Friday, 15 August 2008

Daily Mail Attempts to Vaccinate Against Insanity: Fails

Given the Daily Mail's track record on the vaccines/autism scare - and on logic in general -I admit to being more than a little surprised to see The anti-MMR mothers who are putting us all in danger (11/8/08). In fact, that is an understatement. For an instant, my understanding of the Universe was turned upside-down. If the Daily Mail, last bastion of conservative nonsense, can publish an actually sensible story on vaccines, perhaps I need to start questioning some of my other assumptions?

After a short break in which I confirmed that, yes, gravity still goes down, fire is still hot and that alcohol still makes you drunk - in that order, it's far too dangerous to do it the other way around - and a slightly longer break in which I confirmed that sleep still stops you being tired and coffee helps wake you up I literally sprang into action. Well, I literally sprang - meaning walked - to work, did some work and sprang back, tested the sleep thing again... After only two more confirmations of my sleep/rest theory - watch the stands for imminent publication! - I arrive at where you find me today. Which is apparently on board the derailed train-of-thought express.

Basically, I was shocked. I may need therapy.

The thrust of the article, as you might imagine, is that not vaccinating your children means they might get diseases and that this is bad. There is also an apology, nebulously on behalf of "the media" for blowing the Andrew Wakefield "research" out of all proportion.

The author, Jonathan Myerson, highlights the tendency of mothers of autistic children "to invent paper tigers that are slavering for a bite of [their] precious child."
"The arrogance is stunning, the stupidity is off the scale. But give the mother of a newborn something to fight against and logic is history."
Obviously this isn't true of all mothers, or probably even most, but there is a tendency creeping across from the US to give too much credence to the so-called Fallacy from Motherhood. It is certainly true that when it comes to spotting abnormalities in the behaviour of a child mother probably does, in fact, know best. However, mother probably doesn't have the medical expertise required to establish the cause of the abnormality, be it a fever, weight loss or autism.

Given the number of highly trained doctors and scientists around the world studying the complex neurological condition that is autism, would it not be best to defer to the experts, the medical community when looking to establish a cause?

Goodness me, I thought to myself, that was an oddly refreshing dose of scepticism. Maybe I'll just read a few of the comments to see how the readership of the Mail responded to it. I'll quote a few examples below but I warn you:

Here Be Stupid.
(but not spelling)
"yea well if they came out and admited it was the mercury in the mmr not the vaccine itself that caused autism.. then the rates of immunisation will rise.. but to keep on stonewalling because they dont want to compensate autistic children then the rates will fall... better safe than sorry is the parents feelings on this i have no doubt my autistic daughter was poisoned by mercury"
Which, of course, perfectly tallies with evidence from the US where mercury preservatives were removes form vaccines and autism diagnoses continue to rise...
It also ignores that there is no evidence that ethyl-mercury (as found in vaccines) causes mercury toxicity and that there is no good evidence to even link autism to heavy metal poisoning of any kind.
"Doesn't the author realise that most of the parents who refuse the MMR do know more than him and that is why they steadfastly refuse the triple vaccine. Just because one person's child is ok receiving the jab, that is no guarantee that another child will be unharmed."
Parents refuse the MMR vaccine because they've been frightened into doing so by the media (ie. the Daily Mail) without looking at the evidence.
The fact is that the rate of serious side-effects from most vaccines is in the 1 in a million range, whilst the rate of serious side-effects from the diseases vaccinated against is far higher.

If you want to play spot the logical fallacy I think the two quotes above provide rich pickings.

Also, if I hear one more person on the internet saying "but why do we bother vaccinating against TB when nobody gets it any more?" I might just have to go totally crazy and start believing in nonsense.

For an antidote to this sudden onslaught of stupid, head over to Science Based Medicine where Mark Crislip goes through most of the common diseases we vaccinate against and what the risks are.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Dictionary to Aisle Six Please

Somebody doesn't seem to know the difference between the words "atheism" and "secularism." In addition, Soumaya Gannoushi has also borrowed the current pet-phrase of America's Most Stupid: "militant secularism."
Just what exactly is this militant secularism and even if it existed, would it be something to fear? I imagine that a confrontation with a militant secularist would sound something like:
"You there, with the religion on!"
"Who, me?"
"Yeah you. Just you make sure you practice your religion, or lack thereof, freely without interfering with the human rights of other people, or I'll blow your head off, OK?"
"You heard. And if I, or the state, tries to interfere with those rights of yours you'd better tell me so I can blow them up with some C4 or something."
It doesn't make any sense. People are always going on about how we should fight oppression and the erosion of human rights as if it's a good thing to do. It certainly sounds like a good thing to do. Of course, it's being bigoted and militant if the oppressor happens to be a religious organisation or individual.

Once again, religion responds as the classic school-yard bully. It's happy to interfere with the freedoms of others but cries foul and goes running to teacher if anyone fights back.

It seems to me that some religionists are making a concerted effort to conflate atheism, which they are free to dislike privately if they wish, with secularism, which they should support if they have even two brain cells to rub together on a cold day. By making secularism the enemy they fight the one movement that aims to protect true freedom of religion. Of course, religions seem to love being painted as the persecuted underdog. Just look at how the Catholics respond any time they are even remotely challenged on something. In this case, the willful destruction of a small piece of bread.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Oldsflash: Cardinal not sharpest knife in drawer

Cardinals saying stupid things? that almost never fails to happen...
See here for Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier's take on AIDS prevention.

I quote:
"You expect that because people are hearing from bishops, `You must use a condom', that they will do what the bishops say?

