My Girlfriend Does Not Want Me To Miss Contagion

In My Girlfriend Does Not Play Video Games on September 22, 2011 at 3:38 pm

My girlfriend and I don’t share every interest. Since our relationship began, we’ve converged more than diverged in our tastes, but there are (obviously) more than a few areas we don’t see eye to eye upon. Contagion was one such area, where she desperately wanted to see it, singing a sounding chorus of “this is how we’ll die! It’s all real!” while I was much more skeptical that any popular media, much less a motion picture, would take the care and time to get it right.

She calls herself a scientist, while I go by the altogether more accurate “science enthusiast” descriptor. I’m a skeptic and I enjoy reading what science I can digest, particularly regarding health (it’s really fascinating how much utterly fallacious nonsense there is out there). In my readings, I’ve become more than aware as to just how frequently science is misrepresented in the media, and to be honest, the trailers were billing this as a horror-government-thriller thing.

I can tell you it’s not. It’s actually a (more or less) feel good movie about science that actually gets the vast majority of its science right. It doesn’t play up any unnecessary drama — similar to what Laurence Fishburne remarks in the trailer about how the birds are “already [weaponizing the bird flu],” deadly and infectious diseases bring a drama all their own, with the only necessary ingredient being the human condition itself.

Remember Outbreak? That movie had a ton of manufactured drama. Where virologist Dustin Hoffman heads off a government plot to destroy the cure to a ridiculously infectious and deadly hemorrhagic fever just in time to vaccinate his estranged ex-wife (who was already well into dying from the disease)? A movie that featured CDC workers making horrendous mistakes and magically producing blood-based vaccines overnight?

Yeah, this movie doesn’t do that. For that, it does come off as more shallow than its contemporaries, as there is no classical movie villain, twirling his mustache as citizens die in droves; nor are characters really delved into aside from maybe learning a key fact of their personality or in viewing how they handle the breakdown of society given the contagious nature of the disease. Instead, we have a rather factual movie that presents the broader timeline between a scary new disease and its defeat at the hands of SCIENCE!! That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have moments that tug on your heartstrings, because it does, but those aren’t the point of the movie.

Early on, the CDC has a blunt accusation levied at it, in that its overreaction to H1N1 “scared a lot of healthy people.” This is a key theme in the movie, in that fear is both overriding and yet exists as a binary condition: either people don’t do anything because they’re not afraid, or they’re terrified enough to start looting grocery stores and rioting in clinics. Preparedness for this sort of event is lacking today, and it’s somehow cruel to point this out or urge people to think. It’s a paradox that the CDC has to deal with when it starts disseminating information to the public.

In its own scientifically-minded way the movie does present a kind of anti-science villain in Jude Law’s character. At first he seems to fulfill some kind of cutting-edge reporter archetype, save that he’s a blogger making wild conclusions off of a viral (har har har) video of a man dying on a train in Japan. As the movie progresses, he spins wilder and more fanciful “theories” regarding the origins of the disease and the governments alleged (read: non-existent) vested interest in hiding the cure or propagating the disease. This comes full-circle as he profits massively off of promoting a hoax cure in “Forsythia”, a homeopathic remedy that he claims cured him on his video blog. The rub is that he invested heavily in Forsythia and profits immensely from it as the public begins grasping at whatever presents itself as a cure, while simultaneously decrying the vaccination effort as worse than the disease.

As an anti-science villain, they’re certainly cutting a broad swathe of quackery.

Homeopathy is a “complimentary alternative medicine” (CAM) that alleges that “like treats like” and that water has a “memory” that allows it to gain potency through dilution. So if you are sneezing, a homeopathic doctor might make a solution of one part pepper to thirty parts water, then dilute that a number of times (by taking a drop of that to thirty more parts water again and again). Some homeopathic remedies are diluted dozens or hundreds of times, to a scale that makes it incredibly unlikely that a single molecule of the “active” ingredient remains.

To wit: the degree of dilution is often such that the ratio of water to the original ingredient is greater than the number of particles in the known universe. They are selling water at an aggrandized markup and telling you it will cure what ails you.

(It’s also something between a joke and an easy statement of fact: if something actually works, it’s just called “medicine.” Science doesn’t bother with different names for things just because their origins are in herbs rather than chemicals. That proponents need to call it “alternative” should be clue enough that it’s full of crap and doesn’t work.)

This is where more ignorance and fear come in: as real treatments take time to produce, test, approve and distribute, CAM-based remedies take very little time to disseminate and a fearful public, looking for anything that might work, will eat it up.

Even though it won’t even “might” work. It’s water. And it robs people of precious time and resources and draws attention away, or intentionally discredits, legitimate treatments.

