My Version of the Truth

I love stories and I love to tell them and hear them. Mine are from my perspective, which brings me to the concept of 'truth'. I don't think all the facets of my stories are true. They can't be, there are other people and places in my stories and of course they have a different take on events, exchanges and place and time. That is a truth.

the great influenza

 

I really started thinking about truth after reading 'The Great Influenza' by John M. Barry. I wanted to read this book as we are in the middle of a pandemic that is rocking our world and not in a good way. I have had truth generally on my mind since the middle of our country, the Midwest with the help of Putin, elected Donald J. Trump, the biggest conman, crook, teller of no truths, to ever inhabit the office of the presidency. He is a first class liar. He has no concept of the Truth. None.

Back to the the Book. I eagerly opened it and began reading. I was expecting a story of the pandemic, where it happened, how it started and who was affected and how it played out throughout the world. What I encountered was Science. A lot of science. I was befuddled to put it mildly, I had to reread and reread paragraphs. It was like a foreign language.

I am a lover of humanities, my degree is in cultural anthropology, I love art, I am a designer by trade, so science is intimidating. I have read enough about climate change and I generally 'get it', I believe in the theory of evolution. I am not religious, there is no white bearded god up in the heavens waiting to take me up into the clouds to frolic with the loved ones I have lost. What I now know is that so much can be explained and discovered through science-our bodies, our brains, our organs, the flora and fauna, and the celestial heavens.

 

NYTimes, the great empty

 

Here's some of what I learned. . .

What is a virus? I am giving the floor John M. Barry, "Viruses do not eat or burn oxygen for energy. They do not engage in any process that could be considered metabolic. They do not produce waste. They do not have sex. The make no side products, by accident or design. They do not even produce independently. They are less than a fully living organism but more than an inert collection of chemicals." 

What is a human cell? I am gonna try to see if I can explain it. Cells are the building blocks of life (let's not define life, okay). Our bodies are filled with trillions of cells each performing a specific function. We feed our cells with sunshine, food and exercise. Our cells are the basic building blocks of living things. The human body is composed of trillions of cells, all with their own specialized functions. Our organs, our hearts, our brain, our muscles-literally every thing inside our bodies are cells and groups of cells. Now that is about as far as I can go without cheating and quoting internet articles. There is DNA in each cell, that's what makes you, you and me, me. I love thinking that. We are all related, we are all brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.

Each cell has a nucleus. It is a tiny little 'brain' in the center of our cell and it tells the cell what to do. Cells do not or cannot always obey. Viruses can suddenly invade cells and act like that creepy teenage kid your sweet boy/girl brings home from school; the one that you know will cause nothing but trouble.

Back to the viruses. They have one function, that is to replicate. They cannot reproduce, they can only replicate and by replicating they 'feed' themselves. Back to Mr. Barry, the virus "invades cells that have energy and then like some alien puppet master, it subverts them, takes them over, and forces them to make thousands, and some cases hundreds of thousands, of new viruses. The power to do this lies in their genes". Virus genes have no cellular structure though, again they are a parasite feeding upon cells.

When a virus invades a gene it literally hijacks the genes capability to perform. It is a dictator, it begins to force the cell to do its bidding, that is to allow the virus to feed off of the cell, destroy the cell and then finally replicating over and over and over again. If your cells don't have any immunity to this virus the virus literally takes over your body. Your immune system goes into battle mode and sometimes it can defeat the virus and sometimes it can't. Influenza is a virus, HIV is a virus. We have vaccines for some influenzas, we don't for HIV. It is really, really difficult to make vaccines that are effective in combating viruses. Scientists have made many effective anti-viral drugs. HIV has been with us since the 1980's, it was first transmitted in the 1920's in the Congo region of Africa. There is no vaccine. Anti-viral HIV drugs are what keeps this virus at bay, one can now live a healthy life with HIV. Influenzas are also difficult when it comes to finding a vaccine. There are varying 'types' of influenza viruses. We are now living with one that we never knew existed, we have some knowledge of its cousins, but we literally are in the dark with COVID-19.

I am sure you are wondering what the hell this has to do with truth

John M. Barry wrote an absolutely fascinating book on the 1918 pandemic. He takes you on a journey that you probably weren't expecting and approached subjects that I knew nothing about. Did you know that prior to the late 1800's a medical doctor did not have to even graduate from high-school? To make a very long story short prior to WW1 we made huge scientific advances in medicine. The first step was to embrace science. The second step was to codify methodology (think test tubes, beakers, centrifuges, gas burners, periodic tables, all the stuff that made me get a D- in Chemistry in high-school). Finally groups of scientists formed institutions throughout the world that were devoted to the study of science. There were no laboratories in medical schools until the creation of the Johns Hopkins University. . . "an institution whose leaders intended not simply to found a new university but to change all of American education." Their mission, to understand and study nature. As WW1 approached the United States had doctors graduating with medical degrees that would resemble what current medical doctors earn with their doctorate degrees. 

