Morality and the False Dichotomy

I just chanced across an old episode of the Atheist Experience with Matt Dillahunty and Jen Peeples from earlier this year in which a caller from Grand Blanc, Michigan attempts to argue for Kalamity Kraig's 'Moral Argument for God'.

Matt, in his inimitable style, fairly comprehensively demolishes the argument, but there's a lot of dancing around a point that almost invariably crops up and never really gets addressed in these discussions.

I'll include the video at the bottom of the post for anybody interested, but I want to take a different tack and address the elephant in the room.

Here's the short form of the argument:

P1. If god does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
P2. Objective moral values do exist.
C. Therefore, god exists.

As a claim to knowledge, this has about as much substance as Aristotle's claims concerning sexual dimorphism in human dentition. There are several obvious flaws that should be immediately apparent to anybody with more than two functioning neurons, yet somebody with a double doctorate in philosophy can't seem to spot them. Those problems are, non-exhaustively, abuse of the material conditional in P1, the oxymoronic concept of  'objective values' and, of course, our old friend the blind assertion. I'll come back to those to address later in the post, but my immediate concern is the false dichotomy between objective and subjective.

It's often thought that statements fall into two broad categories, objective and subjective, and it's almost always in these terms that this discussion is set. As always, we need to unpack some terms. Since the dichotomous terms are the easiest to address, let's look at those first:

What is meant by 'objective'? Simple: It means 'independent of mind'. It means that something is the case regardless of what anybody thinks about it.

And 'subjective'? Again, simple: It means 'dependent on mind'. It means that something may or may not be the case, and we can each come to different conclusions.

What about morality? What's that?

This is really where the whole thing starts to degenerate, not least because what we think of as constituting morality seems to be liberally interspersed with objective principles, such as that it's 'wrong' to kill or rape but, in the details, to contain much that seems subjective. Of course, trying to define 'right' and 'wrong' leads us further down the rabbit-hole, because we'll often disagree on the details of what is considered to be a right moral action and a wrong one. There are some general principles we can agree on, though, and these are the examples that are wheeled out as 'objective', and that are thought by the apologist to close down the discussion.

Morality is a social contract. It's the mechanism by which we, as a social species, can operate as social animals. It's a broad agreement that we should not unnecessarily inflict harm upon one another. The minutiae of that agreement will vary from place to place but, in general there are things that we can agree on. We can agree that harm is caused when one of us kills another. We can agree that harm is caused when one of us rapes another, or steals from another. 

Some of these are not set in stone (well, unless you're of a particular theological persuasion). There are many moral dilemmas littering the ethics literature that show that it isn't always easy to spot what a right action is in a given situation. For example, is it immoral to lie? Yes? Is it wrong to lie to a Gestapo officer about the Jewish family hiding under your floorboards, knowing that revealing them will lead to their deaths? 

The long and short of it is that morality requires thought. Having a rigid set of rules is actually counter-productive to moral progress, as can be seen all-too-readily in recent years, with atrocities rendered in the name of this or that deity, or this or that rule, often in a climate in which we're terminally unable to reach any sort of agreement on which interpretation of said rule or deity is the correct one, if any of them are (no prizes for guessing where my money is). With a strict set of doctrinal imperatives that must be adhered to without question, abuse is always on the horizon. Harm will always come to somebody. In such a climate, even mild disagreement on interpretation can get a lot of people hurt, oppressed, marginalised, encamped, decamped or killed, or any combination of those and a litany of other abuses to dignity and our persons.

More specifically, it requires discussion and thought. Rules are the antithesis of thought, and lead to conflict. 

I've heard it asserted, on countless occasions, that Western morality owes its existence to Christianity. A vacuous assertion, devoid of any real basis. The simple fact that a set of rules undermines moral progress nullifies that assertion wholesale, and that's even before we get into the content. The first four of the classic ten commandments (there are actually six hundred and thirteen of them) are the utterances of a classic abuser - 'Do what I want and, if you report me to anyone, I'll hurt your family - forever!'.

Rules of thumb are far superior. They give you a baseline for what constitutes harm, while allowing the freedom to properly weight the moral consequences of any given action. I can agree that it's best most of the time to be truthful, but that this isn't to be taken as 'gospel', as little Rachael under your floorboards will attest with some relief.

