An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Sunday, September 11, 2011

There Will Be Math: review of Contagion

Some astute movie fans will see the pun in the title of this post. Math has no political agenda, it has no biases or prejudices. Math makes no assumptions of facts not in evidence, it makes no speeches and it tells no lies. In its honesty it has an element of cruelty but the cruelty of reality, not of malice. Consequences follow upon actions, whether anyone intends anything does not matter. Math doesn't care.

(Spoilers only occur below the "Spoilers warning line." from this point until that line you remain safe from spoilers).

I saw the movie Contagion because I read in several reviews that it "gets the science right, for a change." As an informed science supporting skeptical librarian, for what it's worth, I think the other reviewers are correct: the science as shown in the movie looks far more realistic than anything I have seen in TV or movies in decades. In particular, the scientist characters speak the way we can reasonably expect them to. Lawrence Fishbourne's CDC administrator carefully avoids making any speculative statements, even in behind-closed-doors conversations. His Dr. Cheever realizes that speculative statements by a person in authority soon turn into fact in the minds of non-scientists and especially the majority of the general public. He carefully avoids making this mistake. He makes another mistake instead.

The first person we see is (unfortunately, but don't worry her character dies before she got on my nerves) Gwynneth Paltrow. Under Paltrow's face we see "Day 2" in big red letters. She's not feeling well. The movie shifts to Hong Kong, from where Paltrow returned recently, as well as Japan and London. We see that this small handful of people have died - suddenly and inexplicably. The symptoms people suffer are not too bad. No one even considers going to a hospital until it's way too late. We soon learn that it was way too late before they even felt sick.

Rather than mire in the "human drama" as in other disaster movies, the action in Contagion quickly focuses on the work of scientists and doctors. They prove far more interesting anyway. Fishbourne's Dr. Cheever quickly grasps all what a specialist can at such an early stage and manages those under his authority with great intelligence and insight. To Kate Winslet's Dr. Mears he says as he sees her off to go to a site of the epidemic (I paraphrase) "If you need more resources call me, if you encounter any obstacles - call me, if need anything - call me, if you find yourself awake at 3 a.m. staring at the ceiling - call me." I want to work for this man.

When Mears briefs a group of municipal officials we learn some essential concepts. A new word for most, "Fulminant" means that the disease can spread from someone touching a surface or object then touching their face. A particularly clueless administrator balks when Winslet states that most people touch their faces between 1 and 2 thousand times a day. Mears realizes that she needs these twits to act and not bog down in idiotic arguments. She tersely states that people, even unconsciously, touch some part of their face 2 to 3 times a minute and concludes with "do the math." The second term is S(0) [prounounced "S zero" -- 2+2=4]. This is the measure of how fast a given disease spreads as measured by the number of persons a given sick person infects. At such an early stage they do not know if the virus is fulminant nor its S(0). Until they do they can not make predictions or know exactly what to do about it.

Throughout the movies the script gives us little reminders of how little we really control our environment - despite the fact that most of us like to think that we do. A Homeland Security official questions Fishbourne, asking him "could someone have weaponized this?" Fishbourne calmly replies that birds do that already. Another wonderfully done but very subtle moment comes when a non-scientist pencil-pusher mentions "the over-reaction to the N1H1 virus." Fishbourne's very soft-spoken Dr. Cheever responds so calmly that you almost miss the significance of what he says: "it wasn't an over-reaction."

What the scientists can figure out quickly is what kind of bug is it. The script does not explain this well enough for most of the U.S. audience: a bat flu virus met a swine flu virus, most likely in the body of a pig. What most people fail to realize: viruses mutate all the time and when two similar viruses meet in the body of the same host they exchange genetic material. Most of the time this results in no significant change. The Flu viruses and the immune systems of birds, bats and pigs have largely come to a kind of standoff in which the immune system does not kill the virus and the virus does not kill its host. But there exists no intelligence in a virus, it can not make decisions nor control its own procreation. Someone posting in a biology forum on MySpace years ago dismissed the idea that a virulent flu could wipe out millions of people by declaring "that would not be a good survival strategy for the virus." I can only hope he's too stupid to vote.

Viruses have survival strategies?! This is the reason I write a movie review here. I do not think this guy is very exceptional - chances are good there's lots more just like him or worse. We do not have nearly enough resources for a public health emergency and I see this lack resulting from a profound failure on the part of the general population of the U.S. to understand fundamental concepts in biology and even the nature of reality itself.

Sock puppets for reality.

The script writer, Scott Z. Burns, does an admirable job of taking on numerous misunderstandings and misinformation that I find prevalent and even endemic in the U.S. population. To respond to the twisted libertarian biology mentioned above the dialog mentions the Spanish Flu of 1918 several times, including the fact that it killed 1 percent of the world's population (a higher body count than World War I). Homeopathy gets a nice, hard (and highly gratifying) kick in the groin. The "blogsphere" receives an appropriate drubbing too. Without even mentioning the idiotic autism/vaccine hysteria, the script places vaccines in their appropriate place of honor in the history of science, for details see below the spoiler line.

I find this the best pro-science educational without preaching drama that I can ever remember seeing. It should be required viewing in all high school biology classes.



Rich and Poor.

The movie touches on certain divisions in the world between have's and have-not's without preaching or even taking a clear stand on the questions raised. The paranoia and the widespread belief that those on in power will look after themselves, leave the rest of us twisting in the wind and also do all they can to make enormous profits from other people's desperation all figure into the story. We see no definitive answers, only the questions. This works well as any shifting of focus from the doctors and officials fighting the epidemic would only ruin the movie, effectively turning it into a Michael Moore docudrama. The best example of dramatizing the class divide comes in a key scene in which Fishbourne takes advantage of his position of power and privilege, possibly without even consciously realizing that aspect of his behavoir: over the phone he warns his fiance to get out of dodge ahead of a massive quarantine he can see coming. But a janitor overhears him. How the script handles the resulting confrontation I will leave to you to find out. It's one of the defining moments.

Defending science by explaining it.

More about homeopathy:

In his review of this film Roger Ebert (to me quite inexplicably) declares Jude Law's subplot superflouous. He states: "The blogger subplot doesn't interact clearly with the main story lines and functions mostly as an alarming but vague distraction." I disagree. Jude Law, in a key scene, live video blogs himself taking a homeopathic remedy for the killer virus after describing the symptoms he suffers. Melodramatically he declares, "If I'm still alive tomorrow, we'll know that it works." This subplot is the foot that crushes the testicles of homeopathy. Several times in the script the doctors mention that the mortality rate for the virus is 20-30%. So even if Jude Law's nutblogger did have the deadly virus, it's only deadly for up to 30% of those infected. We learn at the end that he did not even have the deadly flu that killed Paltrow and others, but likely a plain vanilla flu - assuming he even really felt sick at all (which is a mystery I'll let you experience for yourself). Mr. Nutblogger also gets caught on tape revealing greed and attention-seeking as among his motivations for attacking the efficacy of vaccines.

I also defend the blogger subplot on the grounds that it shows a predictable element of what we can reasonably expect to happen in an actual epidemic: look what has happened with Jenny MacCarthy and the hysteria over vaccines. Idiots who look "telegenic" can exerts a very pernicious influence over impressionable people. A subplot such as this can go a long way towards vaccinating us against pseudo-science (how do you like that pun?).

And most importantly, without any "monologuing" or other ham-fisted dramatic devices, vaccines rise from the autism idiocy to take their well-deserved place as possibly the most life-saving medical breakthrough of all time. The doctor's find a vaccine which then saves millions of lives. And like Jonas Salk the ones who do the most, and the most dangerous, work do not make themselves wealthy from it, even though they clearly could. I will leave it to you to see how this plays out and let me know what you think in the comments.

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