[extropy-chat] Are vaccinations useless?

Russell Wallace russell.wallace at gmail.com
Mon Mar 13 21:50:18 UTC 2006

On 3/13/06, "Hal Finney" <hal at finney.org> wrote:
> This is a great subject, that demonstrates many important and surprising
> effects.

Am I the only one who feels this is rather like someone coming into a space
discussion list and saying the academic consensus is the Apollo landings
were a hoax, and a bunch of people nodding and agreeing it's a great
subject? :P No offense intended to Robin, whose writings are usually of
excellent quality, but this is just silly. At least the "we never went to
the moon" crowd offer an alternative explanation, however bad it may be.

And there is an associated "meta" issue.  How best to update our personal
> beliefs about the matter?  Should we accept the scholarly consensus at
> face value, or should we attempt to become experts on public health,
> epidemiology, the history of medicine, and the many other factors
> necessary to achieve a good understanding of the issues?

Read a bit about the history.

The French tried to build a Panama Canal; the effort was abandoned because
the workers died of yellow fever faster than they could ship in
replacements. The American effort would have been abandoned for the same
reason except at the last moment someone figured out what was going on, and
they started an anti-mosquito campaign that was effective enough to tip the

DDT has been credited with saving tens of millions of lives - some estimates
run into hundreds of millions - in areas where malaria had been endemic. To
this day, millions die each year for lack of the stuff.

In Ireland in my parents' day, survival was in large part a matter of not
dying of TB (which killed rich and poor alike, contrary to the "it's because
we got richer" theory - effects of wealth per se on disease presumably
exist, but are marginal second-order effects, far too small to explain the
eradiation of disease). Polio was even more terrible, because it didn't
quite kill.

How many deaths did smallpox account for in the course of history? I don't
know either, it's that many. The eradication campaign using vaccines worked.
We could believe a) the vaccines really worked in the field the way they did
in tests or b) it was all a coverup and what was really going on was psychic
waves from Zeta Reticuli got rid of smallpox, coincidentally just when
vaccines were being used. I find the first explanation more plausible.

As one writer put it, hospitals used to be stuffed with men, women and
children dying of random bacterial infections while doctors just watched
helplessly; antibiotics put an end to that.

Today, there are an awful lot of people walking around alive and healthy who
had cancer that a few decades ago would have been terminal. We've a long way
to go against cancer yet (and of course being primarily a disease of old age
curing it doesn't do as much as curing diseases of childhood) but we've made
definite progress.

There's a reason Pestilence is one of the four horsemen; after we dealt with
Famine, it was the major cause of death, and the inroads we've made against
it are the main reason for the improvement in health and longevity, to the
point where we're now actually at the stage that old age is by far the main

Now the proposition that spending more money on health care today is useless
is a different one, and much more plausible; we have nothing yet that works
against the fourth horseman, so it mostly just prolongs suffering
(particularly since ineffective treatment tends to be the most expensive
sort). But the appropriate response to that is to work harder on finding
treatments that will work, not try to rewrite the last two hundred years of
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