By learning lessons from these and other situations, we've made progress over the centuries, as our species' moral compass has slowly ground toward magnetic North; abolishing slavery - though not everybody's caught on, founding of principles of equality - again, much progress to be made, I won't bore with a list but, in general, we're making progress, and most of that has come about by recognising that rigid application of fixed rules rarely has a good outcome.

In reality, we're extremely complex individuals when it comes to morality. The way we think about things in a moral context is coloured by all sorts of factors so, like any other area containing a large number of complex variables, it can be quite disordered. Education/inculcation/indoctrination are major but individual experience generates all sorts of biases, many of which we'd struggle to identify. Then we see studies from cognitive science on phenomena like 'priming'. This is an area of study in which people can be 'primed' toward certain decisions based on introduced stimuli. I recommend looking up Daniel Kahneman and his studies, including priming people to be selfish based only on seeing some representation of money, and a lovely one where students are primed to like or dislike somebody based only on the temperature of a cup that was handed to them some minutes prior to the interview. It's a fascinating area, and nails the whole free will debate to the wall for me, but it's only a sidebar to my purpose here.

So we can see that morality, often thought of as monolithic and fixed by many, is fluid and progressive, and must remain so. 

So, is it subjective, then? 


I've talked before about the core assumptions of science. Here, I want to look at the first two: 

1. There exist multiple observers (solipsism is false).
2. These observers can communicate their observations.

Why are these assumptions important? The first is important because, put simply, if solipsism is true, science is an illusion. The second is important because, taken together with the first, these introduce the star of today's show. The resolution to the dichotomy of subjectivity and objectivity: Inter-subjectivity.

Science progresses by ruling things out. It says, 'this hypothesis is in direct contradiction with observation, bin it'. That's it. Any remaining hypotheses that aren't directly contradicted are retained for further study, further generation of consequences until we find a consequence that isn't observed. Generally, the one that most elegantly explains the broadest range of observations, especially unexplained observations, will generally get the most attention, which is why string theory is still with us. These are reached by a broad consensus of specialists in the relevant field, who've checked the work, checked the observations, replicated the experiments themselves in many cases, and broadly, we can say that, under rigorous conditions, all these experts confirm that the proposed experiment does what it's supposed to and produces the predicted outcome. That keeps happening until we find an experiment that fails to generate the predicted outcome, or generates an outcome that the hypothesis implies will not be observed, and we whittle out hypotheses on this basis.

Morality is the same sort of framework. We all know that we feel shame or guilt when we knowingly do harm to somebody. Often, we'll feel shame and guilt when we discover later that an innocent- or benign-seeming act put others in harm's way - even one that, at the time, you couldn't know had moral implications. Evolution has given us a marvellous set of tools to help us in our interactions with the world as a social animal. Lots of lovely chemicals to infuse the brain with emotional states. We know how we'd feel if we were subject to such harm, because we're experienced with our brain chemistry, and have even found ways to trigger it artificially for recreation.

We're not the only ones, either. As much as some will scream that it's not possible, you can readily observe moral reasoning and its effects in animals. No dog owner can come upon the dog when it's had it away with your sausages and tell me that the look on its face is not guilt and shame. If you don't have a dog, watch an episode of Meerkat Manor. There's one who's always being naughty, and you can see the guilt in his behaviour even hours later when his behaviour is discovered. He's just like a human child. As for the artificial triggers, have a look at the Wiki page for Zoopharmacognosy (lit: animal drug knowledge; we don't yet know if any do it for recreation). Hey, Cheech, this cat knows his shit...

In summary, morality is neither subjective nor objective, but inter-subjective. It's no more nor less than the framework that allows us to operate successfully as social animals. It's an agreement, essentially, not to be a dick.

So what about that argument? Let's look at it again:
P1. If god does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
P2. Objective moral values do exist.
C. Therefore, god exists.

P1 is a lovely example of abuse of the material conditional. With such a conditional, it's possible to prove just about anything. I could, for example, quite simply prove that the moon is made of green cheese. Here:

P1. If Matt Dillahunty won the argument, the moon is made of green cheese.
P2. Matt won the argument.
C. Therefore, the moon is made of green cheese.

