Experience is the root of good science

Which is more dangerous: climbing mountains or jumping from airplanes? My wife and I used to argue about that when we were first married. She wanted to jump from airplanes, and I wanted to climb mountains. But we solved it the way all mutually tolerant, loving couples do. We decided that rather than do either, we’d do something else that neither liked at all.

Of course, at the time, neither of us had done either activity, so it really wasn’t too hard to give them up. It is hard to evaluate things when one has had no real experience with them. This difficulty of evaluating things with which we have no experience is often a problem in science as well.

Evaluating the usefulness of vaccinations seems to be a modern problem for some people. There are those who strongly advocate for everyone to have vaccinations and others who believe vaccines are the cause of many modern afflictions. It’s hard to compare the claims because those who have modern afflictions, presumably due to vaccination, have never experienced the old-fashioned affliction, presumably done away with by vaccinations. 

For example, if one has never seen thousands of children die from diphtheria, they may not appreciate the fact that vaccination has drastically reduced the incidence of this disease. Diphtheria is caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The prefix “coryn” is Greek for club because this bacterium is club-shaped.  The term “diphtheria” refers to leather or skin. 

This infection, which was a leading cause of death in children just a little over 100 years ago, causes a membrane to form in the back of the victim’s throat that inhibits breathing, hence the “skin” reference. There were no antibiotics at that time, although once the infection reached this stage antibiotics are only of limited use anyway. It was almost impossible to remove the membrane because it developed its own blood supply. Removing it surgically often caused such severe bleeding that the child drowned. 

Without treatment, many children slowly suffocated to death over a few days. Toxins from the bacterium sometimes caused the partial paralysis of facial muscles which was called the “diphtheritic mask.” Once that set in, death was usually imminent — a difficult death for a child and excruciating for family members to watch. 

In the 1890s, a German named Emil von Behring discovered if he obtained serum from an animal that was recovering from an infection and injected the serum into another animal infected with the same disease, the second animal could be cured. He supposed that the serum contained an “antitoxin” that combated the disease agent. The concept was eventually used successfully against diphtheria and tetanus. He received the first Nobel Prize in physiology, or medicine, in 1901 for his discovery. 

In his day, he was referred to as “savior of children” and today he’s considered the founder of the study of immunology. Interestingly, he was born on March 15, 1854, and died on March 31, 1917, exactly 100 years ago this month. He is less well-known today because later scientists, pursuing his work on the immune system, developed the diphtheria vaccine. This vaccine is administered to most children in America in early childhood. 

The incidence of diphtheria has decreased by 90 percent globally since this vaccine was developed. Having never seen the suffocation deaths of thousands of children, it is hard to evaluate the effectiveness of the use of this vaccine today as compared to any side effects with which it might be associated. 

Without firsthand experience in life and alternative ideas, it is difficult to make comparisons and, therefore, good decisions. Might this prove a reason for not always protecting everyone from anxiety and offense? 

Now my wife tells me she wants to take up snorkeling. Personally, I am thinking of buying a motorcycle. I suspect she’ll probably end up playing Scrabble with the computer, and I’ll read a book. Shouldn’t we at least try them both first? 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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