Monthly Archives: April 2015

Germ Theory of Disease

Until about 200 years ago, people did not understand the cause of disease.  In olden times, people thought that evil spirits caused disease.  Then it was ‘bad air’ also called a ‘miasma’.  (Malaria has been, and continues to be a major cause of human disease, disability and death.  It means  coming form ‘ bad air”)

With the microscope, we discovered bacteria and other ‘micro-organisms’.  A virus is so small, that it cannot be seen in a microscope, but its effects on cells can be.  And with special microscopes that use X-rays instead of visible light, we can now take pictures of viruses.  And now we understand that not only infectious diseases, but cancer and perhaps have these tiny germs as the cause of much human disease.

This germ theory of disease has enabled interventions like vaccines and antibiotics; clean water and sewerage systems; housing standards  that been very instrumental at improving human life spans from around 30-40 years to over 80 years today, for the best countries.

Why are vaccines so controversial, then?

Because of a cognitive bias: a problem with our ‘natural’ way of thinking.  This bias was described by the ancients – the fallacy of Post hoc, ergo proper hoc:  If an event happens after ‘hoc’ (a thing), so it was caused by that thing. This is because our brains are designed to find patterns where none exist, so that we do not miss potential associations.  This is why we need statistics.  But also structured logic to make sure that cause and effect are correctly understood (“Correlation is not causation”).

Since, nearly every child will have a vaccine, it is inevitable that serious and sometimes fatal events will happen after vaccine.  Vaccines are supposed to generate a reaction in the body.  Symptoms from such reactions may blur with a coincidental disease process, leading to even more conviction that it was the vaccine that caused the disease; even when it is ‘coincidental’.  Which just means that the two events (vaccine and problem), just happened to be at that time, and really unrelated to each other.

For example, the other day I had my influenza vaccine.  The next day, I slipped while walking on some steps in heavy rain with obstructed vision.  Could the vaccine have affected my balance, and be to blame?  The only way to know for certain is to do controlled studies when we can compare rates of events.  Many people have told me that when they get influenza vaccine, they get sick with influenza.  Well you can get some the symptoms of influenza infection from the vaccine; and that may be the explanation for some.  More likely, they just happened to get infected with one of the many viruses that causes an ‘influenza-like illness’.  And we know this because when we do controlled studies we see these vaccine reactions, but no increase in other infections between vaccinated and non-vaccinated.

Science is unable to ‘prove’ anything.  At best, we have working models that describe the world well.  We know, that sometimes these can work, even when they are wrong.  And the Universe seems to require paradoxical truths: light is both particle and wave.


Capital gains tax: “too blunt a measure”

Is this true?  Of course, it is – any single measure as compared to a carefully crafted range of strategies is needed to deal with the “Auckland housing crisis”.  The most important measure is to increase not only the quantity of housing, but also its quality.

The Housing & Health evidence is compelling: it can be a cost-saving investment, as well as improving health.  We need warmer and less damp houses, and make sure that we support the poorest to be able to afford enough energy.

So, why does the government not invest in quality housing?  The potential to design new communities always comes at a cost to the old.  And the benefits of the new not evident until it is built.  Can we re-design living around our biological needs, and not just profit?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs implies a certain standard set of needs that all humans need.  Shelter is but one of these, so why not design for the package of food, clothing, transport, and so on.  The main need now is connectivity for access to an incredible range of resources.

If we ask the question how can we most efficiently and effectively achieve this, the best answer till now has been the market.  The magic of the invisible hand that achieves optimal outcomes from individuals serving their own interests.  But new technology offers new opportunities; including to address the over-concentration of wealth in a hungry world.

One simple solution with profound impacts would be to move to a single financial transaction system for NZ.  This could make retail banks redundant;  the optimal solution?

The system would pay for itself by enabling a range of financial transaction taxes that would be collected seamlessly, replacing current income and sales taxes.  A capital gains tax, added to this regime, that would apply to the sale of houses (excluding first homes, unless over $2m) would be fair and appropriate way to reduce demand while the supply is built up.