Monday, February 06, 2006


Until about last fall, most people figured epidemiology was the study of skin disease. Kinda understandable; you know, "epidermis" and all that. But now, when people ask me what I study, they know what it is. And they have one question (posed, I suspect, more out of politeness than curiosity): So, what's the deal with bird flu?

I don't know any more than you do. Epidemiology, formally defined, is "the study of not knowing what other people think you might know." I don't know shit about bird flu. I don't know shit about molecular biology, about anatomy, about skin disease, about table settings. I can barely count to twenty. That doesn't prevent me from telling people that bird flu will kill us all, and that we should keep our basements stocked with ramen, batteries, and cellophane. The drunker I am, the more I will pontificate, the more alarmist I become. Burn your children just to be safe, I say.

Epidemiology can be surprisingly abstract. It's grounded in statistics; it flirts heavily with mathematical modeling. It has intimate, candlelit dinners with causal theory. It has rough and conflicted sex with probability. Of course, its entire "reason of etre", as the French say, is application: preventing and controlling disease at the population level. But you could carve out a happy little career in epidemiology without ever once doing a damned thing to influence a real person's life.

Doesn't hurt to learn some basic microbiology, though. So I'm taking an immunology class right now. It is fascinating. Also fascinating is the degree of anthropomorphization going on. This may be inevitable. Immunology comprises an immensely complicated dynamic with gazillions of objects interacting in not immediately intuitive ways. The only way we can really grasp the narrative is to assign motives, roles, personalities, etc. to the objects. The textbooks are carefully worded, but in lectures and conversations, the way we really think about these things emerges.

Similarly, it's remarkably easy to lapse into the unconscious assumption of design. "Intelligent design" is not ideologically seductive in any way to me; rather, it is seductive to the basic way in which I learn about and comprehend complex interactions among things. Perhaps our brains are particularly well-suited to understanding complex social interactions; perhaps such an understanding conferred considerable selective advantage among humans living in complex societies. Perhaps, then, it's a hell of a lot easier to think about immunology as a bunch of people with a bunch of motives doing a bunch of stuff. Or perhaps I'm just an idiot.