 

 

Many of the more renown doctors during this period in history worked in various laboratories. Some were absolutely dedicated to their labs and shared their work with other scientists and laboratories. A few virtually lived their lives for the laboratory.

They were busy discovering that they could make vaccines, serums, isolate bacteria, locate viruses and they fervently tried to cure just about every major illness that plagued humankind. Their early work would later allow polio and measles to be eradicated with a vaccine, it would lead to medications to cure yellow fever and malaria. During the pandemic they discovered medicines to treat various types of pneumonia. They didn't know it, but they were manufacturing what would later be a huge breakthrough in human illnesses, antibiotics.

It was one of the golden ages for science. 

As I said, I am absolutely one of the most 'unscientific' person you will ever meet. I love art, fashion, film, books, food and have a glancing interest in genealogy. My ability to understand science is my liability. So as I was rereading this book I must be honest, not 1/10 of it remained in my brain. I am still re-reading all those paragraphs.

Here's what stood out to me. Exactingly practiced science is truth. It actually is a never ending search for the truth, with rewards for the dedicated. A hypothesis (a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation) is posited. Small revelations (truths) lead to larger revelations (truths). Science is like the cell, it is the building of blocks of truth. An experiment is a thorough, sometimes fruitless investigation. It can lead you to untruths, but the beauty is that by rigorously finding verifiable after verifiable results in your experiments you begin to find a truth. The great influenza was both a bearer of truths and untruths. Ultimately the truth was told, but it was not an easy task. Many of the highly educated and highly regarded scientists believed in a truth that was not a truth, and they operated on that assumption  long after the virus abated. It framed their approach to treating this influenza. Again, through diligent investigatory work and a relentless desire to figure out what the heck was up with this virus the truth was discovered, but not until the decade(s) after the pandemic. No spoilers here!

 

had to get my truth teller in this story somehow

As I was reading this book there was a paragraph that knocked my socks off. I am going to just quote it and hope it means something to you.

"No one interested in the truth will torture the data itself, ever. But a scientist-can and should-torture an experiment to get data, to get a result, especially when investigating a new area. A scientist can-and should-seek any way to answer a questions. And if one experiment shows a hint of a result, the slightest bump on a flat line of information, then a scientist designs the next experiment to focus on that bump, to create conditions more likely to get more bumps until they either become consistent and meaningful or demonstrate that the initial bump was a mere random variation without meaning."

"There are limits to such manipulation Even under torture, nature will not lie, will not yield a consistent, reproducible result, unless it is true. But if tortured enough, nature will mislead; it will confess to something that is true only under special conditions-the conditions the investigator created in the laboratory. Its truth is then artificial, and experimental artifact."

Basically a truth is something that is reproducible, over and over again, it is consistent, it backs up the hypothesis that encouraged the experimentation. It is not manipulated to fit the hypothesis, it is designed to either refute or support the hypothesis. It becomes a foundation that allows other truths to be discovered. The truth must be expandable. "One must be able to enlarge it, explore it, learn more from it, use as foundation to build structures upon."

So that got me to thinking about humans and their truths. I imagined a spy thriller, the bad guy gets caught and he/she is tortured until he/she tells the truth. But he or she tells a half truth, to save their bum. A person is on trial for a crime, a defense lawyer tells his or her version of the truth, the prosecuting attorney tries to poke holes in said truth. A jury of twelve try to decide the truth. Pretty inexact but it is the best we as a culture/country have come up with (it does needs a ton of structural changes, we'll talk about that some other time). I always wonder, I always question, and then like most I decide who I believe is telling the truth. However, I am almost never 100% sure.

(Russia did interfere in our election, 100% true).

Same with my/your stories, my outlook/your outlook, my statements/your statements, my actions are based on my truths, I try to verify it with others' version of the same story. It is never a neat line and most often each person has a different truth about a story, a movie, a book, just about anything. Commonality happens when our truths align. Our own truths, and the way we move through life embracing our own truths, define us. I would love to take my truths and examine them in a laboratory, run tests on them, pour them into a vial, separate them in a centrifuge, isolate them, and take them one by one, find the truth and then have that foundation and build more truths

I am looking for a silver lining in this pandemic horror. Will we once again look to science, believe in it, use it for the good of the planet, the universe, the earth and all of its inhabitants-humans, animals, flora and fauna, oceans and sky? I will. 

 

 

 

Finally, I don't want to deny that humans need to organize themselves under one unifying god. Every culture does this. I have struggled to find a 'higher power'. I remember finally finding it. It was while watching the second version of Cosmos. When Neil deGrasse Tyson said we had stardust in our DNA, I knew. I am from the universe, a chaotic, lovely and deeply organized mystery. That became my truth. Now once again, a book about a subject that just freaks me out, became a mystery in search of the truth. 'The Great Influenza' makes me try to be my own personal scientist, discovering and examining my own personal archeology. Truth is the mother of invention and reinvention.

 

 

Most of the pictures in this blog are not mine, they are from the NY Times article , 'The Great Empty', by Michael Kimmelman. A haunting and heartbreaking but beautiful read. 

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