It’s astounding anyone is taking McCain’s lies seriously anymore

FactCheck.org: McCain-Palin Distorts Our Finding.

I guess talk radio/political discourse in general has no more room for actual objective critical thinking and skepticism. The floodgates on examples of McCain’s outright lies are open. Not to mention examples of corruption tagged to his running mate, and her blatant attempts to cover up. Thoroughly disgusting. The fact that these cretins are polling above 5% (the I-have-my-head-up-Rush-Limbaugh’s-oxycodone-laden-rear vote) makes me want to puke.

But then again, I live in a state where Jesse Helms got away with this kind of BS for years.

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Early cancer detection

I never thought I would see the day where I would call a piece written by David Gorski (aka Orac — I guess it’s good form to associate the two now since he’s blogging under his true name at Science-Based Medicine) well-written.

But here it is: his description on the difficulties of disentangling the effectiveness of early detection in cancer in treatment and prognosis is well written and worth a read. The comments, however, seem to degenerate into a “discussion” about whether “pre-moderns” had cancer.

Evolution vs. ID

Of late, my watching the evolution vs. intelligent design debate is like my watching Duke play Kentucky. (I’m a UNC alum, and have a genetic hatred for the two schools I mentioned. In such games, I lament the fact that someone gets to win. What can I say? It’s in my Carolina Blue blood.) On the evolution side, you have people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett who simply want God to leave the consciousness of humanity. On the other side, you have people who make up such terms as “irreducible complexity,” state without evidence that evolution could not have produced “irreducibly complex” systems, and QED you have the existence of God! Then they try to convince school boards to stick numbskull stickers on biology textbooks as if that’s going to invalidate what the textbook says about evolution.

The fact of the matter is evolution happens, and it’s an issue we have to contend with. The study of, for example, antibiotic/antiviral resistance, genetic disorders, and cancer all benefit from understanding the mechanisms of evolution. (In fact, one direction taken to cope with antibiotic resistance is to target the mechanism of evolution in bacteria to prevent resistance from developing!) This isn’t just about describing the history of life on Earth (where the theory of evolution is more speculative — and evolving!) but also about coping with life on Earth as it is now. Denying this process on religious grounds isn’t going to solve anything.

On the other hand, the theory of evolution says nothing about the existence of God. Archaeological evidence and the theory of evolution provide good evidence (not unshakeable proof) against a young Earth theory, but says absolutely nothing about God. Discussions about the Big Bang and the formation of galaxies is based on the existence of microwave radiation in space where we would not have expected it, and the arguments for abiogenesis (creation of life where there was none before) is even more speculative. In fact, I would argue against using science to prove or disprove God, since science looks for a physical explanation for everything.

At any rate, I’m not going to look to either scienceblogs.com or uncommon descent for any authoritative statments on how we got here or where we are going. 

The polio vaccine: friend or foe?

Before I launch into this entry, let me add the following disclaimer:

You and you alone are responsible for your health. This entry, and any other medical advice you read or get (even from doctors) with an honest, open-minded skepticism. Get the facts, and evaluate the evidence. Even doctors, and Ph.D. biostatisticians, make mistakes.

This entry continues a review of the book Vaccines: Are They Really Safe and Effective? by Neil Miller (2002 edition). I’ve already covered the tone of this book, and you might be able to guess it by its mere existence. It claims that vaccines, in general, are not safe and effective. This is a huge claim, but what makes this book different from other things you might read (especially forum postings and blog entries) is that the book is well-referenced. You can go to the source, at least in theory.

First, Miller tackles the polio vaccine. This vaccine is pointed to as one of the major successes of vaccination programs, taking polio from epidemic status to nonexistent. We even have the apocryphal story of Jonas Salk, leader of the research team that developed the first, inactivated virus vaccine, which was reported said to his celebrating team after their first victory with the vaccine in a trial: “We have to do this again.”

More below the fold.

Continue reading

Vaccines, the preface

This part of the review of Vaccines: Are they really safe & effective? (Neil Miller) will be short, as it is about the preface.

I have to admire a person willing to go the distance to research an issue as important as vaccination. This man looked up newspapers, congressional testimony, and the scientific literature for answers. He basically concludes that vaccines are not safe or effective, and, contrary to popular opinion, have not been responsible for the decline of infectious disease in this country. I’ll have to see about that one as I get further into the book.

He goes a step beyond this claim, however. He claims that professors, drug developers, medical professionals, professional societies, and regulatory agencies (US and international) are part of some scheme to hide the facts from the public. This is a serious charge to make against a lot of people, and, I must admit, I find this charge a little hard to swallow. Miller continues the line of thought with medical professionals that turn down vaccines for their own children and doctors who require indemnification before vaccinations. But let’s take this conspiracy theory with a grain of salt and set it aside for a while.

Miller claims then that he is presenting facts so that parents won’t “religiously trust their pediatricians.” He’s presented a difficult-to-justify opinion so far, so let’s see what his facts can do.