Jude Law plays this “villain” excellently, with my only gripe being that they don’t do enough to really vilify him, to state why what he’s doing is wrong an dangerous, to the lay-audience that is watching the movie. Even I was confused and thought he’d just gotten his hands on some untested treatment, and it wasn’t until later that they uttered “homeopathy” as a descriptor, and even later that they explicitly state that he never had the disease and tried to scam people with fearmongering.

In the meantime, the character scoffs at these accusations, saying that of course their tests don’t show Forsythia to be effective, and of course their tests don’t show that he had the virus, dismissing every scientific fact with wild accusations of being in bed with the drug companies or the secret government people that want to keep secrets and so on.

This is another tactic of quacks and science opponents: that any study that questions their beliefs is invalid either because what they assert can’t be tested — which is nonsense — or that the test itself is invalid because some vague conspiracy makes it so. Nevermind that science is all about peer review and many are the scientists that would throw the shackles of obscurity away to publically point out the flaws or fabrications in a popular report or paper.

He also throws out some very light anti-vaccination propaganda. I imagine the anti-vac movement would be severely a hampered in an outbreak the likes of which we see in Contagion with one in four dying once infected (another fact they gloss over — I’d thought it killed everyone it came in contact with), but it still bears some mention here.

The anti-vaccination movement alleges that, due to the “toxins” in vaccines, or some other factor, that it causes mental illness, most popularly autism in young children. Again, this is sheer nonsense as no scientific study has ever found any correlation whatsoever between vaccination and autism (there was one but it has been so thoroughly discredited that even newscasters don’t let interviewees get away with citing from it).

It’s never revealed whether Jude Law’s character actually buys into the nonsense he preaches about, whether he pretended to be sick to treat himself with a “cure” that he knew was bogus or if he just had the normal flu which went away in due course.

To the layman, health, medicine and your own body are arcane devices that you struggle to make sense of. Every culture of littered with folk remedies, from “feed a cold, starve a fever,” born from the bizarre comparison between our bodies and furnaces, to pushing liquids (which doesn’t do anything inherently outside of preventing “dehydration” and making the patient feel better), to megadosing on vitamin C (which does nothing except cause you to pee out the money you’re wasting in vitamin supplements). Most colds and sicknesses go away in anything from a few days to two weeks with no treatment. Most treatments suppress symptoms, rather than curing the disease. This leads to situations where people will believe that something cured them, just due to the timing, and will relay this anecdotal evidence to others, who feel better about using a friend’s advice and are bolstered by the placebo effect.

Sometimes this is harmless when it stays near just eating healthy and practicing good hygiene. Sometimes this is harmful when it wastes time and resources by encouraging treatments that make extraordinary claims at a premium price. Then it’s downright murderous when they discredit real treatments for whatever reason.

Overall, Contagion was an excellent movie that I had discounted out of hand that I’m happy my girlfriend made me see. Go see it. Don’t be afraid. Learn something.

  1. I also wanted to add something on the nature of human and animal testing. Jude Law’s character notes that, as they progress towards trying to make a vaccine, that it’s a “bad day to be a rhesus monkey.” In the labs, they do indeed show more than a few dead animal specimins, but once a vaccine is found (I suppose this is a spoiler, but it’s not actually an end-of-the-world movie) the lead researcher in producing it injects herself to “prove it works.” There are still discussions of human testing and approval, but this demonstration likely gives the treatment enough momentum to barrel through regulations for fast approval.

    Animal testing is controversial because people affect a moral stance that opposes it. It’s vital, especially in medical research, to be able to test things in live specimins to determine whether a treatment works or how it might react to the bizarre ecosystem that is a living body. Without it, most research would take orders of magnitude longer if it were even still possible. It’s not immoral to state that the lives of sapient beings such as humans are much more important than those of animals.

    The next phase is human testing. Animal testing largely determins whether a treatment is effective and, in broader strokes, what side effects might exist. Human testing is used to determine finer points as dosing, how long it takes for the treatment to take effect, and any side effects unique to humans. Normal tests don’t look for side effects ten years down the road (as Jude Law’s character widely accuses that we have no idea if, ten years down the road, it’s going to be some big killer), but with the prior plausibility and previous researches done on similar treatments we usually have a good idea as to what the long term prognosis will be for these sorts of thing (which isn’t to say it isn’t eventaully tested that way anyway).

    So when the lead researcher injects herself with the vaccine and immediately afterwards exposes herself to infection …it’s one of those hearstring moments. You like it, you appreciate it, and you hope no virologist ever does that in real life. The flu vaccine can take up to two weeks to work up your immunity. Among other things. But then, the only thing that’s really unrealistic in the movie is the timeline: it’s pretty charitible to think we’d be able to push out a vaccine within months of first encountering a new virus.

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