Facts, not Fantasy

Sunday, May 31, 2009

15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense

Today I am only going to cover evolution with a reprint of an article published in Scientific American back in July 2002. I plan to take some of these and reprint them on the evolution page as soon as I have permission from the author (or use as many elements as I can reasonably use). If anything, it's funny to see how many of these are the SAME bloody arguments that I wrote up incredibly similar responses to... It's almost like these people have a thinking disorder, and are incapable of seeing it.

When Charles Darwin introduced the theory of evolution through natural selection 143 years ago, the scientists of the day argued over it fiercely, but the massing evidence from paleontology, genetics, zoology, molecular biology and other fields gradually established evolution's truth beyond reasonable doubt. Today that battle has been won everywhere--except in the public imagination.

Embarrassingly, in the 21st century, in the most scientifically advanced nation the world has ever known, creationists can still persuade politicians, judges and ordinary citizens that evolution is a flawed, poorly supported fantasy. They lobby for creationist ideas such as "intelligent design" to be taught as alternatives to evolution in science classrooms. As this article goes to press, the Ohio Board of Education is debating whether to mandate such a change. Some antievolutionists, such as Philip E. Johnson, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Darwin on Trial, admit that they intend for intelligent-design theory to serve as a "wedge" for reopening science classrooms to discussions of God.

Besieged teachers and others may increasingly find themselves on the spot to defend evolution and refute creationism. The arguments that creationists use are typically specious and based on misunderstandings of (or outright lies about) evolution, but the number and diversity of the objections can put even well-informed people at a disadvantage.

To help with answering them, the following list rebuts some of the most common "scientific" arguments raised against evolution. It also directs readers to further sources for information and explains why creation science has no place in the classroom.

1. Evolution is only a theory. It is not a fact or a scientific law.

Many people learned in elementary school that a theory falls in the middle of a hierarchy of certainty--above a mere hypothesis but below a law. Scientists do not use the terms that way, however. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a scientific theory is "a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses." No amount of validation changes a theory into a law, which is a descriptive generalization about nature. So when scientists talk about the theory of evolution--or the atomic theory or the theory of relativity, for that matter--they are not expressing reservations about its truth.

In addition to the theory of evolution, meaning the idea of descent with modification, one may also speak of the fact of evolution. The NAS defines a fact as "an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and for all practical purposes is accepted as 'true.'" The fossil record and abundant other evidence testify that organisms have evolved through time. Although no one observed those transformations, the indirect evidence is clear, unambiguous and compelling.

All sciences frequently rely on indirect evidence. Physicists cannot see subatomic particles directly, for instance, so they verify their existence by watching for telltale tracks that the particles leave in cloud chambers. The absence of direct observation does not make physicists' conclusions less certain.

2. Natural selection is based on circular reasoning: the fittest are those who survive, and those who survive are deemed fittest.

"Survival of the fittest" is a conversational way to describe natural selection, but a more technical description speaks of differential rates of survival and reproduction. That is, rather than labeling species as more or less fit, one can describe how many offspring they are likely to leave under given circumstances. Drop a fast-breeding pair of small-beaked finches and a slower-breeding pair of large-beaked finches onto an island full of food seeds. Within a few generations the fast breeders may control more of the food resources. Yet if large beaks more easily crush seeds, the advantage may tip to the slow breeders. In a pioneering study of finches on the Gal pagos Islands, Peter R. Grant of Princeton University observed these kinds of population shifts in the wild [see his article "Natural Selection and Darwin's Finches"; Scientific American, October 1991].

The key is that adaptive fitness can be defined without reference to survival: large beaks are better adapted for crushing seeds, irrespective of whether that trait has survival value under the circumstances.

3. Evolution is unscientific, because it is not testable or falsifiable. It makes claims about events that were not observed and can never be re-created.

This blanket dismissal of evolution ignores important distinctions that divide the field into at least two broad areas: microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution looks at changes within species over time--changes that may be preludes to speciation, the origin of new species. Macroevolution studies how taxonomic groups above the level of species change. Its evidence draws frequently from the fossil record and DNA comparisons to reconstruct how various organisms may be related.

These days even most creationists acknowledge that microevolution has been upheld by tests in the laboratory (as in studies of cells, plants and fruit flies) and in the field (as in Grant's studies of evolving beak shapes among Gal pagos finches). Natural selection and other mechanisms--such as chromosomal changes, symbiosis and hybridization--can drive profound changes in populations over time.

The historical nature of macroevolutionary study involves inference from fossils and DNA rather than direct observation. Yet in the historical sciences (which include astronomy, geology and archaeology, as well as evolutionary biology), hypotheses can still be tested by checking whether they accord with physical evidence and whether they lead to verifiable predictions about future discoveries. For instance, evolution implies that between the earliest-known ancestors of humans (roughly five million years old) and the appearance of anatomically modern humans (about 100,000 years ago), one should find a succession of hominid creatures with features progressively less apelike and more modern, which is indeed what the fossil record shows. But one should not--and does not--find modern human fossils embedded in strata from the Jurassic period (144 million years ago). Evolutionary biology routinely makes predictions far more refined and precise than this, and researchers test them constantly.

Evolution could be disproved in other ways, too. If we could document the spontaneous generation of just one complex life-form from inanimate matter, then at least a few creatures seen in the fossil record might have originated this way. If superintelligent aliens appeared and claimed credit for creating life on earth (or even particular species), the purely evolutionary explanation would be cast in doubt. But no one has yet produced such evidence.

It should be noted that the idea of falsifiability as the defining characteristic of science originated with philosopher Karl Popper in the 1930s. More recent elaborations on his thinking have expanded the narrowest interpretation of his principle precisely because it would eliminate too many branches of clearly scientific endeavor.

4. Increasingly, scientists doubt the truth of evolution.

No evidence suggests that evolution is losing adherents. Pick up any issue of a peer-reviewed biological journal, and you will find articles that support and extend evolutionary studies or that embrace evolution as a fundamental concept.

Conversely, serious scientific publications disputing evolution are all but nonexistent. In the mid-1990s George W. Gilchrist of the University of Washington surveyed thousands of journals in the primary literature, seeking articles on intelligent design or creation science. Among those hundreds of thousands of scientific reports, he found none. In the past two years, surveys done independently by Barbara Forrest of Southeastern Louisiana University and Lawrence M. Krauss of Case Western Reserve University have been similarly fruitless.

Creationists retort that a closed-minded scientific community rejects their evidence. Yet according to the editors of Nature, Science and other leading journals, few antievolution manuscripts are even submitted. Some antievolution authors have published papers in serious journals. Those papers, however, rarely attack evolution directly or advance creationist arguments; at best, they identify certain evolutionary problems as unsolved and difficult (which no one disputes). In short, creationists are not giving the scientific world good reason to take them seriously.

5. The disagreements among even evolutionary biologists show how little solid science supports evolution.

Evolutionary biologists passionately debate diverse topics: how speciation happens, the rates of evolutionary change, the ancestral relationships of birds and dinosaurs, whether Neandertals were a species apart from modern humans, and much more. These disputes are like those found in all other branches of science. Acceptance of evolution as a factual occurrence and a guiding principle is nonetheless universal in biology.

Unfortunately, dishonest creationists have shown a willingness to take scientists' comments out of context to exaggerate and distort the disagreements. Anyone acquainted with the works of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University knows that in addition to co-authoring the punctuated-equilibrium model, Gould was one of the most eloquent defenders and articulators of evolution. (Punctuated equilibrium explains patterns in the fossil record by suggesting that most evolutionary changes occur within geologically brief intervals--which may nonetheless amount to hundreds of generations.) Yet creationists delight in dissecting out phrases from Gould's voluminous prose to make him sound as though he had doubted evolution, and they present punctuated equilibrium as though it allows new species to materialize overnight or birds to be born from reptile eggs.

When confronted with a quotation from a scientific authority that seems to question evolution, insist on seeing the statement in context. Almost invariably, the attack on evolution will prove illusory.

6. If humans descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?

This surprisingly common argument reflects several levels of ignorance about evolution. The first mistake is that evolution does not teach that humans descended from monkeys; it states that both have a common ancestor.

The deeper error is that this objection is tantamount to asking, "If children descended from adults, why are there still adults?" New species evolve by splintering off from established ones, when populations of organisms become isolated from the main branch of their family and acquire sufficient differences to remain forever distinct. The parent species may survive indefinitely thereafter, or it may become extinct.

7. Evolution cannot explain how life first appeared on earth.

The origin of life remains very much a mystery, but biochemists have learned about how primitive nucleic acids, amino acids and other building blocks of life could have formed and organized themselves into self-replicating, self-sustaining units, laying the foundation for cellular biochemistry. Astrochemical analyses hint that quantities of these compounds might have originated in space and fallen to earth in comets, a scenario that may solve the problem of how those constituents arose under the conditions that prevailed when our planet was young.

Creationists sometimes try to invalidate all of evolution by pointing to science's current inability to explain the origin of life. But even if life on earth turned out to have a nonevolutionary origin (for instance, if aliens introduced the first cells billions of years ago), evolution since then would be robustly confirmed by countless microevolutionary and macroevolutionary studies.

8. Mathematically, it is inconceivable that anything as complex as a protein, let alone a living cell or a human, could spring up by chance.

Chance plays a part in evolution (for example, in the random mutations that can give rise to new traits), but evolution does not depend on chance to create organisms, proteins or other entities. Quite the opposite: natural selection, the principal known mechanism of evolution, harnesses nonrandom change by preserving "desirable" (adaptive) features and eliminating "undesirable" (nonadaptive) ones. As long as the forces of selection stay constant, natural selection can push evolution in one direction and produce sophisticated structures in surprisingly short times.

As an analogy, consider the 13-letter sequence "TOBEORNOTTOBE." Those hypothetical million monkeys, each pecking out one phrase a second, could take as long as 78,800 years to find it among the 2613 sequences of that length. But in the 1980s Richard Hardison of Glendale College wrote a computer program that generated phrases randomly while preserving the positions of individual letters that happened to be correctly placed (in effect, selecting for phrases more like Hamlet's). On average, the program re-created the phrase in just 336 iterations, less than 90 seconds. Even more amazing, it could reconstruct Shakespeare's entire play in just four and a half days.

9. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that systems must become more disordered over time. Living cells therefore could not have evolved from inanimate chemicals, and multicellular life could not have evolved from protozoa.

This argument derives from a misunderstanding of the Second Law. If it were valid, mineral crystals and snowflakes would also be impossible, because they, too, are complex structures that form spontaneously from disordered parts.

The Second Law actually states that the total entropy of a closed system (one that no energy or matter leaves or enters) cannot decrease. Entropy is a physical concept often casually described as disorder, but it differs significantly from the conversational use of the word.

More important, however, the Second Law permits parts of a system to decrease in entropy as long as other parts experience an offsetting increase. Thus, our planet as a whole can grow more complex because the sun pours heat and light onto it, and the greater entropy associated with the sun's nuclear fusion more than rebalances the scales. Simple organisms can fuel their rise toward complexity by consuming other forms of life and nonliving materials.

10. Mutations are essential to evolution theory, but mutations can only eliminate traits. They cannot produce new features.

On the contrary, biology has catalogued many traits produced by point mutations (changes at precise positions in an organism's DNA)--bacterial resistance to antibiotics, for example.

Mutations that arise in the homeobox (Hox) family of development-regulating genes in animals can also have complex effects. Hox genes direct where legs, wings, antennae and body segments should grow. In fruit flies, for instance, the mutation called Antennapedia causes legs to sprout where antennae should grow. These abnormal limbs are not functional, but their existence demonstrates that genetic mistakes can produce complex structures, which natural selection can then test for possible uses.

Moreover, molecular biology has discovered mechanisms for genetic change that go beyond point mutations, and these expand the ways in which new traits can appear. Functional modules within genes can be spliced together in novel ways. Whole genes can be accidentally duplicated in an organism's DNA, and the duplicates are free to mutate into genes for new, complex features. Comparisons of the DNA from a wide variety of organisms indicate that this is how the globin family of blood proteins evolved over millions of years.

11. Natural selection might explain microevolution, but it cannot explain the origin of new species and higher orders of life.

Evolutionary biologists have written extensively about how natural selection could produce new species. For instance, in the model called allopatry, developed by Ernst Mayr of Harvard University, if a population of organisms were isolated from the rest of its species by geographical boundaries, it might be subjected to different selective pressures. Changes would accumulate in the isolated population. If those changes became so significant that the splinter group could not or routinely would not breed with the original stock, then the splinter group would be reproductively isolated and on its way toward becoming a new species.

Natural selection is the best studied of the evolutionary mechanisms, but biologists are open to other possibilities as well. Biologists are constantly assessing the potential of unusual genetic mechanisms for causing speciation or for producing complex features in organisms. Lynn Margulis of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and others have persuasively argued that some cellular organelles, such as the energy-generating mitochondria, evolved through the symbiotic merger of ancient organisms. Thus, science welcomes the possibility of evolution resulting from forces beyond natural selection. Yet those forces must be natural; they cannot be attributed to the actions of mysterious creative intelligences whose existence, in scientific terms, is unproved.

12. Nobody has ever seen a new species evolve.

Speciation is probably fairly rare and in many cases might take centuries. Furthermore, recognizing a new species during a formative stage can be difficult, because biologists sometimes disagree about how best to define a species. The most widely used definition, Mayr's Biological Species Concept, recognizes a species as a distinct community of reproductively isolated populations--sets of organisms that normally do not or cannot breed outside their community. In practice, this standard can be difficult to apply to organisms isolated by distance or terrain or to plants (and, of course, fossils do not breed). Biologists therefore usually use organisms' physical and behavioral traits as clues to their species membership.

Nevertheless, the scientific literature does contain reports of apparent speciation events in plants, insects and worms. In most of these experiments, researchers subjected organisms to various types of selection--for anatomical differences, mating behaviors, habitat preferences and other traits--and found that they had created populations of organisms that did not breed with outsiders. For example, William R. Rice of the University of New Mexico and George W. Salt of the University of California at Davis demonstrated that if they sorted a group of fruit flies by their preference for certain environments and bred those flies separately over 35 generations, the resulting flies would refuse to breed with those from a very different environment.

13. Evolutionists cannot point to any transitional fossils--creatures that are half reptile and half bird, for instance.

Actually, paleontologists know of many detailed examples of fossils intermediate in form between various taxonomic groups. One of the most famous fossils of all time is Archaeopteryx, which combines feathers and skeletal structures peculiar to birds with features of dinosaurs. A flock's worth of other feathered fossil species, some more avian and some less, has also been found. A sequence of fossils spans the evolution of modern horses from the tiny Eohippus. Whales had four-legged ancestors that walked on land, and creatures known as Ambulocetus and Rodhocetus helped to make that transition [see "The Mammals That Conquered the Seas," by Kate Wong; Scientific American, May]. Fossil seashells trace the evolution of various mollusks through millions of years. Perhaps 20 or more hominids (not all of them our ancestors) fill the gap between Lucy the australopithecine and modern humans.

Creationists, though, dismiss these fossil studies. They argue that Archaeopteryx is not a missing link between reptiles and birds--it is just an extinct bird with reptilian features. They want evolutionists to produce a weird, chimeric monster that cannot be classified as belonging to any known group. Even if a creationist does accept a fossil as transitional between two species, he or she may then insist on seeing other fossils intermediate between it and the first two. These frustrating requests can proceed ad infinitum and place an unreasonable burden on the always incomplete fossil record.

Nevertheless, evolutionists can cite further supportive evidence from molecular biology. All organisms share most of the same genes, but as evolution predicts, the structures of these genes and their products diverge among species, in keeping with their evolutionary relationships. Geneticists speak of the "molecular clock" that records the passage of time. These molecular data also show how various organisms are transitional within evolution.

14. Living things have fantastically intricate features--at the anatomical, cellular and molecular levels--that could not function if they were any less complex or sophisticated. The only prudent conclusion is that they are the products of intelligent design, not evolution.

This "argument from design" is the backbone of most recent attacks on evolution, but it is also one of the oldest. In 1802 theologian William Paley wrote that if one finds a pocket watch in a field, the most reasonable conclusion is that someone dropped it, not that natural forces created it there. By analogy, Paley argued, the complex structures of living things must be the handiwork of direct, divine invention. Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species as an answer to Paley: he explained how natural forces of selection, acting on inherited features, could gradually shape the evolution of ornate organic structures.

Generations of creationists have tried to counter Darwin by citing the example of the eye as a structure that could not have evolved. The eye's ability to provide vision depends on the perfect arrangement of its parts, these critics say. Natural selection could thus never favor the transitional forms needed during the eye's evolution--what good is half an eye? Anticipating this criticism, Darwin suggested that even "incomplete" eyes might confer benefits (such as helping creatures orient toward light) and thereby survive for further evolutionary refinement. Biology has vindicated Darwin: researchers have identified primitive eyes and light-sensing organs throughout the animal kingdom and have even tracked the evolutionary history of eyes through comparative genetics. (It now appears that in various families of organisms, eyes have evolved independently.)

Today's intelligent-design advocates are more sophisticated than their predecessors, but their arguments and goals are not fundamentally different. They criticize evolution by trying to demonstrate that it could not account for life as we know it and then insist that the only tenable alternative is that life was designed by an unidentified intelligence.

15. Recent discoveries prove that even at the microscopic level, life has a quality of complexity that could not have come about through evolution.

"Irreducible complexity" is the battle cry of Michael J. Behe of Lehigh University, author of Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. As a household example of irreducible complexity, Behe chooses the mousetrap--a machine that could not function if any of its pieces were missing and whose pieces have no value except as parts of the whole. What is true of the mousetrap, he says, is even truer of the bacterial flagellum, a whiplike cellular organelle used for propulsion that operates like an outboard motor. The proteins that make up a flagellum are uncannily arranged into motor components, a universal joint and other structures like those that a human engineer might specify. The possibility that this intricate array could have arisen through evolutionary modification is virtually nil, Behe argues, and that bespeaks intelligent design. He makes similar points about the blood's clotting mechanism and other molecular systems.

Yet evolutionary biologists have answers to these objections. First, there exist flagellae with forms simpler than the one that Behe cites, so it is not necessary for all those components to be present for a flagellum to work. The sophisticated components of this flagellum all have precedents elsewhere in nature, as described by Kenneth R. Miller of Brown University and others. In fact, the entire flagellum assembly is extremely similar to an organelle that Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague bacterium, uses to inject toxins into cells.

The key is that the flagellum's component structures, which Behe suggests have no value apart from their role in propulsion, can serve multiple functions that would have helped favor their evolution. The final evolution of the flagellum might then have involved only the novel recombination of sophisticated parts that initially evolved for other purposes. Similarly, the blood-clotting system seems to involve the modification and elaboration of proteins that were originally used in digestion, according to studies by Russell F. Doolittle of the University of California at San Diego. So some of the complexity that Behe calls proof of intelligent design is not irreducible at all.

Complexity of a different kind--"specified complexity"--is the cornerstone of the intelligent-design arguments of William A. Dembski of Baylor University in his books The Design Inference and No Free Lunch. Essentially his argument is that living things are complex in a way that undirected, random processes could never produce. The only logical conclusion, Dembski asserts, in an echo of Paley 200 years ago, is that some superhuman intelligence created and shaped life.

Dembski's argument contains several holes. It is wrong to insinuate that the field of explanations consists only of random processes or designing intelligences. Researchers into nonlinear systems and cellular automata at the Santa Fe Institute and elsewhere have demonstrated that simple, undirected processes can yield extraordinarily complex patterns. Some of the complexity seen in organisms may therefore emerge through natural phenomena that we as yet barely understand. But that is far different from saying that the complexity could not have arisen naturally.

"Creation science" is a contradiction in terms. A central tenet of modern science is methodological naturalism--it seeks to explain the universe purely in terms of observed or testable natural mechanisms. Thus, physics describes the atomic nucleus with specific concepts governing matter and energy, and it tests those descriptions experimentally. Physicists introduce new particles, such as quarks, to flesh out their theories only when data show that the previous descriptions cannot adequately explain observed phenomena. The new particles do not have arbitrary properties, moreover--their definitions are tightly constrained, because the new particles must fit within the existing framework of physics.

In contrast, intelligent-design theorists invoke shadowy entities that conveniently have whatever unconstrained abilities are needed to solve the mystery at hand. Rather than expanding scientific inquiry, such answers shut it down. (How does one disprove the existence of omnipotent intelligences?)

Intelligent design offers few answers. For instance, when and how did a designing intelligence intervene in life's history? By creating the first DNA? The first cell? The first human? Was every species designed, or just a few early ones? Proponents of intelligent-design theory frequently decline to be pinned down on these points. They do not even make real attempts to reconcile their disparate ideas about intelligent design. Instead they pursue argument by exclusion--that is, they belittle evolutionary explanations as far-fetched or incomplete and then imply that only design-based alternatives remain.

Logically, this is misleading: even if one naturalistic explanation is flawed, it does not mean that all are. Moreover, it does not make one intelligent-design theory more reasonable than another. Listeners are essentially left to fill in the blanks for themselves, and some will undoubtedly do so by substituting their religious beliefs for scientific ideas.

Time and again, science has shown that methodological naturalism can push back ignorance, finding increasingly detailed and informative answers to mysteries that once seemed impenetrable: the nature of light, the causes of disease, how the brain works. Evolution is doing the same with the riddle of how the living world took shape. Creationism, by any name, adds nothing of intellectual value to the effort.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Today in the News (30 May 09)

Straight from Dr. Plait's blog: The CDC gets it. They put out a really well-done video for parents with questions about vaccines that specifically deals with the misinformation put out by the antivax mob.

Nice. Informative, calm, and speaks directly to concerned parents. Spread the word.
And stay through to the video’s end. Cuteness!

Since the Swine Flu is google spamming everything, I did find a nice article where people are debunking myths. It is sad that people get so panicky and ill informed about things. And then once the bad information gets a hold of people, nothing can seem to shake their adherence to the myth... I guess that's why we are here.

Another case of "I told you so": Measel cases in Howe and Brighton are on the rise. Straight from the article: "One in every 15 children with measles will develop serious complications, which can include diarrhoea, ear and chest infections, fits and brain damage. In rare instances, measles can kill."

Generally I don't go to The Daily KOS for news or anything, but I figured that this article was just appropriate in general. Especially since it correctly labels the thought that vaccines cause autism as a delusion.

And how about earlier diagnosis of the possibility of autism by examining the placenta? Of course, this would lend even more weight to the idea that autism is genetic and has nothing to do with vaccines. Of course, this is a very new approach, and it is still in the investigative phase. However, the anti-vax pro-disease crowd probably won't be happy with this sort of news.

Here is an article where the evolution of relative brain size is discussed. Now, the thinking impaired will probably say that this is another example where science went wrong and can't be trusted. Although, if you read the article, you can see that the initial conclusion was based on a small dataset. Upon attempting to confirm or falsify the conclusion, a better dataset was used, and now we have to think of something else. That's the beauty of science and its self correcting mechanism.

Another genome has been mapped, that of the mouse. Although this seems to be an improvement from something initially published back in 2002. Yes, even in just a few years, we are able to improve on so much of our understanding. By the way, did you catch that humans and mice have 80% of our genes in common? Interesting!

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Anti-Vaccination Movement

I am taking this straight from the UBC Freethinkers web page. It's pretty much exactly one of the many things we have this page here for and it can only help spread the word. The following blog is by Ethan "the freethinking historian" from the podcast Radio Freethinker. Well done Ethan, you have support from us here at Facts, not Fantasy.

The Anti-Vaccination Movement

Those that know me, know that I have a big problem with the anti vaccination movement. I was very pleased to talk about this on the show and I hope we reached a few people about the dangers of this movement. I regret we didn’t have time for me to cover everything I had on the movement but I’m glad I said what I did. Chances are, I’ll be talking more on this issue in the future.

Most of my information comes from the fantastic book “Autism’s False Prophets” by Dr. Paul Offit. Dr Offit helped create the vaccine for the Rotavirus.
Here is a quote: “Every week people send letters and emails calling me ‘stupid,’ ‘callous,’ an ‘SOB,’ or ‘a prostitute.’”

Dr. Offit gets sent threatening letters, phone calls regularly. Even threats on his children’s lives isn’t out of the question. This is the mentality of anti-vaccination movement. Agree…or else.

A vaccine is an injection we receive that contains either a dead or modified micro-organism, this “teaches” our body how to fight the disease in case of future infection.

Since the advent of the vaccine, humanity has successfully been able to eradicate several viruses, including Polio and Smallpox. A remarkable achievement for the human race considering we once used leeches to treat the common cold.

But recently, within the last 20 years, some people have claimed that vaccinations are not only dangerous…but they cause Autism.

Now autism already has a history of drawing out pseudo-scientific cures including the “Bad mother” theory by Bruno Bettelheim or the method by Douglas Biklen of Facilitated communication – a method where a person held an autistic child’s hand and guided their fingers on keyboard to type out words and phrases. CBS Evening News called it a “breakthrough.”
Or Victoria Beck’s idea of injecting secretin intravenously. Dateline NBC marveled that this “miracle” came from parents and not scientists.

All of these treatments were expensive and later disproven. However some are still used to this day.

The situation began in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist (meaning he studies the digestive system) claimed that the MMR vaccine (which is a vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella) caused autism. Wakefield claimed that MMR caused inflammation of the large intestines, he looked at eight autistic children and noticed the inflamed intestines. Because they had all had the MMR vaccine their autism must been caused by the vaccine.

Prior to that, Wakefield had claimed that the Measles vaccine caused Crohn’s disease. His shocking claim was later disproven when doctors all over the world failed to reproduce his evidence.

Wakefield’s claim caused a firestorm of activity. He occupied a prestigious position in London’s Royal Free Hospital and published his paper in the Lancet, which is a very respected medical journal.

The British press took this story to amazing heights. All over the country newspapers announced that vaccines were harmful. The result: thousands of children didn’t get the MMR vaccine. Over the next three years MMR becomes public enemy #1 and Wakefield becomes a hero. In fact, a docu-drama TV movie was made about Wakefield being a heroic scientist who stands up and fights for the little person.

By 2002, hundreds of children who weren’t vaccinated were getting ill. Three children died in Ireland because of the measles. In 2006 a thirteen year old boy was the first person to die of the measles in England for more than a decade.

Wakefield had support from several other scientists.

John O’Leary (Coombe Woman’s Hospital), Hisashi Kawashima (Tokyo Medical University), Vijendra Singh (Utah State University), Kenneth Aitken (Royal Hospital for Sick Children), Walter Spitzer (McGill University) John March (Veterinarian at Moredun Research Institute) Also, Marcel Kinsbourne and John Menkes (pediatric neurologist in California) Arthur Krigsman (New York University School of Medicine)

However, it turns out these scientists had other interests. I’ll come back to this in a second.

Wakefield decided to take his case to America next. With the help of a Republican congressman named Dan Burton, known for trying to get legislation passed that would have required AIDS testing for everyone in the U.S.

They set up a series of government trials to find out if MMR caused Autism and if vaccines were safe. During these hearings, Wakefield and the other scientists who supported him all testified. American media outlets took up the story. 60 Minutes did a piece called “MMR Vaccine” in which Wakefield was interviewed where he stated MMR wasn’t safe.

In 2004, an investigative journalist in Britain, Brian Deer uncovered evidence that Wakefield’s study had bypassed medical procedure. Also, for his experiments, he had been paid $800,000 by a personal injury lawyer Richard Barr. In the words of Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet, these allegations “were devastating.”

Wakefield hadn’t received ethical clearance for some of the tests he ran on autistic children. One of the children nearly died as result of the experiment. Wakefield had also neglected to mention his study was financed by Richard Barr. At least 5 of the 8 children in Wakefield’s study were his clients.

In fact, it turns out the scientist who supported Wakefield’s study and testified had received a combined amount of 1 million, 5 hundred and 30 thousand dollars from Richard Barr’s legal team.

Wakefield: $800,000
John O’Leary (Coombe Woman’s Hospital): over 1 million to O’Leary’s company
Kenneth Aitken (Royal Hospital for Sick Children): $400,000
Walter Spitzer (McGill University): $30,000
John March (Veterinarian at Moredun Research Institute): $180,000
Arthur Krigsman (New York University School of Medicine): $890,000

After this was revealed, 10 of the 13 scientists who helped Wakefield with the paper retracted it.
Meanwhile, real scientists were disproving Wakefield’s claims. Studies were done in Helsinki University that with a sample size of 2 million children showed no link between MMR and autism.

That wasn’t the end, the next installment in the anti-vaccination saga was the threat of mercury in vaccines.

Now, vaccinations did contain mercury, but there was a good reason. First, in order to keep vaccines from being contaminated with bacteria, mercury was used as a preservative. However, the form of mercury was ethylmercury, unlike the more harmful methylmercury which can cause serious problems, ethylmercury is far less toxic. In fact, adults could be injected with up to 2 millions micrograms of ethylmercury and not suffer from mercury poisoning.
And the ethylmercury that was in vaccines was actually a combination of other harmless preservatives and it was called thimerosal.

In October of 1999, Neal Halsey (a pediatrician who worked with the CDC on vaccines before) appeared before the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) and asked them to issue a statement that thimerosal was unsafe and as a precautionary measure all vaccine makers were being asked to stop using it. The CDC refused saying there was no link between thimerosal and autism.

Halsey threatened to go around them directly to the press if they didn’t.

A paper was published in the Medical Hypotheses (a journal with a circulation of about 200) that linked mercury poisoning with autism. This theory was followed by experiments by the father-son team of Mark and David Geier. They claimed that mercury from vaccines was causing autism and they had a cure, a form of chelation therapy, they gave a binding agent (DMSA) to autistic children in the hopes that it would bind with the mercury in their system and remove it.
There were a number of studies by other scientists that seemed to confirm a link between thimerosal and autism.

However, soon politicians got involved. Robert F. Kennedy Jr, wrote an article for Rolling Stone titled “Deadly Immunity” he basically claimed a secret government plot involving big pharma and evil scientists had conspired to cover up the danger of thimerosal. Within a couple of weeks, Rolling Stone issued several retractions on the article.

But the damage had been done. Now thimerosal was linked with conspiracy theories.
Next, a journalist named David Kirby wrote a book called “Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy.” The American media ran with it just like with Wakefield. Kirby appeared on national radio and talk shows and promoted his claims. Millions of Americans saw or heard him.

The thing was, thimerosal didn’t cause autism. It was removed from vaccines in about 7 years ago and there was no drop in the rate of autism diagnosis. There were dozens of epidemiological studies (studies designed to show links between factors, in this case autism and thimerosal) which showed that there was no connection between children who were given vaccines with thimerosal and children diagnosed with autism.

And there are lot of other holes in the mercury theory. For one, mercury is everywhere. It’s naturally forming on the Earth. Because there is mercury in everything, we all have a small amount of mercury in our system, in fact, a child breast fed will ingest over 400 micrograms of mercury during the first six months of life.

Why were people like David Kirby and the Geiers relentlessly promoting this claim that was completely disproven?

It turns out the Geier’s aren’t what they claimed. They spent their career working as expert witnesses to law firms that sued vaccine makers. In fact, Richard Barr, paid them 14,000 to testify against these vaccine makers. They also sold an expensive and dubious method of cleansing mercury from autistic children. Mark Geier is no longer considered an expert witness, as according to a judge, his testimony bordered on fraud.

David Kirby, who claimed to be a reporter for the New York Times, was in fact, lying. He occasionally worked as a freelancer but was never on staff. When Don Imus was fired for making racist remarks about the Rutgers woman’s basketball team, Kirby claimed Imus had been fired because he talked about vaccines causing autism. According to Kirby, it was all a big conspiracy by big Pharma.

But sadly, that’s not the end. The anti-vaccination movement has continued, now it has celebrity leaders. People like Jenny McCarthy and her husband Jim Carry, meanwhile, disgraced doctors like Andrew Wakefield are considered heroes. The Geier’s are still practicing their dangerous mercury removal therapies. In 2005, a child died while undergoing a similar therapy. Meanwhile, media outlets like Oprah, Larry King and day time talk shows give an open venue and soap box for these people to spread misinformation about vaccines and autism, and promote their dubious medical treatments that are often expensive and potentially dangerous.
In our interview with Phil Plait, he mentions how as the vaccination rate drops “herd immunity” drops as well. This gives viruses a chance to spread across the population and infect those people who can’t be immunized because they’re too young or old or sick.

I can’t state how disgusted and shocked by the speed of this movement. It has reduced vaccination rates in the UK and Europe dramatically. It’s also having similar effects in the United States. I urge our listeners and readers to stand up to this crackpot theory and examine sources like “Autism’s False Prophets” by Paul Offit

Also check out http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/
http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/thimerosal.htm (centre for disease control)
And the Canadian Coalition for Immunization Awareness and Promotion http://immunize.cpha.ca/en/default.aspx

Today in the News (29 May 09)

Sometimes while searching for news to report here, I am amazed at the places that do indeed have news that I otherwise have heard nothing about. In this case, it's The Hindu News Update Service with this story on some possible additional functions of "junk" DNA. Basically, the repeated sequences help with rapid environmental changes.

I got a kick out of this article where they equipped robots with fins at Vassar, and simulated evolution. While it may not give us insights into exactly how things were back 540 Million years ago, it does give us insights into the process. Especially as they model more and more complex interactions.

I also saw this article on humans being evolved to actually care about long term things like the environment. I guess this only means that about half of Americans have had this genetic trait bred out of us?

Finally, this article about how so few people actually understand evolution really hit home. It is amazing how many misconceptions there are. It's so difficult to defend something, when the detractors have absolutely no idea what it is that they are opposing!

Today there are two more articles on the whole "Vaccines causes Autism" war. The Public Library of Science, a peer-reviewed open access journal has this article about bridging the gap of trust and fear between parents and scientists. I was disheartened to see the author say that this silly autism/vaccine link is an "evidence resistant theory", meaning that no matter what someone says, people will insist on believing what they want to believe, and damn the consequences.

That's why I was also very interested in this article dealing more on the ethics side of the debate. I was particularly amused byt this quote: "If you're not willing to do your part for herd immunity, you need to take responsibility for staying out of the herd." It got the savage part of me wondering if I could help cull the herd of some "mistakes" in behaviour. Although the body count would probably be prohibitive to the survival of the species.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Today in the News (28 May 09)

Today there was good news in the arena of evolution education. Not a rainbows and unicorns win as Dr. Plait puts it, but at least some hope. Although, the dishonestly, lies, and deceit that these people will use is nothing short of amazing, so the battle for Texas is far from over.

Without trying to invoke "Pinky and the Brain" too much, scientists are isolating genes dealing with speech. By putting these "human" genes in mice, it is giving us a lot of insight into the development of speech.

Also found this Harvard University display on evolution quite interesting. It's especially cool how they are highlighting the contributions by Harvard Scientists to our understanding of evolution.

I found this article interesting talking about the increase in autism in the UK. Again, the authors dismissed suggestions that changes in lifestyle or the environment were behind the rise. They put it down to improved awareness and detection, and the inclusion of milder conditions within the diagnosis. Thankfully they mention that the Wakefield study is discredited, which it is in all ways possible!

In another nail in the coffin to the anti-vax pro-disease crowd, more genetic links are cropping up. This is a follow on to the earlier study from earlier this month.

I found this, and I figured I would just repost it here:

Lessons From The Vaccine-autism Wars

ScienceDaily (May 27, 2009) — Researchers long ago rejected the theory that vaccines cause autism, yet many parents don't believe them. Can scientists bridge the gap between evidence and doubt?

This week, the open-access journal PLoS Biology investigates why the debunked vaccine-autism theory won't go away. Senior science writer/editor Liza Gross talks to medical anthropologists, science historians, vaccine experts, social scientists, and pediatricians to explore the factors keeping the dangerous notion alive—and its proponents so vitriolic.

Pediatrician Paul Offit has made it his mission to set the record straight: vaccines don't cause autism. But he won't go on Larry King Live—where he could reach millions of viewers—or anyplace celebrity anti-vaccine crusaders like Jenny McCarthy appear. ''Every story has a hero, victim, and villain,'' he explains. ''McCarthy is the hero, her child is the victim—and that leaves one role for you.''

When she read that hecklers were issuing death threats to spokespeople who simply reported studies showing that vaccines were safe, anthropologist Sharon Kaufman dropped her life's work on aging to study the theory's grip on public discourse. To Kaufman, a researcher with a keen eye for detecting major cultural shifts, these unsettling events signaled a deeper trend. ''What happens when the facts of bioscience are relayed to the public and there is disbelief, lack of trust?'' Kaufman wondered. ''Where does that lead us?''

Despite overwhelming evidence that vaccines don't cause autism, one in four Americans still think they do. Not surprisingly, the first half of 2008 saw the largest US outbreak of measles—one of the first infectious diseases to reappear after vaccination rates drop—since 2000, when the native disease was declared eliminated. Mumps and whooping cough have also made a comeback. Last year in Minnesota, five children contracted Hib, the most common cause of meningitis in young children before the vaccine was developed in 1993. Three of the children, including a 7-month-old who died, hadn't received Hib vaccines because their parents either refused or delayed vaccination.

Now, more than ten years after unfounded doubts about vaccine safety first emerged, scientists and public health officials are still struggling to get the story out. Their task is made far more difficult by the explosion of misinformation on the Internet, talk shows, and high-profile media outlets, by journalists' tendency to cover the issue as a "debate," and, as Kaufman argues, by an erosion of trust in experts.

Information technology has transformed the way trust and knowledge are produced, Kaufman says: ''Scientists have to consider their role in this changed landscape and how to compete with these other sources of knowledge.'' Simply relating the facts of science isn't enough. No matter that the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that vaccines don't cause autism. When scientists find themselves just one more voice in a sea of ''opinions'' about a complex scientific issue, misinformation takes on a life of its own.

This work received no funding. The authors declare that no competing interests exist.

The thing to remember, this really IS a war, and children are the casualties!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Today in the News (27 May 09)

For a little something different, how about some more humerous looks at evolution? I think my daughter appreciates this article on why there are "mean girls" on an intellectual level, but let's face it, "Mean people suck!" It is at least reassuring that it's not some sort of targeted behaviour based on just the victim, but the perpetrator themselves as well.

This article was also particularly amusing! But, on behalf of all Chihuahua, I must say that the last sentence was particularly insulting to them.

I am sad to say that my google-fu skills are weak, and I couldn't find anything particularly relevant or new to post about today. I thought about posting a link to one of the anti-vax pro-disease sites, but spending just a few minutes on their sites frightened me. Not because of what they were saying, but the manner in which they presented their material. There are elements of the worst of conspiracy therorists, paranoid delusions, and total loss of touch with reality. Those sites don't need any traffic or exposure. As a matter of fact, instead, maybe a look inside their minds from a different perspective is called for. The mental gymanstics are all too common. Just look at the post by IVAN3MAN from a couple days ago.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Today in the News (26 May 09)

I guess we could only file this under the "I told you so!" department... Now how responsible will a parent feel if they didn't vaccinate due to unfounded fears, but their child DIED from a preventable disease like this? Or their neighbor's infant died, as happened in Australia?

The news is still getting google spammed with all the swine flu. Although, our understanding of genetics is helping us understand this virus more.

Since I did mention genetics, evolution seems the next logical topic. Scientists have discovered a fundamental mechanism on cell formation. This seems to be in a different arena and is only part of the picture from what I blogged about a couple weeks back.

There is also this book review on our human evolution and out interaction with one of our earliest "inventions": fire. I think one of the things that this book should highlight is the amazingly complex interplay between how we shape our environment as well as how our environment shapes us. No one ever said this is easy stuff!

Adding to the confusion about autism, there is Angleman Syndrome. Not quite autism, although easily confused for part of the spectrum. This highlights that not everything is autism. Just because all you have is a hammer, everything isn't a nail. Perhaps this should also serve as a warning not to overdiagnose autism.

Scientists are reaching a concensus on how the brain handles speech. Understanding speech is seen as one of the main challenges with autism, as well as many other maladies of the brain.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Today in the News (25 May 09)

I am finally back in the United States, so let us resume things in the news.

Scientists have discovered a region of the brain that makes us a "People Person". Since Autism can severely affect people's ability to interact socially, as well as these same brain areas show some marked differences in people with Autism, this news helps us trace an even better understanding of this disease.

In the arena of fantasy, it seems that people will turn to any treatment they can without any backing for such. Apparently a treatment meant to chemically castrate people is being used for autism treatment. Without having any firm scientific basis for the treatment, I am afraid we'll soon be adding more names to What's the Harm...

More good news on the HIV vaccine front. While reading up on this particular vaccine, I was led to another article that discusses that the same methodology can eventually lead to vaccines for Herpes as well.

And all vaccines are NOT injected. By rubbing a "vaccine" on the surface of tissues, scientists may even be able to prevent ear infections. To any parent that has had to endure a child with ear infections, this is welcome news!

The "Ida" discovery that I blogged about on 15 May is really making the rounds. There will be a History Channel special about it tomorrow night as well as lots of reactions from those who are thrilled about the discovery as well as those who are not so thrilled. Anyway, here is a small cautionary write up for folks getting a little bit too excited about the "Ida" fossil. Not that it isn't significant news, but like most humans, it seems we're trying to make a bit too much out of it.

Since the last entry was on the 19th, this article from the 22nd on the fundamental mechanism for cell formation was quite interesting, even though not from today. As well as some speculation on panspermia from asteroids "aiding" in life formation. Sure, we keep repeating that abiogenesis has nothing to do with evolution, but one is a pre-condition for the other, so it's always nice to see the gaps get smaller in our understanding.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Creationism as a Thinking Disorder

The following article, Creationism as a Thinking Disorder, by Rev. Richard Bradshaw, Mental Health Chaplain, Teesside, England, was originally posted at No Answers in Genesis!, which I have re-posted here and edited for grammar/disambiguation, provides a good understanding of the creationists' mentality:

Creationism as a Thinking Disorder

by Richard Bradshaw (Rev.)

Mental Health Chaplain (September 2007), Teesside, England.

Creationism is a curious phenomenon which calls for an explanation. Some would say that applies to all religious belief and maybe so, but there can be few philosophies in the modern West that display such intense irrationality; that require devotees to set their faces against such a vast body of modern knowledge – cosmological, biological, geological, anthropological. I was warned early on in my attempts to understand creationists that any attempt at debating with them is futile, and my experience confirms this, although I have had some perfectly civilised exchanges, verbal and written.

It is rather like dealing with anorexics: thin people who are convinced [that] they need to lose weight, to the point of putting themselves at risk. Plonk them on scales and the scales are wrong. Show them their emaciated reflection in a mirror and they will still see a plump person. [Try to reason] with them and you are part of the conspiracy to make them obese. While anorexia is normally referred to as an eating disorder it is also, clearly, a form of mental illness, whose victims can be sectioned and force-fed to keep them alive – which they will interpret as cruelty. Anorexia is something that happens to other people; they are perfectly normal.

The parallels with creationism are as obvious to anyone who has engaged with it as [the notion] will seem outrageous to creationists themselves -- which proves my point. Anorexics, victims of an eating disorder, cannot always be helped because the very condition leads to denial of what's wrong with them; creationism we might say is a thinking disorder which also generates denial about its own irrationality. In their own eyes, [it is the] creationists [who] are sane and impartial; the competent scientists; the faithful interpreters of scripture, and the true Christians. [As for] everyone else, [it is] their science [that is] worthless and their religion deviant, [but] they can't see it, so they're crazy; they have a religious disability. You can do the equivalent of holding a mirror up to the anorexic, which is to quote the immense body of scientific and theological expertise proving their errors; [however], to the creationist, this simply proves that you are part of a Satanic conspiracy to undermine the true faith.

Pursuing the parallel further, I think it follows that certain approaches to creationism should be avoided. You do not arrange debates between anorexics and people with a properly adjusted body image; you call sickness by its name and attempt to treat it. They are mentally ill, so they're not fully aware of what's wrong with them; you make allowances for this. Humour them, up to a point. So with creationists: their thinking is disordered; they're in denial about it; they're convinced you're out to get them, so to debate with them is not only futile, it's actually inappropriate, because it treats them as equal partners in a search for truth and insight – which they are not. It will not help their recovery. Books and pamphlets that put both sides of the case, as though there are arguments for and against creationism worthy of equal consideration, are similarly misguided. This would be like publishing the anorexic's argument for starving herself to death and weighing it respectfully against her consultant's view that she's a very ill person.

You do not, you cannot, respect an anorexic's beliefs; you respect her as a person, which of course is quite different. Ditto with creationists; ridiculous though their beliefs are, it's important to respect them as people. This will not be reciprocated. You may treat the creationist as a Christian, but he will not so regard you [as one] unless you buy into his world-view, which you can't. (If you don't profess to be a Christian anyway, you don't have the same problem.) [Furthermore], you do not put the anorexic in charge of the food counter at Wal-Mart, because she doesn't understand what a normal diet is; likewise, you don't let creationists anywhere near a school curriculum because they don't understand what education is, certainly not what science is. You don't discuss this with them, because they [will] think [that] your intentions are sinister; [they] can't grasp that [your intentions] might be honourable. That's what having a disorder implies. [Anorexics think they are] an overweight blob. [Creationists think that] evolution really is an atheistic ["fairy tale"] with no evidence to support it. Sure. Time for your medication.

There are really two issues worth discussing here and I think that those who are trying to cure the creationist disorder should concentrate on them, rather than on sterile debates about radiometric dating and imaginary subjects like "flood geology". The first has to do with protection. Anorexics need protection from themselves; schools need protection from creationists. The debate was over long ago. The question to be asked is not whether creationism can be taught, but simply how we can ensure that it isn't taught. Anywhere, ever.

The second really interests me. Anorexia is a condition with causes, typically in the patient's dysfunctional family circumstances. Understanding these can help towards a cure of existing victims and preventing the illness from flaring up in others. What are the conditions that give rise to the disorder of creationism? It's not just the decadence and insularity of American fundamentalism, with its focus on Biblical inerrancy; although this doesn't help, not all inerrantists are YE creationists. I think it's a combination of fundamentalist culture, a particular personality profile, the politicisation of American religion and the polarisation of its popular culture. These streams feed the swamp in which the malarial mosquitoes of creationism breed. How can we drain it?

For God's sake, for humanity's sake if you don't believe in God, isn't it obvious? Liberals of the world, unite! The open, pluralist society which guarantees every one's freedom – including that of creationists themselves -- is under threat here. What does liberalism mean if not shouting from the roof tops: Beware [of] absolutes!; Beware [of] who know they're right!; Beware [of] those who can't cope with shades of grey and who insist that everything is either black or white!; Beware [of] those who would send you to hell if you don't believe in their God!

There is more than one point of view on any subject and it's a pretty boring subject on which there are only two!

Fundamentalists, creationists, [and] sectarians in general, can be perfectly charming people; [however], their underlying position is unavoidably arrogant, and that's the great danger. They know they're right. Liberalism is, or should be, about humility, but it doesn't preclude conviction. It doesn't have to be woolly. I know what I think, you know what you think, but we could both be wrong, or only partly right; let's talk about it and by discussing what divides us arrive at a truth greater than either of us understood before. I believe in one God, you believe in another God, and she doesn't believe in God at all. Isn't that interesting? Let's discuss it and see where we get. It might be that we all finish up believing in something none of us do just at the moment: such as (and how many creationists dare play with this thought), whether or not there is a God; whether God can sensibly be said either to exist or not to exist, may not be the issue. Perhaps the question really is: how does "God" language work for me, and how does her "no God" language work for her? Do we perhaps have more values in common than we realise?

Liberalism is a precondition of cultural health. Liberalism provides for the flourishing of science. Absolutist positions, whether rooted in religious or secular ideology, lead to totalitarianism. Call it the Taliban, call it Stalinism, call it creationism, call it the Spanish Inquisition, any mindset that believes it alone has the truth and damns all opposition to hell, is the enemy of the free society. As someone once said, we need seekers after the truth, but protection from anyone who is dead certain he's found it.

For the evil of creationism to triumph, it is only necessary that all the good liberals do nothing. [Also], perhaps, with Ken Ham's new museum drawing crowds, not all of whom can have paid their entrance fee just to have a laugh, now is the hour for liberals to gird their loins.

Though I could, of course, be quite wrong about that.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Today in the News (19 May 09)

This is my last entry for a few days. You'll know when I start up again.

1.7 MILLION people die each year from TB. There used to be a vaccine for it, but for various reasons it became inneffective. Vanderbilt University Medical Center may be getting that vaccine on track. While this disease is not that prevalent in the industrialized nations, it does affect many of the poor. Having travelled the world, I can attest to the devestation this disease has visited upon many populations.

Dr Plait has another blog post that leads to some great reading. Especially the part about holding them legally responsible. Of course, the brigade of the ill informed and poorly educated came out in the comments section. Now I have heard people come to McCarthy's defense saying that "She herself says she is not anti-vax." Sadly, McCarthy’s denials of being anit-vax ring incredibly hollow. It’s like someone saying, “I’m not sexist, but I think women belong in the kitchen.” or saying, “I’m not racist, but I think black people are less intelligent.” So Jenny saying she’s not anti-vax is equally as contradictory….

More genetic clues about autism. This time, there seems to a be relationship in gender and autism that is tracable to a specific gene. Again, this is more and more evidence that the anti-vax pro-disease crowd won't take kindly to, because it further refutes their anectdotes.

On a sort of good news front, I am seeing more and more stories about medical insurance covering autism. With the ability to track it down to some sort of genetic identification, and the burdens that families bear in dealing with this, I see this as a good thing. Although, then it begs the question about the messed up state of the US Healthcare system. Not a topic for this blog.

It's kind of funny that I blogged about the new primate five days, and now it's all over the news today. No correlation, I am just easilly amused. Anyway, here is nother link to the story. I am hesitant to make any statements about this beyond that now deniers will think we have introduced yet another gap as opposed to creating a more complete picture.

A team of researchers, addressing long-standing conflicts in ecology and evolutionary science, has provided key directions for the future of community ecology. The team comprehensively synthesized emerging work that applies knowledge of evolutionary relationships among different species—phylogenetics—to understanding species interactions, ecosystems and biodiversity.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Today in the News (18 May 09)

Tomorrow will be the strat of a break in blogs from this particular administrator here due to travel plans. Hopefully some of the other folks will pick up the slack.

Today I am combining this subject, since that is really one of the things that started this entire endeavour. I encourage and implore you to read this open letter to Oprah! Copy it to your Facebook page, tweet it, put it up on MySpace even! Thankfully most of the comments are supportive, although now that the lette is getting attention, beware the wrath of the anti-vax pro-disease brigrade. Not to be outdone by the Bad Astronomer, here is a particularly well worded excerpt:

To me, it is clear that a significant number of people look up to you, and trust your advice and judgment. That is why it is such a huge mistake for you to endorse Jenny McCarthy with her own show on your network.

Surely you must realize that McCarthy is neither a medical professional nor a scientist. And yet she acts as a spokesperson for the anti-vaccination movement, a movement that directly impacts people’s health. Claims that vaccines are unsafe and cause autism have been refuted time after time, but their allure persists in part because of high-profile champions for ignorance like McCarthy.

I sincerely wish that I was this eloquent! Again, if you know Ms Winfrey, or know how to get in touch with her, please pass this along. Spread the word! And of course, direct them here in case they are confused about anything.

For a while I was frightened by this article, until they started saying that, again, there are no links what so ever between autism and vaccines. Something for people concerned about overwhelming the immune system, take into acocunt that in 1985, doctors vaccinated for seven diseases using 3,000 antigens, she said. Today, health care providers can vaccinate against 16 diseases using only 200 antigens.

To further complicate the discussion on evolution, and making it harder for those who don't actually set out to study the subject, here is an article talking about epigenetics. In terms of the science involved in genetics and evolution, this is light reading and quite understandable. Sadly, the people that can consider this light reading are becoming much to scarce in the United States, and in the education system.

Since I live in Florida, I tend to hold a rather dim view of any educational institution associaited with the state for various reasons. That's why I was pleasantly surprised to find that the University of Florida was doing some groundbreaking research into the evolution of flowers. Yes, I know that my derision of Florida's educational system shouldn't include the Univeristy System, but the state has such a horrible track record on everything that I can't help having that bias.

Somehow I missed this article on Homo floresiensis. Although I guess that maybe the Homo portion of their name may need to be removed based on the findings? Sorry, not a taxonomist. It does beg the questyion on what other fossils are now predicted as a result of this better understanding?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Today in the News (17 May 09)

With the speed at which news moves, one would think that eventually we'd stop geting more and more swine flu sotries, but they still dominate all the news feeds. In digging through all the news on vaccines though, I did find this interesting sotry relating to an AIDS vaccine. Of course, some with cry and moan about this encouraging sexual behaviour. How little those people understand basic human nature.

How about potentially saving 400,000 children worldwide, each year? Or do anti-vax pro-disease proponents think that it's just not worth it? Having a vaccine for rheumatic fever would be yet another cocktail to the mix, but to the poeple who die from it, I don't think it would be much of a choice.

In the news regarding autism, most of it focuses around a lot of fund raising efforts. This article in the Oregon Live community (where autism rates are indeed higher than the rest of the United States), details how the Federal Government is putting $1.1 Billion towards autism research. As the parent of an autistic child, I welcome that bit of news.

And of course, one of the cool things that scientists do is report their results. The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is one of the prime research centers for Autism. And if you look at that page, there is no mention of vaccines. I think that road of inquiry is dead, yet the anti-vax pro-disease movement chugs on despite what reality has to say to them.

Just to drive home the fact that evolution isn't always about the fastest, strongest, or even smartest, I was amused when I ran into this article talking about how natural selection seems to favor snails that are slower.

I also found a sort of review of the whole 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species at this NY Book review site. In there was a quick paragraph that is worth repeating for all to read:

The Darwin-Wallace explanation of evolution, the theory of natural selection, is based on three principles:
1) Individuals in a population differ from each other in the form of particular characteristics (the principle of variation).
2) Offspring resemble their parents more than they resemble unrelated individuals (the principle of heritability).
3) The resources necessary for life and reproduction are limited. Individuals with different characteristics differ in their ability to acquire those resources and thus to survive and leave offspring in the next generations (the principle of natural selection).
Such basic principles, yet so many people seem to have such difficulty understanding them.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Today in the News (15 May 09)

Today I am going to start off on the Evolution topic, just to mix things up a little. Also, I plan to take a day off for the weekend. You won't get an update for that day. Furthermore, I am due to "redeploy" back home soon. This generally involves spending a great amount of time in an airplane, and in sparse terminals with no connectivity. And then I will have a happy reunion with my family, so you will not see any updates for those days. Just wanted you to be aware.

While abiogenesis has nothing itself to do with evolution, it is considered one of those "defining gaps" that are used to bludgeon evolution with. That's why it's exciting to see this article about how RNA could be the starting point for life itself. Once you have any polymer capable of self-replication, you'll end up with more of those (and more of the ones that do it better). Since these are more abundant, they're more likely to be trapped inside vesicles that spontaneously form and divide by mechanical forces. That's basically a cell. Pretty much everything else is gravy that can be explained by natural selection.

There is also news of a new primate fossil that was found. This one goes back to about 47 million years ago, so is an even further precursor to the primate line. What is fascinating about this one is that basically evolution predicts that this type of fossil would exist, while ID or creationism says nothing about it.

Again, all the swine flu talk is google spamming any other information one can find on vaccines in general. That said, I did find an article where they suspect that the Hep B vaccine can reduce the rates of liver cancer. Now the thing about the Hep B vaccine is that it's meant for adults. How many cases of adult onset autism are there? I said ONSET, not diagnosis. Kind of another fact that anti-vax pro-disease proponents would like to conveniently ignore.

Scientists have discovered how bacterial meningitis breaks through the blood brain barrier. As the article itself states, it could lead to a breakthrough in treatment and possibly even vaccines. Would be nice not to have this kill our children as well.

In further brain research, it seems that normal brains "hear" emotion of sorts. While this is more focused on basic brain research, it is again one of the things that helps us understand exactly what is going on instead of just blindly accusing anecdotal evidence.

There is the "baffling" correlation to folks who have vinyl flooring. Keep in mind, correlation is not causation... That's the same bad reasoning that got hold in the anti-vax pro-disease community. Scientific American has also run an article on a possible connection to a Vitamin D deficiency. Of course, on the same page there is a link to an article talking about environmental factors causing autism. While overall the jury is still out on this, we are starting to find some of the myriad of interrelated factors that can play into it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Today in the News (14 May 09)

How about aq vaccine that actually HELPS brain activity? Will it be possible to make a vaccine for Alzhimer's? I wonder what sort of objections someone would raise about that? And exactly how would they justify those objections after seeing how Alzhimer's robs a person of their basic humanity?

As I do more and more research on vaccines, I am finding that a lot of mechanisms of viruses and cancer seem to be affected by vaccine vectors. So now we are looking at melanoma. Again, this is very cool, just because it ultimately increases our understanding of these horrible affligions.

In finding more and more GENETIC links to autism, there even seems to be a co-developmental relationship with a gastro-intestinal disorder. This is incredibly important for two reasons. First, it again shows that autism is more and more likely to be a genetic disorder, and have nothing to do with vaccines. Secondly, this could help in even earlier detection and diagnosis of autism in individuals.

Lest we forget that Autism is not a new disease, there are many adults living with autism as well. One of the things that would be interesting is to look back at many diagnosis of insanity, retardation, anti-social behaviour, etc. and see if any of these folks are actually autistic.

I mentioned the research that had basically nailed down the "origin point" of the human species. The other aspect of this is learning about how us humans spread out and what sort of patterns there are in human population structures. Again, it's not only cool, but hopefully will give a lot of insight into our species.

In the same vein as yesterday's post where people don't even uderstand evolution, in general people are just plain dumb about all science. Sadly, this puts the United States at a disadvantage in many areas, not letting us be as flexible or dominant as we were in the past. I find it funny that the ones who claim to be most patriotic, and to be "real Americans" are pretty much the very same people responsible for dragging our science backwards.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Today in the News (13 May 09)

Sadly the H1N1 flu virus is pretty much dominating any news about vaccines at this time. Although, in my little corner of the world, there are cases of pertussis (whooping cough). All I can say is that you can expect to see more and more cases of this as time goes on unless the irrisponsible lies of the pro-disease and anti-vax folks can be stopped.

I did see this article about yet another cancer that may show promise to a vaccine treatment. This time it's breast cancer, and this is a very preliminary trial, so don't stop those self exams just yet!

So what would all the anti-vax pro-disease proponents say if an autism diagnosis was possible before any vaccinations had been given? I suppose that would really take the winds out of their sails. I just found this older article where a Dr. Sheinkopf is hoping to do just that. Add this to the Systematic Observation of Red Flags (SORF), and we may be getting somewhere. Sadly, there is still so much we don't know, and in those gaps of knowledge, lies and misinformation breed worse than any virus or bacteria!

Does evolution conflict with religion? Well, it depends really. One thing that we can say though is that evolution has no conflict what so ever with reality. The linked essay does give a relatively respectful breakdown on a few thoughts on the subject.

I also found this interesting article about the same problem I seem to encounter all the time. People who disagree with the theory of evolution, basically just don't understand it. Hopefully this website will help in that.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Today in the News (12 May 09)

Hopefully the swine flu breakout in 1976 taught us a few things. People are planning and taking note. The reason this is included here is that there should hopefully be a vaccine in time for the fall flu season that will hopefully deal with this. I am a bit disapointed in the media hype this has generated in that they are sort of "forgetting" to report on how many people die from seasonal flu each year. Those numbers don't seem to be as important as the very few swine flu related deaths so far. Although, as a rational thinker, I had to doe a double facepalm at the comment by hsro601... While this webiste is attempting to educate people, there are still some that say things that are so monumentally stupid that they just leave you staring at them (or their comments) in disbelief.

In our ever increasing knowledge of health and medecine, it seems that a vaccine may be developed to prevent the recurrence of Brain Cancer. Now this isn't meant as a vaccine that everyone should be put on a schedule for, but it is encouraging that we are making strides in this area. And if someone has suffered brain cancer, I doubt that they will let the anti-vax pro-disease movement frighten them with all their unsubstantiated claims!

Just found out about an educational series for parents of children on the autism spectrum. It starts in a couple of days, but there may be repeats or the material may become available online in the future. It's a 14 week program at $5 a session at the Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto, CA.

Here is another hopeful article about educating autistic children. The thing to note is that in no instance did the article mention any causes of autism (but rest assured it's not vaccines).

Since evolution is basicaly about our (and every other creature's) genes, I found this book review interesting. Especially again how inter related som many subjects are. People who deny evolution are in essence denying pretty much everything that we know about this planet and its inhabitants.

In the field of evolution, particularly mammals, we are tracking down a few things about what makes a mammal a mammal. I wonder what sort of things we'll be able to predict with this information? You know, actually apply science!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Today in the News (11 May 09)

Today is another news update, so let's get right to it.

Well, imagine this, a study links outbreaks of disease to parents opting out from vaccines. Again, it's not just the unvaccinated children that are at risk, but everyone that they come in contact with. As I posted in yesterday's blog, if you can watch that video where the Australian baby died as a result of other people's negligence and not feel something, you just aren't human. It's exactly that which we are striving to prevent with vaccines.

Since most of us who are adults now are the product of a post-vaccination society, we really didn't have to face many of the diseases our parents were afraid of. As such we really don't know about them, and feel as if they don't apply to us. With new vaccines becoming available for things though, many adults also forgo vaccines for things they are vulnerable to because they think of these things as just childhood issues. One also has to wonder if adults are willing to risk their children's lives just because again, they have no familiarity with the devastation of these preventable diseases!

There seems to be A LOT of bunk out there about autism that needs debunking. I found this brief write up from a mother of an autistic child. As the father of an autistic child, I must say that I agree with her completely.

Since I haven't blogged it here, I want to highlight the article that has traced a genetic link to autism. While we have been researching this disorder for the past 65 years (according to the article), keep in mind that most of the advances are in fields that are barely a decade old. We have a long way to go yet!

If anyone is planning a trip to Africa, they can go to the point where the human species originated. It's really cool how we can track this sort of stuff down with our better understanding of evolutionary biology and genetics! Again, even though Darwin's On the Origin of Species is 150 years old, most of the sciences involved are less than a decade old. (Hey, didn't I just type that in the preceding paragraph?) And they are so intertwined that I am still bemused by those who would deny it.

The folks of Cincinnati have a treat in their area, a Darwin Exhibition. This is more a focus on the human being himself though as opposed to his work. Could provide an interesting insight. I'd appreciate any news anyone can pass on about this.

Thank you for reading.