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Vaccines – wading into the debate (a skeptical book review)

So far, with only a couple of exceptions, my children have had their vaccines on schedule. I have refused the chickenpox vaccine for my older child and will refuse it for my younger child. I also refused the 6-hour HepB vaccine for my second child, but he has received the others on schedule (and the HepB at 2 months, which is apparently becoming a standard policy in my area).

However, there’s been the nagging question in the back of my mind about whether this is the right decision. I understand the basic arguments on both sides: we need to contribute to “herd immunity” and keep some nasty diseases at bay. On the other side, we talk about side effects of childhood vaccines (including autism, but that will be a rather minor issue in this series) and whether we need vaccinations at all. Even if we do need vaccinations, some have questioned the vaccination schedule, preferring a less aggressive approach that will still accomplish keeping the worst childhood diseases at bay. Still others wonder if we only need a subset of the current childhood vaccines we receive now, and let the body take care of the other ones.

So, now I kick off a new blog entry series reviewing the book Vaccines: Are They Really Safe & Effective? Neil Z. Miller looks to be a medical journalist who compiled this information because he was faced with the issues of vaccinating his children. The book is about 100 pages of text and figures, with 916 references (including newspaper articles, congressional testimony, and scientific articles). Miller makes the following disclaimer:

The decision regarding whether or not to vaccinate is a personal one. The author is not a health practitioner nor legal advisor, and makes no claims in this regard. Nor does the author recommend for or against vaccines. All the information in this book is taken from other sources and documented in the Notes. If you have questions, doubts, or concerns regarding any of the information in this book, go to the original source. Then research this topic even further so that you may make a wise and informed choice.

I can certainly second that.

I realize that the topic of vaccinations is a very touchy one. The most active blog entries I’ve had to date was on the subject of thimerosal, and arguments coming from both pro- and anti-vaccine proponents are filled with emotion and, often, venom. This is understandable, as the stakes are very high. If anything, this issue can use illumination of facts, and I hope that my review of a well-referenced book on the matter can do that.

So, as I go through this series, my primary goal is to provoke thought. I don’t care about comments; in fact, depending on how much value is added (or taken away) to the discussion I might disable them. We’ll have to see, as I don’t want this blog to resemble some of the forum pages I’ve seen on the matter.

So, on an overview of the book, and my reason for reviewing it publically, is that it is very well-referenced. Well-referenced does not mean true, but it does mean that I can go to the sources and evaluate them for myself. I probably won’t do that with all 916 references, as I do have other things on my plate, but I can probably hit some of the main points and try to find counterpoints as well.

The overall tone of the book seems to challenge the notion that vaccines are necessary and safe. (As the series progresses, I hope to see if the challenge stands.) A skim through the book reveals data, quotes, and events that presumably back up this challenge.

On Pseudoskepticism

So, I’ve been wondering why pseudoskepticism bothers me so much. I think I finally have the answer. All my life I’ve loved learning and curiosity, even in those cases where we are “surprised” by new discoveries in areas that we though were settled.

Pseudoskepticism is an affront to all that, but masquerades as science and learning. At its very worst, as in the cases of Stephen Barrett (of quackwatch fame) and the amazing James Randi, it substitutes real science and research with, well, bullshit. I’ll refer to this page and others in my resource on alternative medicine on examples of replacing real honest inquiry with platitudes, false reasoning, and general BS.

In addition, I’ll offer the amazing million dollar challenge as an example of an attempt to replace reasoning with BS. Often cited as a piece of evidence that paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, water memory, and a host of other phenomena do not exist, a little deeper digging reveals the challenge is a poor exhibit of this extraordinary hypothesis. Randi has positioned himself as the sole judge of the outcome of the tests in the challenge, a process that is not open and certainly not scientific. He also does not accept all applicants, and, while Mr. Randi is welcome to do whatever he wants with his money and his challenge, the procedures he has set up (including the poor reasoning for rejecting an application in the example I linked to) has made it a poor process for scientifically elucidating the existence and nature of the phenomena he’s claiming to disprove.

I especially detest the hiding behind “the skeptic has no burden of proof,” which, while a skeptical remark does not need any proof, no such statement applies to the claims made by pseudoskeptics. The reason a skeptical remark, such as “I am unconvinced by this study,” has no burden proof is because there is no claim. (Though most well-reasoned critiques of studies talk about whether the study design is capable of producing the information required to reach the conclusion, whether adequate controls are in place, and so forth.) But the pseudoskeptic makes claims, such as “cold fusion belongs in the dust bin of history” while hiding behind the idea that he has no burden of proof. The idea behind this opinion, i.e. “cold fusion is false,” is a claim and requires evidence in a reasonably scientific discourse.

So there you go. For the most part, I couldn’t care less what members of the Skeptic’s Circle think of alternative medicine, cold fusion, psychic phenomena, or anything protoscientific or pseudoscientific. However, when the poor and lazy reasoning masquerading as critical thinking starts to take traction, I have to speak out.