Skepticism and Ebola


Right now in Sierra Leone, along with several other West African countries, an Ebola outbreak is claiming the lives of hundreds of people. Several doctors who have come from developed nations like the United States to help stem the outbreak have fallen ill, including at least one who has died from the illness.

For the uninitiated, Ebola is a virus with a 50-100% mortality rate depending on the strain. It acts like HIV on steroids, destroying a victim’s immune system in a matter of days. The symptoms begin innocuously enough, with headache and some gastrointestinal cramping. As t-cells are destroyed, blood loses its ability to clot and repair wounds. Capillaries in the eyes burst, and large, blood-filled blisters form under the skin. The end-stage of the disease then sets in for some (though not all, for reasons that are still being researched) patients. The blisters burst and internal bleeding begins. This stage is called hemmorrhagic fever, as it is this stage of the disease, most associated with Ebola, where afflicted patients begin bleeding out of essentially everywhere.

It is this stage of the disease that is most contagious. Ebola is, thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster, not an airborne virus. It must be transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids. It is plain to see how the end-stage illness would be when an individual is most contagious, and Ebola as a virus is already incredibly contagious without the help of an ill person bleeding out of every orifice.

The bravery sacrifice of the doctors working with such patients, with the medical resources of a developing nation, cannot be overstated. They are in effect a thin blue line keeping this outbreak – already the most deadly since medical science discovered the virus in 1976 – off a plane to the rest of the world. One of the researchers who fell ill last week was actually about to get on a plane to the United States when the symptoms started. Unfortunately, not everyone has the education to appreciate the importance of what they are doing.

Reports out of Sierra Leone describe an opposition that is reminiscent of forced-birth movement tactics in the United States. There have been protests outside of the emergency Ebola clinic, including threats to burn it to the ground. Some patients have relatives attempting to “liberate” Ebola-sick relatives from the isolation units they are quarantined in to receive care. Individuals have been witnessed cleaning still highly-contagious corpses.

The logic behind such actions, supposedly, is that the individuals believe that the doctors are actually the people spreading Ebola, possibly to steal individuals and kill them and sell their organs, or other such paranoid nonsense. We are lucky enough to be sufficiently educated to see the horrifying nature of their behavior, which threatens to spread the outbreak further, claiming more lives. But some are still willing to make excuses for the fact that they don’t know any better, despite the fact that we have the perspective to know that their actions a menace to public health, both in Sierra Leone and worldwide.

As someone raised by scientologists, I know too well the capacity to believe some really stupid things about physiology and medicine even among highly educated Americans. So while some of these Eboliberationists may be motivated by simple ignorance, I’m not willing to give every single one of them the benefit of the doubt like that. There’s far too many people in this country, the United States, who have access to the best possible information, and still come to stupid, dangerous beliefs like “smoking prevents lung cancer” (L. Ron Hubbard) or “castor oil cures everything!” (Edgar Cayce) or “Coffee enemas cure cancer!” (Gerson diet).
I mention stupid ideas that have quasi-famous originators to illustrate a point. Giving such individuals the benefit of the doubt is an antiskeptical position.

We as skeptics ought to understand that such ideas are spread by vectors of ignorance. Those vectors of ignorance ought to be held accountable for the damage they cause with their idiocy. For the same reason we would not give a pass in this country to an individual – such as say, Jenny McCarthy – that spreads the idea that doctors are out to kill your family members, whether with vaccines or Ebola clinics, we should recognize that there are likely individuals propogating these ideas within the communities generating the Eboliberationists (perhaps another group we could call the Ebolanarchists) for their own purposes. Who benefits from encouraging a family to work together to expose themselves to a deadly virus?

Here are my guesses. I would fully expect an investigation to reveal one or more relgious leaders trying to prop up their own authority by undermining legitimate authorities and offering the (false) hope of seeing loved ones again. I would also not be surprised if some of these family groups trying to kidnap a relative out of the hospital were headed by individuals prone to narcissistic, grandiose and paranoid ideation, as that was also a driving force behind my own medical neglect growing up.

And finally, though this would be tragic, it would not entirely surprise me to learn that some of the family groups had been deliberately misinformed by informed individuals who wanted them to contract Ebola and die, perhaps for economic reasons (lynchings in the United States were often carried out against black individuals who had had some degree of economic success. After the lynching, the family would be run out of town and the person’s wealth confiscated. The Catholic Church did similar things after lynching “witches,” heretics and Jewish people in Europe).

So I will leave you with the nudge to consider what it would be like to be an individual with a family motivated by any or all of these things. You’re very sick. They say you have Ebola and there’s a 50-90% chance you will die from massive hemorrhaging in a matter of days. They’re going to do whatever they can to save you. Imagine you’re not an idiot and you understand such things (again, as was my experience, especially once I found a diagnosis. I need to continually be forceful with my relatives, as they refuse to accept that I could have a chronic condition I won’t actually recover from; I can’t imagine that relatives in Sierra Leone would be any less ignorant, fearful, prone to cognitive bias or self-aggrandizing than any random mix of people similar only genetically). You get that this is your only hope, and that if you see your family again, you might cause one of them to go through this too. You couldn’t do that, not to your mom, not to your little sister.

You look at the window, however, and there they are. All of them have shown up with pitchforks and torches, the whole nine yards. To rescue you, and to get Ebola from you. And to take you away from the only people who know how to treat the Ebola that you have. “Crap,” you think, “I told them not to come.”

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