On ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ & Death Threats

On ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ & Death Threats

Note: Before you comment to say “This is not going to change the mind of someone who would issue a death threat”, please don’t. That’s not my point.

Ask yourself this: Is there anything someone could write about a film or video game that could possibly warrant threats of violence? If you correctly answered: “No” (because even blatant racists, Neo-Nazis, and sexists do not warrant being sworn at, threatened or bullied despite holding bad views), then I’m afraid many people disagree with you. Over at the film aggregator, RottenTomatoes.com, editor-in-chief Matt Atchity has had to disable comments and remove entire reviews of The Dark Knight Rises because of threatening comments.

Marshall Fine, who had the dubious honour of penning the first negative review, didn’t take long to become the target of rage. As Indiewire reports:

Some commenters [issued] their death threats with a wink, quoting Bane's line to Batman that Fine's punishment "must be more severe" and that they didn't give him "permission to die" yet. Others were more direct in their hatred. One comment, since removed, kindly requested Fine "die in a fire." Another from "Jake B," showing remarkable restraint under the circumstances, just fantasized about beating Fine “with a thick rubber hose into a coma.”

What’s absurd, beyond threatening him with violence for his opinion about a film – let me repeat: a film(!) is that it surely must be the case that most people have not even seen the movie they’re so viciously defending. How they know Mr Fine’s various points are wrong is, therefore, beyond me: you could make the case that if you have knowledge of Batman or seen the two preceding films you could make some informed comment. However, it seems to me rather obvious that you ought to see this film before even disagreeing or agreeing. Suspend judgment. (I’d recommend not reading any reviews in case of possible spoilers). If, like me, you’re already a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s films – and his Batman franchise in particular – does it really matter what reviewers are saying? And if you do comment, you can make your points by criticising Fine's arguments and telling everyone why he's wrong - a declaration of his mental capabilities helps no one to see why he's wrong.

Why would we even want every single human on the planet to agree with us, even if we think Nolan is the best writer-director in Hollywood (which I do)? Do we want group-think or do we want reasonable discussion?

We must recognise that by using death threats, you’re not being “tough” or “protective”, you’re being cowardly and harmful: you’re showing the world that you’re incapable of being mature enough to handle reasonable criticism of something you love (and we’re not even talking about a beloved person: we’re talking about a make-believe, things-go-Boom!, special-effects, Anne Hathaway in tight leather, funny rough voice… film). It’s obviously easier to talk so “frankly” from behind a computer monitor; it’s easier to attack someone with threats anonymously instead of engaging on a rational, adult and civil level because that requires effort; that requires actually being able to justify your views, thinking and asking yourself “Why?” But "ease" shouldn't be an excuse to disregard civility and reasonable discussion.

Nothing New Unfortunately

Of course this has been a week of gazing at my computer monitor like it was turning into a three-legged horse foetus, after doing some research for my previous piece on online commenting. It’s almost no longer becoming news-worthy: someone says something other people do not like, the internet “hears” about it, threatens that person, person “apologises” or has supporters who fight back.

Whether it was because someone said or did something actually horrible, like asserting gays should die or publicly kicking someone out a concert because he Tweeted a criticism of a show, to benign examples, like film or game reviews, our responses should never be threats, intimidation or bullying – but it so often is.

It is of course worse if you consider there’s thuggish behaviour on one's own side: For example, in the recent horrible case involving The Oatmeal and FunnyJunk.com, FJ’s lawyer allegedly received threats from The Oatmeal’s defenders. Considering how massive The Oatmeal’s audience is, this isn’t surprising – but it is of concern and it shouldn’t be happening, no matter who is right in the case. Like any of the more horrible examples of people writing silly things, the lawyer’s despicable behaviour deserves scrutiny and criticism, but not threats.

As I’ve indicated before, using emotionally-charged language, using words contoured around potential physical violence, is an injustice and unhelpful to the cause, person, entity, etc., that you are defending. What does it say about a film when fans use death-threats instead of reasonable debate? What does it say about a culture when we threaten women investigating it with rape? What does it say about gay rights when people send death-threats to homophobes? Things like The Dark Knight Rises, investigations into women’s issues and gay rights are all things I cherish and consider important. It is, therefore, with these interests in mind that I urge others who also cherish these to stop destroying them. You hurt not only the person you’re attacking but the thing you’re defending.

Remember by silencing someone, you don’t change their mind – you’ve just silenced them. When you threaten someone, you’re no longer a defender, you’re a bully and someone we ought not to be associated with in our love of a film, a game, a cause. This is no longer even about whether people like Mr Fine are correct in their judgements, whether Sarkeesian’s conclusions are true, or whether someone should get fired for making homophobic statements: it’s about those of us who find such things important making a proper stand in defence of them. We should consider those who use death-threats as worse to our causes and our loves than our opponents making reasonable counter-arguments or silly assertions.

Our opponents can be completely wrong about The Dark Knight Rises; our opponents can make lame, stupid comments about gay teens. But it’s up to us, if we genuinely care about such issues, to put them in the best light possible constantly to show these opponents what we're defending and why (we think) our opponents are wrong.

Update: Speaking of The Dark Knight Rises and actual violence, it is horrible to report that this has happened.

Image Credit: Robert Adrian Hillman/Shutterstock

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COVID and "gain of function" research: should we create monsters to prevent them?

Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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Credit: Hà Nguyễn via Unsplash
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