This little bit of absurdity is exactly the same in form as the moral argument. No doubt somebody will accuse me of an argumentum ad absurdum,  but this is actually a valid reductio ad absurdum, because the form of the reasoning is exactly the same. 

Aside from this abuse, the premise also commits the fallacy of blind assertion. There's no basis for asserting that god is required for objectivity, in morality or anything else, for that matter. Indeed, it's not a stretch to argue that, if morality is subject to the whims of a single individual, then it's subjective by definition. 

Many attempts have been made to get out of this, but they all fail. The most common is simply to state that morals flow from god's nature (and indeed the apologist in the video does exactly this). This, rather than supporting the argument, fatally undercuts it, because if morality flows from god's essential nature, then god doesn't have any choice, which means that the source of morality is not god himself, but the nature imposed on him by the universe (god is a subset of the universe and cannot be the creator of it, an argument I'll be dealing with in a future post), which means that objective morality do not rely on the existence of god.

Another major issue with the premise is that it contains a howling oxymoron. 'Values' cannot be objective. It's kind of in the definition of the word. Values are value-laden, at the risk of tautologically saying the same thing twice.

Not only is there no logical justification for accepting the first premise as an axiom, there's actually good reason to reject it outright. 

Moreover, on the basis of the foregoing discussion, even were we to accept, for the sake of argument, the veracity of the first premise, we can reject the second outright, because a) it contains the same oxymoron, b) it's factually incorrect, because there are not, nor can there be, objective moral values, nor indeed objective morality.

Also worth noting here that, as pointed out by Matt, the argument in toto commits one of the supernaturalist's favourite fallacies, the petitio principii, because the argument basically says God is morality, therefore god.

As is often the case with such arguments, it's not so much sophisticated as it is sophistry.


Feel free to share and use any portion of this, as always.

Nits and crits welcome but, if you want to debate this beyond technicalities or errors, find me on Twatter. @hackenslash1

First, Do No Harm

OK, I know I've left this late. Quite irresponsible of me not to weight into the Brexit debate far sooner. I've been in two minds about whether to comment at all, but I'm quite concerned that Britain is standing on the precipice of irreparable harm to its future, and some are engaged in a manoeuvre worthy of a Tennyson poem, based on some ridiculously small-picture thinking.

I was finally jarred into action after watching a beautifully pragmatic assessment of Britain's role on the world stage by Sir Nicholas Saomes.

Here, Sir Nicholas talks about the formation of the EU, the history of the associations and events that led to its formation, and the role that it, and its member states, play in world politics. He points out, quite correctly, that the EU is a community of 500,000,000 people, wielding significant power on the world stage, and that removing ourselves from this framework massively reduces Britain's influence on politics in the world, at a time when there is increasing uncertainty and unrest.

I was away the last week, and had opportunity to speak to a group of Brexiters in the market place. I won't bother going into detail, but their entire position consisted of headlines. Sound-bytes that amounted to little more than jingoism for the most part.

When the topic turned to economics, they couldn't actually give a proper treatment of what economy is, what money is, or what it's based on.

 So, what is money? At bottom, money is no more nor less than a promise. Ultimately, it amounts to energy, but that's a conversation for one of the thermodynamics posts. Money is simply the promise of energy. On UK currency, it even says it right there on the banknotes 'I promise to pay on bearer demand the sum of x'.

I should note here that I'm not an economist, but I do know about systems and, in fact, I know a reasonable amount about how economy as a general principle works in systems, not least because economy is one of the central principles of physics, and one of the 'guiding' filters in natural selection, because ultimately it's all about efficient use of energy.

An economy is a system of promises. The currency itself is a reification of an abstract expressing of the number of promises, and therefore the amount of energy available in the system.The promises are the resources of the system. As with evolution, the system benefits most when there are a lot of resources available. Species thrive in such environments. More importantly, though, because the system is based entirely on promises, there's something that can radically affect the number of promises in the system; confidence. When the system takes a knock, as it inevitably will, there's always an impact on confidence in the system, which manifests itself as a lack of new promises paid into the system (we stop buying). This is when we experience recession, as people hoard their promises, starving the system of input. 

