Mathematician Kit Yates on Anti Vaxxer Movement, Air Travel Germs and Samoa's Measles Outbreak

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In his new book—The Math of Life & Death: 7 Mathematical Principles that Shape Our Lives—mathematician Kit Yates makes complex mathematical concepts easily accessible to anyone, and which can improve decision making in an increasingly quantitative society.

In this Q&A, Yates discusses why math is relevant to everyday life, what he thinks of the anti-vaxxer movement and whether he worries about the transmission of communicable diseases during air travel.

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Kit Yates University of Bath

Why this book?

It's the right time. Math is fundamental for grasping the complicated phenomena we experience every day. It's the flow of water through our taps and the electricity that keeps the lights on. It's the ads we see in our internet browsers to the "friend" recommendations pushed at us on Facebook. I want people to know how they can both avoid falling victim to mathematical manipulators and use math to their own advantage.

What is a mathematical biologist?

The job of a mathematical biologist is to use mathematics in order to gain an understanding of complex biological processes. These range from the way in which our genes function at the smallest scales all the way up to the way in which diseases spread through populations at the largest scales.

How do you explain what you do to the layman?

I try to use stories. In the book, we meet athletes banned by faulty tests and patients crippled by faulty genes; innocent victims of miscarriages of justice and the unwitting victims of software glitches. I tell the stories of investors who have lost everything and parents who have lost children, all because of mathematical misunderstandings.

What is the best way to combat the persistent belief that vaccines cause autism?

The science is very clear. There is no connection between vaccines and autism. The best way to best way to combat anti-vax rhetoric is at the grassroots through education programs—arming people with the facts about the benefits of vaccination and dispelling the myths.

To what do you attribute the increased prevalence in autism?

There are prenatal risk factors including, for example, advanced paternal age, which might contribute to a rise in incidence of the disease. However, the number of cases diagnosed has almost certainly increased due to widening diagnostic criteria, better detection and improved awareness. In short, children who were previously being misdiagnosed, or not diagnosed at all, are now receiving diagnoses of autism

Why do you think the "anti-​vaxxer" movement has so many celebrity supporters?

There has long been a preponderance of new-age beliefs in Hollywood. In reality, however, there are probably more pro-​vaccine than anti-vax celebrities. People like Seth MacFarlane and Kristen Bell are staunchly pro-vaccination and doing great work to encourage people to vaccinate their kids. The anti-vax celebs just get more media attention because they hold such a controversial opinion.

We've seen more cases of measles in the U.S. since the 1990s, and now there's an outbreak in Samoa. Do we need to be concerned that measles will no longer be contained?

Absolutely. In 2019, Greece, Albania, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom all had their measles-free status revoked by the World Health Organization. The United States itself came within a few weeks of losing its eliminated status. Measles is on the rise again in the U.S., Europe and much of the developing world, placing vulnerable people at risk. If vaccination rates continue to fall, this problem will only get worse.

Do you have any qualms about germs and air travel? How do you protect yourself when you travel?

I wash my hands thoroughly, but I don't go so far as to use a mask. There is relatively little risk of communicable diseases being transmitted on airplanes. Air quality is quite tightly controlled and filtered in order to reduce the risk, so I don't worry too much about it.

Have you always liked patterns?

I was not one of those child prodigies who always knew he was going to be a mathematician. I got into math at high school and I realized that, at its most fundamental, that's all math is—pattern. Pattern is the way that everyone can appreciate our subject. If you spot a pattern in the fractal branches of a tree, or in the multi-fold symmetry of a snowflake, then you are seeing math. When you tap your foot in time with a piece of music, or when your voice reverberates and resonates as you sing in the shower, you are hearing math. If you bend a shot into the back of the net or catch a baseball on its parabolic trajectory, then you are doing math.

What do you do for fun? What are your hobbies?

I have two little kids. They keep me busy. I love to take them out to the park or on muddy walks or just to play games with them at home. I also follow Manchester City Football Club [American soccer] in the English Premier League. And I read a lot, mostly literary fiction.

Mathematician Kit Yates on Anti Vaxxer Movement, Air Travel Germs and Samoa's Measles Outbreak