that this still goes on. It’s up to everyone to resist these comfortable lies and take a stand against them.
Post Script: On the same show I also saw just how damn stupid intelligent people can be when they are disregarding the consequence or just showing off, see Louis Slotin and criticality accidents (yes it seems that this happens far far too often). I knew about an accident thanks to the excellent movie “Fat Man and Little Boy” (the scene an amalgam of the two accidents) but that they did it *again*, nope didn’t know about that. I have a fascination about radiation. Yep, too many X-Men comic books at a tender age….