What the Brexiters are proposing, then, is to remove ourselves from a system with 500,000,000 sets of promises. Not only does this disadvantage Britain, it disadvantages Europe. The one and only experience we have to draw on that's remotely relevant is when Britain pulled out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, which was close to catastrophic.

One of the issues with the EU actually stems from Britain's perennially lukewarm attitude to its membership therein. When the sub-prime mortgage crisis came to a head and shattered the economies of Iceland and others, the entire system took a big hit. One of the reasons for that is that, although we're a member state of the EU, we don't use the Euro, and we pay a premium for that in all our dealings with Europe. As non-members, those premiums will increase. More importantly, we have access to a large number of trading agreements as members of the union that we will not have access to in the same way should we exit the EU. European traders will simply take their deals to other member states, because it's cheaper for them to do so.

Had Britain adopted the Euro at its inception, it's entirely probable that the sub-prime crisis would have been easier absorbed, because the Euro would have been stronger and more resilient, meaning that the problems with the dollar would have had their impact attenuated.

I should add that I had a chat with Tim Goodacre, an Aussie mate of mine, the other night who used to work in the City in London, and knows his way around. He pointed out, quite correctly, that the knock-on effect of Britain removing itself from that system will be such that it's highly likely to fuel serious issues for the world economy:

This effects the whole world. Brexit is just one of a whole bunch of wheels coming off the cart right now, as people retreat into emotional reactionary positions (as some have described it, "post-truth politics"). It's of a part with Trump, the far-right movements across Europe and everything else that is going so wrong right now :( There are good reasons to both stay and leave the EU none of which are the subject of the Brexit "debate".

The economic consequences will be huge I think. In part this is because markets don't like uncertainty and no one at all knows how an EU secession would work. For the British, it'll clear the way for the UK govt to pursue its neoliberal policies to the fullest extent which is great if you are super rich. It is hard to see any economic good coming from this for anyone else, both in and out the UK.
From the UK's point of view, the EU is important for a few reasons. Most of the UK's trade is with the EU, and the EU is the framework for that. The eurozone is important here because trading with half a billion people with a single currency is -much- more efficient than dealing with 25+ currencies.

But the EU also allows British people a court of appeals and some other things that they can appeal to beyond the UK for things like human rights (and this government has been actively trying to weaken human rights). There are lots of other things too, trivial in isolation, but important in aggregate. It is true that the way the EU works needs some attention, but, baby, bathwater and all that.

I understand that people are concerned with immigration. My own view is somewhat radical in this regard, and unlikely to contribute much to this discussion because it's an outlying view. However, immigration has been wonderfully good for Britain. My own family were immigrants, and indeed my immediate progenitors remember a time when they faced all the usual prejudices, despite having a somewhat pivotal role in the modernisation of Britain with the construction of the motorway network and many, man houses, shopping centres and other infrastructure vital to Britain's economy for the last 50 years and more. We've certainly had large movements of people in and out of Britain in the last century, but this has mostly been a good thing. Lest we forget, our national dish is from India. Our previous national dish is half-Belgian. Our national drink comes from China, India, Sri Lanka, etc. Our population is among the most diverse in the world, to the degree that the entire concept of  'foreigner' becomes absurd and nonsensical.

There's also the common trope concerning 'taking back control'. In real terms, we have to be certain about what, precisely, we mean by control. Tim's covered some of it above, but in reality, the only thing that we'd be taking control of is immunity from the protection of our rights that members of the union must agree to abide by. We're removing what control we have

We live in an extremely interesting time in our understanding of all sorts of things. Among them, we're now able to generate the conditions that, according to our models, obtained in the first moments after the Planck time. This has required a colossal amount of collaboration between many nations, and the Large Hadron Collider, the largest experiment ever built, is a product of such collaboration. It's opening windows that, only a little over a century ago, we as a species were incapable of even fantasising about the existence of, let alone being able actually to peer through them.

Another massive influence, probably the single biggest influence of the modern age, also grew out of that collaboration, and it's responsible for my ability to share my thoughts on this topic. The internet is a direct product of that same collaboration.

We've recently heard that gravitational waves have been detected and confirmed at LIGO, a Nobel-worthy event if ever there was one. There's another player in that game, namely LISA, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, the European Space Agency's space-borne gravitational-wave observatory, the pathfinder mission for which was launched in December, and which will increase detection sensitivity by six orders of magnitude.