"We have already been preaching all our lives, don't have sex outside of marriage."
If people don't listen to what bishops say, why bother preaching in the first place?
Especially when what you're basically saying is "condoms don't work." The statistics he uses are understood in the context of the AIDS epidemic. Try here for non-Catholicised information.

One of the reasons there are less people living with AIDS in Uganda now is that many of them died. But then I guess he believes they're all living happily in some fictitious paradise now so what does it matter if he spouts this kind of drivel?

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Is this as totally stupid as it sounds?

I only skim-read the following from the Huffington Post for fear of my eyes melting. Does anyone feel brave enough to give it a look and tell me if it really is as bat-shit dumbass crazy as it looks?

What it looks like, is that somewhere in the USA, a government department (or state, or whatever, as I said: skim reading) wants to let idiots define the contraceptive pill as an abortion. In a very real and law-abiding sense. I think I've ranted about similar morons before, but I never thought there was any danger of it coming true.

Totally Overlapping Magisteria

Things have been a little quiet(er) around here for the last few months. This probably has to do with me not posting anything since sometime around the end of the pleistocene. My hopes were briefly piqued when I came across headlines declaring that Margaret Thatcher was to get a state funeral. I had hoped that such headlines could be reserved until she was, you know, dead.
So, instead of a cheerful upbeat blog entry it'll be back to ranting as usual.

Comment is Free, goldmine of nonsensical articles that it is, has not disappointed. Today, we are treated to an article by Mark Vernon grandly entitled The Frontiers of Faith and Knowledge with the equally nonsensical subtitle "So why can't boffins and bishops agree?" Surprisingly we get three words in before the name Templeton is mentioned, although that is only because the first two words are Sir and John.

Let's start with the title shall we?
Faith has frontiers? I think this must be another example of my not understanding the complex and subtle theological concept of faith (something I have been told by actual theologians) because I'm pretty sure faith doesn't have ears, on the front back or sides. For something to have a frontier there surely must be something further on that hasn't been affronted yet. I'm not really sure how this tallys with the "faith"-based approach of simply saying that god did it and that there's a plan and don't think about that because you might discover it's nonsense. (or, much more plausibly, that Satan will make you one of his little wizards...)

It's not really the same as a scientific frontier, where you first see something you don't understand, then form a hypothesis, then test it, then develop your theory. That seems much more eary to me, and possibly more frontal as well.

Leaving the title, and horribly overstretched puns, behind let us move on the "content" of the article. Unusually for a piece in this genre, we get a whole sentence into paragraph 2 before the mandatory Dawkins-bashing occurs. It is mercifully short, however, and is followed by the meat (or fish on if it's a Friday? I forget) of the article in which the author considers the thoughts of past Templeton Prize winners. Apparently "they are, perhaps, illuminating."

So, let us skate onto the icy pond on faulty reasoning and see if we fall in. You never know, that ice might be many metres thick and riddled with polar bears and fur seals. It might.

Prize winner number 1 is Freeman Dyson, famous physicist and advocate of space exploration and colonisation.
"Dyson draws an analogy with one of the central ideas in modern physics, that of complementarity. The best-known example of complementarity is that of the dual nature of light. Depending on how you look at it, you see either particles or waves. Light itself is richer than any one picture we might use to describe it."
This is the usual argument that science cannot yet (or possibly ever) explain the full range of human experience, so religion is required to explain the rest. It handily forgets, however, that religion has not, does not and simply cannot actually explain anything about the Universe at all. Religion exists purely to explain itself, which is not only narcissistic but ultimately self-defeating. That perpetual and frustrating little habit of science to explain things previously blamed on god is, as usual, dealt with by saying the two spheres never overlap.

The conclusion seems to be that religion and science are just two ways of looking at the same thing. The problem is that like many situations where there are two ways to look at something, one of them is right and the other is clearly wrong. I would be a little concerned if a physicist told me that, yes, he believed all the equations about how photons behave but that he also knew them to be banana shaped and to taste like ice-cream.

Anyway, onto winner number two in the Templeton Victory Parade (TM). It's none-other than everyone's favourite priest-scientist John Polkinghorne! Polkinghorne believes that "science only gives a thin notion of God."
You know I think he might be right there. Science also only provides very thin notions of unicorns, fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Can you guess why? I think you know why...

They're all made up!

Science has notions about all sorts of other exciting things that are pretty-well thick enough thank you very much. Our notions do not need thickening. You know what happens when you mix a little water with a lot of cornflour? That's how not-thin many of our notions are. Would you like a steak-knife with those scientific notions? Some of them can be rather meaty.
On the other hand, I think those people over on the religion table would like some straws with their notions.

Do not despair, dear reader, because our author, the cunning devil, has left the best 'til last. Charles Taylor ("arguably the most important philosopher-recipient of the prize?") apparently wrote a book suggesting that in the past we experienced "religious time", which was focused around festivals and such whereas now we run on linear "scientific time."

I'm not really sure what Mr. Taylor is getting at here. On the face of it, he's stating the blindingly obvious. In the past, peasants had really boring lives apart from at Christmas when they could have a goose for dinner and get drunk as a skunk. As a result, they focused their energies into these few occasions. These days we (presumably in the west) have the instant-gratification celebrity culture and so we have no need to focus on specific days.

However, I am at a loss as to how this translates into any meaningful statement about time. Did religious time run at a different speed? Does having a clock actually change the Universe in some meaningful way? I get the impression that something like this is being hinted at but that it is being kept carefully hidden in order to conceal the crazy within.

Taylor also "describes the disturbing affects of every day bumping into people who see the world in radically different ways to your own." He's got a point there. Doctors in psychiatric institutions regularly bump into such people. In there it's called psychosis. Outside the asylum, they call that shit religion.