Baking an apple pie: How anyone can debunk disinformation surrounding the covid-19 vaccines

Vaccines cause autism. The covid-19 mRNA vaccine will change my DNA. Vaccinations could lead to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Getting covid-19 is no worse than the flu. I tested positive for covid-19 months ago, so I don’t need to be vaccinated anymore.

The above are some of the common misconceptions about (covid-19) vaccines. I cannot stress enough that NONE OF THEM are true. What do I mean by ‘true’? By ‘true’, I refer to scientific truth. That means that my sources for this claim meet the kind of rigorous systematic testing criteria that also enabled us to have airbags in our cars, to develop advanced MRI scanners, and to put satellites in orbit around this planet. And they work, so why should this be any different?

You probably cannot begin to rightly apprehend just how tempting it is to call ‘stupid’ those who believe just such crazy pseudo-scientific nonsense and the conspiracy theories surrounding the covid-19 vaccin development. Especially considering how such Luddites so very often contradict themselves, making use of most of the technological conveniences modern life has to offer, yet bashing just the kind of scientific research that has made all that technology possible to begin with… Indeed, it would be all too easy to call such people ignorant fools. But I am not going to do that. Instead I think it would be far better to try and convince with arguments how I think what I think.

To begin with, we live in the era of information, all kinds of information. An overload of information even. I understand that. Thanks to the internet, anyone can write anything, anytime. From Einstein’s theory of relativity, to just about any random crackpot’s nutty theory about the merits of inserting ripe blueberries in your ears before you go to sleep. It is all available to anyone and everyone, anytime. And even in science, there is the occasional bit of nonsense published. Sometimes deliberately. And sometimes even scientists are duped. Therefore people who have never enjoyed the benefit of training in the scientific method—as I have—may understandably have great difficulty in knowing what to believe. I understand that. So instead of going off on a rant and calling such ‘citizen scientists’ idiots, I am going to explain—as plainly as I can—a simple first way to discriminate between abject non-sense and ‘truth’ in a scientific sense.  It is my sincerest hope that any reader will use this information to their benefit, and (as a bonus) you get to impress people by knowing a lot about any subject you find really interesting, including which researchers are leaders in that field. How awesome is that?

The first step in any scientific endeavour begins with a question. That question typically does not fall from the sky, but is very often rooted in some kind of observation. For example, you may observe that a particular species of bird migrates annually. And that they find their migration route without fail every year. You may then wonder: How do these birds navigate to the same location every year?

The process involved in trying to find answers to such questions is a lot like a recipe: a set of instructions you can follow that will in the end result in a tasty apple pie. Because you will scarcely have been the first individual to observe that some birds migrate, for the same reason every academic student—no matter the discipline—at some point in their eduction will begin with a review of current literature on a particular well-defined subject. 

The first step then is to search for a general principle. All birds are animals. So what is known generally about migration in animals? In order to know that, it would be a good starting point to find out which scientists are knowledgable on the subject of animal migration. That means looking at  the research output on animal migration, typically in the form of publications in scientific magazines. But what to look for? How do you find out who’s hot, and who’s not? Answering this sub-question is a lot like asking: What are the best apple pie recipes out there? 

So how does one identify the best apple pie recipe? Naturally you try to find the one everyone’s using, the one that’s mentioned most, published in the finest cook books. So it goes with science as well. There is a metric for that kind of thing called the ‘citation index‘, which tells you how many great ‘recipes’ a publisher of scientific research publishes. And for any specific article you can also see how many times other researchers have cited it. So when you find the most cited article on bird migration, published in a highly ranked scientific magazine, then you can be pretty sure you’ve found a good one. That would be analogous to finding one of the best apple pie recipes from the best publisher of cook books. But what’s the catch? Are these fine cookbooks and recipes all free?

Of course not. You’ll often need cash to buy the best cook books, with apple pie recipes from the Marco Pierre White’s of this world—you know, with a little Knorr bouillon. Regarding scientific journals this is referred to as a ‘pay wall’. But there are ways around that. An increasing number of  publications are open access these days, and if they’re not you could try sci-hub, or (better still) simply email the author kindly requesting a copy. Having written all that, I also realise that not everyone can understand scientific articles, even if they could access them. In fact, that is the only point the ‘apple pie’ recipe falls short. Because while almost anyone can bake a pie, you’ll need more than a kitchen to understand a scientific publication.

But even if you have difficulty deciphering the scientific jargon used in scientific publications, there are other heuristics you can use. You can more than likely trust statements that are supported by multiple scientific experts in a particular field. Like in a television interview, for example. This is especially true during the corona crisis. Because our understanding of this novel pathogen is still incomplete, and treatment strategies are still woefully inadequate, getting a covid-19 vaccine is absolutely vital in our effort to recover from this pandemic. The scientists know that too, and that’s why you see and hear them more often on TV and radio these days.

So if you’re currently not planning to get vaccinated, then read the solid scientific publications for yourself, be critical as all good scientists are, and then re-evaluate your position on the covid-19 vaccines. If the matter is too complicated, then at least just find out who the experts are and listen to them. The good information really is all out there. Just be honest, be intellectually curious, and see if you still feel the same way after properly educating yourself—or after reading what experts have to say on the matter. I hope it will change your mind, and that you’ll decide to get vaccinated. And after all that long hard reading, definitely don’t forget to reward yourself with a nice warm apple pie… but, uhm… not like in that movie though… or maybe… if that’s your thing… okay, awkward… :P

Using caffeinate to keep your macbook from sleeping

I use a Macbook Pro, running macOS Catalina, and have often found that it will sometimes go to sleep at unfortunate times. Namely, when I am downloading or uploading stuff. So this little HOWTO will show you one way you can prevent that.

Just use the caffeinate command. Simply open a terminal and enter:

Last login: Sat Jul 11 17:56:01 on console
yourname@your-MacBook-Pro ~ % caffeinate -s

As long as your system is on AC power, that command should prevent your system from entering sleep mode. Now your downloads/uploads will continue uninterrupted. And when you’re done, simply press CTRL+C while focussed on the terminal to cancel the command. You’re welcome.

How Europe is failing the test again: geopolitical effects of the financial crisis and the Covid19 pandemic

In July 2015, Greece was almost kicked out of the Eurozone over a difference of opinion on how to deal with the economic depression, because Europe’s finance ministers didn’t like Varoufakis (the Greek minister of finance at the time), and because of the “Sparpolitik“—a German phrase refering to austerity measures—mentality that characterized the attitude of important northern European member states. The negative impact this debacle has had on the public image of Europe is enormous, and no doubt did little to convince Britons to remain in the EU. The message is clear: net contributors with a solid budget are okay, everyone else should shut up and bend over to receive a stern caning. In light of these events, one is tempted to think it hardly a coincidence that the only other place we call ‘Europe’ in our solar system is the inhospitable cold dark ice-moon in orbit around Jupiter.

What are the effects of the way the financial crisis was dealt with? Well, to start with it evidently brought the ‘Brexit’ closer. And ever since a major country like Great Britain turned its back on the EU, more cracks have begun to develop in the European dream. Indeed, it isn’t just the UK we should be worried about. Look at Turkey, for example. Turkey is one of the biggest economies on continental Europe, and 13th world wide. It is also the second most powerful member of NATO, after the United States. And Turkey used to aspire to EU membership. But Turkey’s potential membership of the EU is conditional upon a number of important reforms. Yet having seen the mess Europe is in right now, do you think Turkey will be in a hurry to make those reforms? Even if Turkey ever did, they certainly won’t for the foreseeable future, if indeed ever. In fact, considering the strategic location of Turkey in todays geopolitical arena, Europe needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe. The interests of the EU have thus been dealt heavy blows on two critical fronts. But it doesn’t stop with the deluge of poor war refugees Turkey is holding near it’s borders as “trump” cards, mere pawns in a terrible chess game, ready to be let loose upon the West.

Speaking of Trump; despots everywhere must certainly be rejoicing as the United States have withdrawn military support from key regions in the middle east. Is it really a coincidence that any region Trump is unlikely to build a golf resort or hotel seems to require no military intervention from the US these days? Yet how else does one explain Trump’s willingness to use military force against mostly peaceful anti-racism protesters in his own country, while withdrawing his troops from an actual warzone in Syria filled with ISIL militants? And Europe’s lack of cohesion and flacidly scattered armies cannot hope to fill this void in any meaningful sense. One wonders if Europe is really just an Economic entity, there are certainly politicians who view Europe as such. But who can possibly be that naive? This is the time for a united European military presence. Call it a European army, or call it a coalition force. Whatever, just do something. What is the alternative? We are seeing it. Look at the millions of refugees collecting in Greece and Turkey: one country hardest-hit by the financial crisis, the other glad to have a bargaining chip. One would hope the EU would be smarter than that, and more than just an Economic union designed to line the pockets of a few oligarchs and multinationals, using lucrative international trade agreements, corporate tax benefits, and mercantilism. But apparently that’s really all it is.

And then there is Russia. If there is one thing Russians are good at, it is exploiting weakness. And right now, Greece and Syria are the Achilles’ heels of Europe in that sense. What is the economic leverage Russia has? Gas pipelines! And what is coming to Greece all of a sudden? Gas pipelines! Straight from the Kremlin, into the boiler of Mr. Mitsotakis. After Greece, Russia has also expanded it’s influence in the middle-east. Trump withdraws his troops, Turkey invades the border zone of Syria, and all of a sudden Poetin rides in barechested on a full-blooded Arabian stallion to settle the conflict and save the day. This is not a coincidence. The US have left the world stage, and Poetin is one of the players happily stepping in to fill the void. How does the increased clout of Russia, combined with the USA’s increased aggression against the International Court in The Hague, improve the position of the relatives of the MH17 victims? Is it more, or less likely that justice will be served, and that the bereeved will receive compensation? I’ll give you a minute to think about that, bearing in mind that six years after the fact—and long after the responsible parties have been identified—little if any progress has been made. That’s not just Russia’s fault, it is also the EU’s fault and a consequence of USA’s growing weakness in the global political arena.

And then Covid19 happened. And again we see the EU falling apart like a clumsy first move in a Jenga game. After all the bickering during the financial crisis, and just as southern Europe was seeing clear signs of recovery, it starts all over. Again the northern European states withdraw to their trenches of austerity. But then how ironic that this time the North is assuming a more Keynesian economical view for their own countries: spend now when the crisis hits hard, make cutbacks when things are fine again. We have a huge buffer and interest rates are at an all time low. Yet when it comes to the southern states, it’s the “Sparpolitik” message all over again. That’s just as stupid as saying that antibiotics works for everyone in your country, but not for anyone with a foreign passport. Do we really need to be in a European union that is this idiotic, that looks no further than what is right in front of its nose? What’s the point?

Through tragically incompetent, it is at the same time not entirely unamusing to look to the way the USA is “handling” the Covid19 problem—mostly by doing nothing, it seems. Much like each country in Europe, each state in the USA is dealing with covid19 individually, without any meaningful coordination with the surrounding states. Oh, and they need not look for leadership at the White House, because it has gone golfing. The lack of unity mirrors Europe almost exactly. States that impose stricter lockdowns are typically hit less hard, and poorer states are left to fend for themselves for access to life-saving resources. It will be interesting to see, though tragic for those severely afflicted by the corona virus, how the situation will develop in the coming months. Like many epidemiologists I predict resurgance of the virus in the USA (mostly) and Europe (to lesser extent), with densely populated relatively poor areas hit hardest of all, and expediated by the lifting of air travel restrictions. But it will be a lesson for Europe and USA alike: the best strategy is to fairly distribute resources amongst the (member)states, to listen to experts for advice to develop informed policy, to impose equal measures for all, to intervene at the highest possible level when necessary, and to promote solidarity throughout. This advice has the virtue of being universal: it applies to covid19, to wars and economic malaises alike, to Europe, to the USA, to the world… indeed, to the known galaxy. But if history has taught us anything, it is that good advice is unlikely to be followed and  history lessons are rarely learned. So as folly again blindly marches forth, every sensible person should fear for the future of the European Union.