Funding for research can be difficult. Being a member of such a large group of nations, all of whom have something to contribute to these big scientific collaborations, means that there is a bigger pot for scientific research to be targeted, and for funding for very large-scale projects like LISA and the LHC. Our voice in such research and our ability to plug into funding for important and ground-breaking science will be seriously diminished if we leave the EU.

Ultimately, this is a hugely complex problem, and certainly far too complex to allow ourselves to be drawn into rash decisions without first conducting a rigorous cost/benefit analysis to ensure that, if out it is to be, it really is the right choice.

When the referendum has taken place, that's only the beginning of the process. I've heard figures from 2 years to about 7 years before we see the final effect. We'll be still inextricably linked to the EU for that length of time while the exit negotiations take place and a framework for our extrication to be put in place, and that will be a process in itself, so we can see no benefit for at least that length of time, even assuming for the sake of argument that benefit will be the result. In all this time of being tied at the hip to the EU, we'll be able to take no part in the decision-making process, we'll have no voice in the discussion on decisions that directly affect us.

There's an ancient oath, credited to Hippocrates. It's one that doctors historically had to take before they were allowed to be loosed on unsuspecting patients. A central tenet of this oath can be summarised as 'first, do no harm'. Often erroneously taken to be part of the oath, this phrase is one that is particularly pertinent to the present discussion, and this is why I wanted to write this, specifically to those who are as yet undecided on what or whether to vote.

If you really don't know which way to vote, you still need to vote, because failing to act is acting and, in this case, doing harm. If you are undecided, you MUST vote to remain. We can vote to leave any time, but we should not vote to leave unless we're sure it's the right decision.

It's telling that the vast majority of the world's economists, scientists, historians and political commentators say that pulling out would be a mistake. The exceptions are those who will either not be affected, or who will benefit from the spreading of the rich/poor divide.

Yes, the EU has its share of problems. That's no different to any nation, Britain included. That doesn't mean that we should secede from the union any more than it means that Manchester should secede from the UK.

In summary, the short-term effects will all almost certainly be negative, the long-term effects seem only to benefit the rich, we'll be relinquishing control rather than taking it back and our actions will probably have a massively negative effect on the world economy. And just to reiterate, this is, to all intents and purposes, an irreversible decision.

If you're undecided, there's only one choice. Set aside all the blather and you're left with one conclusion.

You MUST vote to remain.

Here are some bits and bobs others have been saying.

Simon Schama
Stephen Hawking
Jon Oliver

Even Kate Bevan's cat, Daphne, says we should vote to remain.

Who could argue with that?

The Unbearable Shiteness of Beings

When Scientifically Illiterate Morons Attack
 Note: I'm considerably less personable to some in this than I am usually. You've been warned.

Who has been responsible for the highest number of lives saved in medical history? Sources vary a little on this question, but the name that is most widely-regarded as being at the top of the list is a vicar's son from Berkeley, Gloucestershire, named Edward Jenner. Prior to his work, smallpox was rife in Europe. Voltaire, writing about it in 1778, tells us that an estimated 60% of the population caught smallpox while, for 20% of the population, it was lethal. The common treatment for it was 'inoculation', which involved taking material from smallpox pustules and introducing them into the skin. 

It had already been noted that milkmaids seemed to be immune from smallpox, but they did contract a similar but less virulent disease, cowpox, which also manifested blisters. In 1796, Jenner postulated a link between these facts, and took some material from the blisters of a milkmaid with cowpox, injecting it into a child, James Phipps. Phipps showed fever and discomfort, but didn't exhibit full infection, was later injected with variolous material. He showed no sign of infection. This was repeated with similar results in the same child, with the same results. This experiment was conducted with more people, and Jenner published his findings.

This work, the beginnings of immunology, and the development of vaccination (after vacca, Latin for cow), laid the foundation for what eventually, in 1979, some 201 years after Voltaire's commentary, was the complete eradication of this disease.

This is among the fastest-moving areas of modern science, not least because some viruses evolve so quickly that new vaccines have to be developed at ridiculous rates. The influenza vaccine, for example, has to be redeveloped twice annually to keep up with the rate at which the virus evolves.

