Mar 13 2015

Yes, Dr. Lanka, Measles is Real

This is something I thought would probably never happen – a science denier, in this case German virologist Stefan Lanka, was ordered by a court to pay 100,000 Euros to German doctor David Barden for meeting his challenge to prove that the measles virus exists.

Lanka is clearly, in my opinion, a crank, which is a specific flavor of pseudoscientist who makes sophisticated arguments to support a hilariously wrong conclusion. There is some major malfunction in their scientific reasoning. Typically, in my experience, they have an oversized ego and think they know better than the rest of the scientific community. For some reason an extreme narrative gets stuck in their brain, and they spend their career marshaling evidence and arguments to support a nonsensical idea. I find cranks endlessly fascinating because I think they are extreme cases that reveal major weaknesses in the operation of the human brain.

One favorite tactic of cranks and deniers is to issue an open challenge to prove what they deny exists. I think this strategy is inspired by the Randi Million Dollar Challenge, which is a legitimate challenge for anyone to prove a paranormal phenomenon. Randi has a specific process spelled out, with concrete criteria for success.

Hoax challenges are pure publicity stunts – they sound grandiose but typically are framed in such a way that the one issuing the challenge can wiggle out of ever having to pay. They are rigged from the beginning, mainly by not spelling out what kind of evidence would meet the challenge.

I guess Lanka got a little sloppy. He issued a 100,000 Euro challenge to anyone who could prove the measles virus exists. That’s right – the measles virus. Lanka is an HIV denier from back in the 1990s (and still denying HIV). HIV denial is the claim that AIDS does not exist as a discrete medical illness, or at least is not caused by a specific virus, and in fact the human immunodeficiency virus does not really exist.

Many denialism beliefs deal with a scientific conclusion that is based, at least in part, on scientific inference. Evolution is a great example. While we now have seen evolution occur in the laboratory, major evolutionary changes take at least tens of thousands of years, so we are never going to see it directly. We have to infer that evolution occurred through multiple lines of evidence (genetics, the fossil record, etc.). This allows deniers to complain about the lack of direct evidence, as if that is the only kind of evidence that is truly scientific.

The existence of viruses is also largely determined through inference. Most viruses are too small to see even through a microscope, and they can’t be easily grown in a dish like bacteria. Viruses are identified through isolating antibodies to them, isolating viral proteins, demonstrating biochemical activity, demonstrating disease activity, and eventually taking electron micrographs of viral particles. Taken together this evidence can be absolutely definitive, but the denier can continue to argue that the evidence is all indirect or mistaken.

That is exactly what Lanka does with respect to HIV. I guess he realized at some point that other viruses also rest on the same kind of evidence as HIV and therefore they probably don’t exist either. Lanka apparently doubts the existence of Ebola. What has gotten him into trouble now, however, is that he doubts the existence of measles.

One additional issue faced by virus deniers is that viruses cause illness, and so they have to explain the illness that is apparently caused by the virus. When the scientists who are not medical doctors, like Lanka, are virus deniers they are prone to making incredibly naive statements about disease. Lanka blames Ebola deaths on vaccines, and AIDS deaths on the treatments given for HIV. Further, he believes that measles is a psychosomatic illness.

To any reasonable person with the slightest amount of medical training, measles is obviously not a psychosomatic illness. The disease has objective findings, such as fever and an obvious rash. The natural history of the illness is fairly specific, and can be very severe, leading to encephalitis and even death. It is clearly highly contagious, and spread can be reduced by vaccines. Psychosomatic illnesses tend to be vague, non-specific, and not fatal. Measles is objective, specific, and has the potential to be fatal. The notion that measles is psychosomatic is frankly absurd, making Lanka a crank supreme.

For medical conditions the ultimate test of the scientific inferences used to determine the cause of the illness is to treat the disease based upon those scientific conclusions. The theory of HIV, for example, led to a very specific treatment protocol, with anti-retroviral drugs. If HIV did not truly exist then this treatment should have no effect. In fact in the 1990s HIV deniers used the modest effect of existing treatments as evidence for their denial. However, in the last 20 years HAART, or highly active anti-retroviral therapy, has improved to the point that those diagnosed with HIV have a near normal life expectancy.

To push this point further, we’re not just talking about one line of evidence here. There have been thousands of studies based upon the premise that HIV is a virus that causes AIDS. Many aspects of the disease and its treatment have been explored. If the whole thing was a myth, and HIV didn’t exist, then researchers exploring HIV would be hitting their head against the wall. We would be seeing major problems with the HIV theory. Instead what is happening is that thousands of studies are building a consistent picture of the virus, how it works, and how to treat it. We are way past the point where there is any reasonable scientific skepticism about the existence of HIV.

The same is true of measles. When you are dealing with something too small to see directly, or a process that is very slow or occurred in the past, we rarely have a single smoking gun that by itself establishes the reality of the phenomenon. Instead, the science is built upon a large body of evidence, direct, indirect, and inferential. In the case of measles, perhaps the ultimate test was the measles vaccine, which clearly works. If measles were a myth, then a vaccine would have been frustratingly impossible to develop.

That a court has now demanded that Lanka pay Barden the reward for meeting his challenge is an interesting twist. Barden pulled together published scientific evidence that together proves beyond a reasonable scientific doubt that measles is real. Lanka, of course, denied the evidence. That is what he does. You will never meet his burden of evidence to prove the thing that he denies, which is what makes such challenges from deniers a hoax.

However, Barden went to the courts to settle their dispute. The court, unlike Lanka, has apparently applied a reasonable standard for scientific proof and determined that Barden did indeed meet the burden of proof to demonstrate that measles is real. Lanka, of course, will appeal, and there is always the possibility that he will wiggle out of the judgment on legal grounds (rather than the merits of the case).

As an aside, this is one risk of legally tangling with cranks. If they win the case on legal technicalities, they will generally claim they won on the merits, and will use the judgement as vindication of their pseudoscience. People who base their career on bending reality will bend reality.

Conclusion

Measles is real. Lanka is a crank. A German court has now ruled essentially that these two conclusions are true, and Lanka has to now put his money where his mouth is. This won’t change anything, but it is nice to see justice from time to time. Perhaps it will make the cranks a bit more gun shy before issuing hoax challenges in the future.

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