09/19/2011 03:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 19, 2011

Why I Hope Contagion Is Catching

This item first appeared on Science Progress (

Hollywood film producer Steven Soderbergh in his latest film Contagion has done what few big-budget Hollywood filmmakers do. He has respected his viewers' intelligence. Contagion not only includes marquee stars (bully for them, too!), as has been noted in many reviews, but also respects science -- though it does stretch it a bit to fit a two-hour format.

Indeed, Contagion is a welcome event even if contagion never is. The movie skillfully depicts the course of a global pandemic, the struggle to survive, and the race for a vaccine. Yet the commentary I've seen so far about the film doesn't give the production sufficient credit for certain elements beyond the sophistication, taut pacing, fine acting, and tense storyline. Consider these science and public policy issues that almost all movie reviewers missed (and beware of some spoilers in what follows):

Public health workers are the heroes. This is so refreshing. The smart, dedicated people with great intellectual curiosity and a sense of public service are duly honored for their grit and determination in a crisis. And there's no money in being on the frontline grind of intervening in an emergency or the mundane work of keeping people safe from infectious disease.

The scientific process is given its due. Time is required to ensure a vaccine doesn't make matters worse. "Cures" that are too good to be true always are unless they can be validated. As Hippocrates observed, "quacks wickedly hate help," and they don't like to have their feet held to the fire of systematic experiments either.

Bugs don't care about federalism, they are not constitutional "originalists," and they haven't read the literature on posse comitatus, either. A public health crisis severe enough to burden conservative thought would also be a problem for progressives.

In the acute phase of a crisis as grave as that depicted in Contagion, there would be civil disorder, which means having a weapon in the house might make you feel more secure. Yet you're just as likely to fire at the neighbor kid whose actions you don't understand.
If you think vaccination is a government plot or perhaps one ginned up by a conspiracy of politicians, big pharma, and avaricious medical scientists, then you have the right to say no and we have the right to lock you in your house so you can't endanger anyone else. But if we can't keep track of your movements and there is a high likelihood of contamination that would result in serious harm, you are not a libertarian, you are a menace.

Viruses don't turn people into zombies that want to eat you. This isn't Night of the Living Dead, it's days and nights of the living suffering.

When the suffering is widespread and a reasoned, orderly response that calls on vast and diverse social resources is required, there is no substitute for government. (Here's the big spoiler.) By the end of the film, in spite of widespread hooliganism and cruelty, tens of millions of people are lining up for orderly vaccination, alphabetically for a year. To paraphrase an old Bill Cosby line, you may not believe in God, but when that ground shakes, you're gonna look up. And you may not believe in government, but when that virus is on the loose, you're going to look to city hall.

The word "terrorism" doesn't appear in the soundtrack, at least not that I noticed, but the movie nonetheless makes the point that the first response to a pandemic is the same regardless of its source. Our national security can be threatened through lack of preparedness, including poor coordination among 50 jurisdictions, as the Laurence Fishburne character notes.

The 10th anniversary of the anthrax attacks provides a perfect opportunity to ask if we are as bioprepared as we should be. Do first responders have adequate access to the radio spectrum? Are public health departments staffed adequately with people who have advanced degrees and training? Do neighboring states have coordination plans in place and have they done simulations to test them?

As I note in my new book, The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, "governance" was the solution collectively arrived at by people who realized that they couldn't go it alone in a crisis, however much we like to think we can. Institutions with rules and procedures that can be rationally defended are required. Governance doesn't necessarily mean "government," much less the state, but sometimes it does. And when it does we'd better be ready.

Contagion isn't perfect. We're carrying lots of gross stuff in our guts that nearly always protects us from the gunk we ingest or otherwise absorb. We can thank evolution for that. But the film does finally remind us of the better angels of our nature. Sometimes they're the ones in the lab coats.