Of course, some humans can't actually be vaccinated for several reasons, such as being immunocompromised, which means that even the weakened version of the virus represented by the vaccine can be lethal, or other contraindications, like allergies, etc. This isn't generally a problem, as long as sufficiently high numbers of the population carry the correct antibodies, because of a phenomenon known as 'herd immunity', in which those who can't be vaccinated are protected by the immunity of the vaccinated people around them, who present a barrier to the virus finding its way to those who aren't immune.

 This brings me to the topic of this rant: Antivaxxers.

My first inkling of this particular phenomenon came in the '70s and '80s, after a prominent academic declared in '74 that the pertussis vaccine was only marginally effective and was suspected in cases of encephalitis. After this, uptake of vaccination for pertussis fell to around 10%, and resulted in an epidemic of the disease which resulted in the deaths of several children. Later studies showed initially that no such link could be found and, subsequently, that no such link existed, after which uptake increased again.

The movement continues to this day, despite the clear and unambiguous data showing that vaccines are, for the most part, entirely safe. There are anecdotal cases of children suffering problems after being vaccinated, but these anecdotes can and should be mostly dismissed as commissions of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, which I discussed in an earlier post.

Now, say hello to a remarkable young man:
Image by Vladi Krafft, used by permission

I came across a video a couple of weeks ago on Facebook entitled Vaccines DO Cause Autism (the title in the video embedded below is different,m but it's the same video). I watched with some concern, ready to go full hackenslash on the parents of the young man who posted it, one Marco Arturo. Then came the punchline, and I knew I'd been had.

I couldn't stop raving about it. Every forum I have an active membership on, Twitter, Facebook, everywhere, linking every scientist I know (and quite a few I don't).

Here's the video:

I was flabbergasted. The 'mic drop', especially, was a work of artistic genius.

I was somewhat dismayed when, later, I went back to have a look at Marco's Facebook page, to find that it had been thoroughly infected by anti-vaxer loons, having some out of the woodwork to denigrate Marco, posting disparaging and expletive-loaded comments, and telling him that he was too young to have a valid opinion. Now, those who know me well will be fully aware of what my attitude toward expletives is. Not for nothing am I known in some circles as 'the other sweary one'. However, there's a time and a place, and it's certainly not my place to subject somebody else's child to such language when I have no idea what the attitude of his parents might be to it.

Some tried that trick so beloved of creationists, namely providing links to studies without ever reading them to find out if they actually say what they need them to. A nice example was a poster named Kate Tietje, who asserted that there was 'clear evidence' that vaccines do, in fact, cause autism, and cited 12 papers purportedly supporting her position. I won't deal with them here, not least because they have been comprehensively eviscerated by experts. As Liz Ditz correctly points out in that post, Kate didn't have sufficient time in the '15 minutes or so of searching Google' to have read and absorbed the abstracts of those 12 papers, let alone done any back-checking to see if they'd been superseded or debunked by other studies. I recommend reading the linked post by Liz, as it's a work of art reminiscent of the famous Blue Flutterby.

In any event, I was incensed, and posted a bit of a rant about the glaring fallacy:
"I'm astounded at the number of commissions of the most basic of logical fallacies in this thread. That fallacy is, of course, the genetic fallacy, which is committed when an argument is dismissed or accepted purely on the basis of some characteristic, perceived or real, of the source of the argument. Anybody in this thread dismissing what Marco is saying purely because he's young is considerably less intelligent than he is.

There's a famous story about a young person, about Marco's age, whose teacher decided he wanted to take a nap during class, so he gave them a problem to solve that he thought would take them the whole lesson. Before he even got his eyes closed, the young person advised the teacher that he'd finished.

The problem was a fairly simple one, but one that the teacher thought would be time-consuming. The young person, being a genius, saw a shortcut to the solution that none of his elders were aware of. It involved adding together all the numbers from 1 to 100.

This young person went on to be one of the most famous and accomplished mathematicians of all time, and was one of the major inspirations for Einstein, among others. You can find his name all over the board when it comes to mathematics, not least in such areas as probability distributions (what we refer to as 'normal distribution' or a 'bell-curve' distribution is named after him), and those of you who remember what happened when you put a magnet next to an old-style cathode ray tube television, when all the colours bled into the corner, and the fix the engineer carried out, all bear his name.

His name, incidentally, was Carl Friedrich Gauss, and he was one of the great geniuses of the modern age.

What some are dismissing as the know-it-all attitude of an arrogant kid is anything but. What he is saying here is not only correct in every respect, including the latter schooling on herd immunity, it's highly amusing, not least because the set-up was so convincing, I was ready to spit feathers at his parents, right until the punchline was delivered.

You should be ashamed of denigrating such intelligence in one so young. This video, and indeed his responses, reveal a significant intelligence, and portends a bright future, as long as morons don't try to beat it out of him with their intellectually vapid critiques, all too common in today's society.

Marco, fabulous work. I will be mentioning your name among the many scientists I know, and I may even ask some of them to comment. You have a bright future ahead of you, so pay no attention to these dullards. Best of luck."
Incidentally, when I shared this rant among my friends, some of them were incredulous at one aspect of it, summed up by this image posted on a forum in response:

Anyhoo, I probably needn't have interjected with this rant, not least because Marco is perfectly capable of defending himself, as the following quite beautiful exchange shows nicely:

However, as I've been at pains to point out, I have a quite nasty and entirely incurable case of SIWOTI syndrome, and I make no apology for it. More importantly, I'm motivated by the one thing underpinning all my posts here and elsewhere, namely my feeling that education, and specifically scientific education and literacy, is the one thing that can actually lift us from our animal state, and that children and young people like Marco should - and this is going to cause some controversy - actually be encouraged to take an interest in their self-improvement and their understanding of how the world works. That some ignorant slack-jaws feel threatened by somebody with less years and hugely more knowledge and intelligence is no excuse for the kind of nastiness I've seen in the thousands of comments on Marco's Facebook page.

I'm happy to say that, at the time of this writing, there have been more than 7.3 million views, and a fair bit of noise around the web, including some great support from celebrities, not least Ashton Kucher, with the comment 'hopefully, this settles it' and a featured article on his Aplus, along with some lovely comments from scientists (one of my Twitter acquaintances commented 'THAT was hands down the best 2min video I've ever seen'), so Marco has certainly come out of all this the winner, but the story doesn't, I'm sorry to say, end there.

Today, I came across some news that so appalled me that I felt the need to rant again. The anti-vax twits, particularly one anencephalic ignoramus, a 'Levi Quackenboss' (possibly Robyn Ross, a known AV advocate, and with the most apt moniker 'quackenboss', as she does seem to be the leader of these quacks), not content with failing to make their case and being comprehensively smacked down by a young man clearly far more intelligent than they, have doxxed Marco and his family. For those unfamiliar with the term, doxxing is when you research a person and reveal personal information about them online. This is a truly despicable act, and is quite rightly illegal in every case but, when this is done to a minor, we should be sending out a clear message that this is not acceptable behaviour. 

It's not enough that these mouth-breathing fuckwits are endangering others with their toxic and scientifically illiterate schtick, and undermining the efforts of health professionals with their utterly nonsensical claims about vaccines causing autism sans any evidence that this is actually the case (no, your post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc, anecdotal drivel doesn't constitute evidence, you fucking morons), they also feel the need, in the current climate of internet whackos and stalkers, to reveal personal information about a child and his family, targeting their dangerous idiocy at individuals. No doubt they long to return to 1348, an age before Jenner, when treatable and preventable diseases cut swathes through the population of Europe, while the church tried to solve it by talking to the empty air.

This absolutely unconscionable behaviour should carry with it a stiff custodial sentence. The person who committed this cowardly and callous act should be left in no doubt that to endanger a child and his family in this manner will not be accepted by beings of conscience. I will be advising Marco that this activity is illegal, and that he should most definitely report it, along with all the information that's been uncovered, to make sure an unambiguous message is sent that this sort of thing will not be tolerated.

And finally, a direct message to quackenboss: Come and have a fucking go, if you think you're hard enough. I'm considerably bigger and uglier than your last target, and I won't be nearly so nice, you vile twat.

Thanks to the wonderful Karen Ernst, the frighteningly incisive Liz Ditz, Epi Ren and my old mucker Rayne for bringing this to my attention.

Edit: Meant to add this video, which deals with how we think about this stuff: