Facts, not Fantasy

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Photon in the Darkness: Dr. “Know-it-all”*

I have often said that the most powerful words in the English language are "I don't know."  They are hard to say, and infuriating to admit to, but they are more often than not, true compared to the stuff that comes out of most people's mouths.  As human beings, we don't like not knowing something, and that's where the practitioners of woo step in.  The unethical approach is that instead of saying "I don't know.", they will just make stuff up and give people a false sense of having gotten an "answer".  Even if the answer is wrong.  As people have often said, "Reality and science is hindered by the fact that they simply cannot just make stuff up."  So, when Prometheus posted this story, was reminded of that saying.  As well as reminding me that folks need to check out What's The Harm to see the effects of many of these ill founded and unethicaly promoted ideas.

Dr. “Know-it-all”*

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with the mother of an autistic child that highlighted both the appeal and the danger of ”alternative” autism therapy. This mother, who is a bright and well-read person, is not medically or scientifically sophisticated, like most of the population, including most parents of autistic children.

During our conversation, this woman mentioned that she was having concerns about her child’s “DAN! doctor” (her term), specifically the expensive medications and “supplements” he was prescribing. In addition, although this practitioner described himself as a “holistic” physician, treating the “whole patient”, he refused to treat the boy’s seizure disorder or his asthma. Apparently, “holistic” doesn’t include the brain or lungs.

What struck me, however, was her comparison between their “DAN! doctor” and the neurologist who is treating their son’s seizures. She felt an uncomfortable lack of confidence in the neurologist because she stated, in the first visit, that she didn’t know what was causing the boy’s seizures and needed to do some tests. In fact, this neurologist went so far as to admit that they might never discover a cause for the seizures, even after extensive testing. In contrast, their “DAN! doctor” always has an answer and uses tests to merely confirm his “clinical impression”.

Therein lies the appeal and the danger of “alternative” practitioners.

To recap - the neurologist admitted to this parent that she - the neurologist - couldn’t tell what was causing the seizures and needed to do further testing. The “DAN! doctor”, on the other hand, could tell that her son was suffering from “mercury toxicity” on the first visit and only did the $1400 worth of blood, urine and stool testing in order to confirm his diagnosis.

At this point, I asked my friend if she would look at the situation from a slightly different angle. Instead of seeing the neurologist’s lack of certainty as a flaw, maybe it was simply honesty. After all, how could anyone be sure what was causing the seizures without some testing? For that matter, how could her “DAN! doctor” be so certain that her son had “mercury toxicity” before any of the tests were done? And why - if the diagnosis was so obvious - did he need to do $1400 in tests (all done at expensive mail-order labs)?

Another curious point is that this “DAN! doctor”, while he has never wavered in his assessment of “mercury toxicity”, has been all over the map in terms of therapies. He started out with chelation, which he assured my friend would “recover” her son “in a matter of months”. When the boy’s behavior worsened, the doctor said it was “the toxins being mobilised” and when she commented after a year of chelation that her son seemed no better, the doctor said “It’s because you are too close - I see tremendous improvement!”. Funny thing, the boy’s teachers, who had no knowledge of the chelation, didn’t see much improvement, either.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bad Astronomy: More good and bad news about measles and vaccinations

I don't think I can expand any more on Dr. Plait's article...  I am reprinting it in its entirety here so that I can catch the full list of related links.  And yes, I realize this is an old post of his, but it is worth it for me to catch up on posting and put this one up!  Also, if you care at all about public health, this should be a call to action for you.  Write to Representative Keenan and ask him to withdraw his support for this.

More good and bad news about measles and vaccinations

Reporting on the latest news about vaccinations is frustrating. For every step forward we take a step back.

1) First, the good: vaccination rate for measles in the UK has risen to its highest level in 13 years according to the UK Health Protection Agency. The rate — 90% among two-year-olds — is pretty good. I’ll note that this is for the first of two vaccinations needed; for the second dose the uptake is lower, 85%.

One bit of bad news about this is the reason behind the rate increase is thought to be due to a series of measles outbreaks in Europe. It’s an irony of life that vaccines are a victim of their own success: inoculations have been so successful in eliminating some diseases that people take for granted the diseases are gone. But they’re not gone, they’re waiting. When vaccination rates drop low enough, we see more measles. And pertussis. And the flu, and polio.

And when this happens, people get sick, and some die. A teenager in the UK recently died of measles. He had a compromised immune system, which means he relied on us, the rest of the population, to keep up herd immunity.

We failed him.

2) In Massachusetts, it is a requirement by law that children be vaccinated to enter public school. The only exceptions are due to health reasons (for example, an allergy to ingredients of vaccines) or for religious reasons. I disagree with religious exemptions when it comes to medicine — as I’ve said here and here and here– but the Massachusetts legislature is about to consider a bill that will make things much worse. The bill, if passed, will amend the previously existing law. In its entirety, the bill says:
Notwithstanding the provisions of this section a child shall, upon written request of a parent to the school, be admitted to school.
What this means is that if a parent has decided for whatever reason not to vaccinate their child, all they have to do is write a letter and the kid must be allowed to attend school. I expect the reasoning behind this bill is to allow parents more freedom, but what it will actually do is greatly increase the risk of other children at Massachusetts schools for contracting serious and potentially life-threatening diseases.

The sponsor, John Keenan (D-Salem), appears to be a public safety-conscious man, having sponsored many bills to increase public safety. Going over his record I find myself agreeing with many of his policies. But this one strikes me as a bad idea.

Harpocrates Speaks has much more on this. If you live in Massachusetts, I suggest you read his article and contact your local representative about this issue.

Tip o’ the syringe to J Thomas and Todd W.

Related posts:
- Confirmed measles cases in US tops 150
- Pertussis can kill and you can stop it
- How to be inoculated against antivax conventions
- The Panic Virus

Friday, July 29, 2011

Genetic Switch for Limbs and Digits Found in Primitive Fish

The fact that genetics time and again supports evolution at the molecular level amazes me.  Not because the support is amazing, but because here is a field of science that came around more than 100 years after Darwin wrote his book, and it matches up!  If evolution was somehow a fraud or in danger of being overturned, the level of fraud to have Darwin's book and ideas be supported at this level of science would be simply mind-boggling.  He would have had to have had a time machine or something to pull it off.  Either that, or he was simply correct, and the molecular genetics is yet one more prediction made by science that was in the end supported.  Isn't it great when science actually works?

Genetic Switch for Limbs and Digits Found in Primitive Fish: Before Animals First Walked On Land, Fish Carried Gene Program for Limbs

Genetic instructions for developing limbs and digits were present in primitive fish millions of years before their descendants first crawled on to land, researchers have discovered.

Genetic switches control the timing and location of gene activity. When a particular switch taken from fish DNA is placed into mouse embryos, the segment can activate genes in the developing limb region of embryos, University of Chicago researchers report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The successful swap suggests that the recipe for limb development is conserved in species separated by 400 million years of evolution.

"The genetic switches that drive the expression of genes in the digits of mice are not only present in fish, but the fish sequence can actually activate the expression in mice," said Igor Schneider, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago and lead author on the paper. "This tells us how the antecedents of the limb go back in time at every level, from fossils to genes."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book Makes Case For Using Evolution In Everyday Life

I have always stated that the theory of evolution is so ingrained in everyday life, that to deny it is incredibly hypocritical, unless you sequester yourself off in a cave somewhere.  Pretty much EVERY advance in modern medicine comes from our understanding of evolution.  In the best of my fantasy worlds, all deniers of evolution would be denied the benefits we have learned from its understanding.

Now, I don't agree 100% with this particular author (I find him too accommodating to creationists and IDiots), but he has a very good point.

Book Makes Case For Using Evolution In Everyday Life

Evolution is not just about human origins, dinosaurs and fossils, says Binghamton University evolutionist David Sloan Wilson. It can also be applied to almost every aspect of human life, as he demonstrates in his first book for a general audience, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives (Bantam Press 2007).

Using witty, straightforward language and compelling anecdotes, Wilson outlines the basic principles of evolution in a way that can be easily understood by non-experts. He then uses the principles to explain phenomena as diverse as why beetles commit infanticide, why dogs have curly tails, and why people laugh and make art.

Wilson, a distinguished professor of biological sciences with a joint appointment in anthropology at Binghamton University, is convinced that evolution can become more widely accepted once its consequences for human welfare are appropriately understood.

"When evolution is presented as unthreatening, explanatory, and useful, it can be easily grasped and appreciated by most people, regardless of their religious or political beliefs and without previous training," says Wilson.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Butterfly Study Sheds Light On Convergent Evolution

A classic creationist canard is to find something that science may not have figured out yet, and proclaim, "therefore my supernatural entity did it!"  That is just plain wrong.  Not having an answer yet is no reason to substitute in a totally unfounded and unsupportable answer of "magic" in its place.  Especially when eventually science does figure it out!  Then the unnecessary "magic" answer seems really silly (which it was all along to people who subscribe to reality).

One of the stumper questions was Convergent Evolution.  It just seemed like a weird thing that happened in nature, and whe knew that it provided a benefit (the why), but the how was puzzling.  So this article is all part of replacing the magic with an actual how explanation.

Butterfly Study Sheds Light On Convergent Evolution: Single Gene Controls Mimicry Across Different Species

For 150 years scientists have been trying to explain convergent evolution. One of the best-known examples of this is how poisonous butterflies from different species evolve to mimic each other's color patterns -- in effect joining forces to warn predators, "Don't eat us," while spreading the cost of this lesson.

Now an international team of researchers led by Robert Reed, UC Irvine assistant professor of ecology & evolutionary biology, has solved part of the mystery by identifying a single gene called optix responsible for red wing color patterns in a wide variety of passion vine butterfly species. The result of 10 years of work, the finding is detailed in a paper that appears online July 21 in the journal Science.

"This is our first peek into how mimicry and convergent evolution happen at a genetic level," Reed said. "We discovered that the same gene controls the evolution of red color patterns across remotely related butterflies.
"This is in line with emerging evidence from various animal species that evolution generally is governed by a relatively small number of genes. Out of the tens of thousands in a typical genome, it seems that only a handful tend to drive major evolutionary change over and over again."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

FDA: Flu Vaccine

The FDA has approved the 2011-2012 flu vaccine.  Here is the complete release:

Influenza Virus Vaccine for the 2011 - 2012 Season

Cumulative 2011/2012 Season Lot Release Status (Updated 7/21/2011)
Flu vaccine lots that have been released by FDA and are available for distribution by the manufacturers. For information on flu vaccine distribution schedules, please contact the manufacturers directly.
Vaccine & ManufacturerTotal number of Lots
Released by FDA
CSL Limited
GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals
ID Biomedical Corp. of Quebec
MedImmune, LLC
Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics Limited
Sanofi Pasteur, Inc.
FDA's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) met in Bethesda, Maryland, on February 25, 2011, to select the influenza viruses for the composition of the influenza vaccine for the 2011-2012 U.S. influenza season. During this meeting, the advisory committee reviewed and evaluated the surveillance data related to epidemiology and antigenic characteristics of recent influenza isolates, serological responses to 2010-2011 vaccines, and the availability of candidate strains and reagents.
The committee recommended that vaccines to be used in the 2011-2012 influenza season in the U.S. contain the following:
  • an A/California/7/09 (H1N1)-like virus; *
  • an A/Perth /16/2009 (H3N2)-like virus;
  • a B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus.
        *A/California/7/09 (H1N1)-like virus is the pandemic (H1N1) 2009 influenza virus. 
This year’s vaccine for the United States includes the same viruses that were used for the 2010-2011 influenza season and the influenza vaccine composition is identical to that recommended by the World Health Organization on February 17, 2011, for the Northern Hemisphere's 2011-2012 influenza season.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Vaccine Times: Argumentum ad TVum

On Saturday's post, I may have made some statements about the anti-vax pro-disease crowd that may have seemed mean, and been an insult at their integrity.  Well, I stand by them!  And just to go into how incredibly out there their arguments can be, I present a new logical fallacy coined by the Vaccine Times:  Argumentum ad TVum...  Yes, it really is what it sounds like!  If they saw it on a TV show (a sitcom no less), it must apply to real life!  Just imagine the hilarity that will ensue.

Argumentum ad TVum

One of the stranger arguments made by vaccine critics over the years references an episode of the television sitcom The Brady Bunch where the kids came down with measles. The argument goes that because measles was treated as just a minor inconvenience for the family and not a life and death struggle on the show, it demonstrates medical authorities warning the public of serious risks from measles are nothing but alarmists using fear-mongering to increase vaccine sales for Big Pharma.

This Brady Bunch argument seems to originate with a tweet from leading vaccine critic Jay Gordon and has been repeated everywhere from random internet forums to Age of Autism, sometimes citing variations including different television shows and different vaccine-preventable diseases.

The most recent version, posted on Age of Autism, refers to a clip from a children’s cartoon called Arthur in which parents reassure their child that chickenpox is not serious. Nobody seemed to panic on the TV show and health authorities weren’t quick to condemn the show’s irresponsibility, so that must mean these diseases aren’t serious…right?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Darryl Cunningham: Evolution

I was a bit reluctant to post this link, only because no matter how simple you make it to someone who denies evolution, they will try to discount it.  And then you get trapped in trying to make it more simple, until it finally degenerates the very complex process into a caricature, which is really what the denialists already had in their mind.  Also, this particular link also ends up dealing with the "poo flinging ape" problem.  I find that all too often, creationists and evolution deniers will demand that every single mechanism be explained to them, and no matter how many explanations are provided, they only remember the final instance when they finally managed to ask about a process the explainer was not familiar with.  A very specific item I even deal with at the main Facts, not Fantasy Evolution page (see the last item).


Here then is the beta version of my strip about evolution. This is a chapter of the book Science Stories which will be out from Myriad Editions next spring. I'm sure there'll be mistakes here, so do feel free to point them out, so that I can make the necessary changes. Thank you.

evolution 1

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Photon in the Darkness: Another worthless autism-vaccine study

Here is my first catch up post.  As is so often the case with people who hold anti-reality views, lying is one of their most cherished recourses.  They get so good at it, and do it so often, that they don't even realize they are doing it!  And that statement is supported by a great deal of neurological research (I suggest Dr. Shermer's books on belief for an introduction).  So it is no surprise that a sketchy journal with an anti-vax pro-disease nutter at its helm publishes a poorly researched paper.

Another worthless autism-vaccine study

In May of this year (2011), the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A published an article by Dr. Gayle DeLong, professor of economics and finance at Baruch College, that claims to show a correlation between vaccines and autism:
DeLong G. A Positive Association found between Autism Prevalence and Childhood Vaccination uptake across the U.S. Population. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A. 2011 74(14):903-916
To readers who are curious why this article would appear in Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, recall that this is the same journal that has published (thoroughly debunked) articles on autism causation by Mark Geier (four, by my count), and James Adams (two). Clearly, someone on the editorial board of this journal has a “soft spot” for autism research that wouldn’t get published anywhere else.

Getting back to DeLong (2011) - the premise of Dr. DeLong’s study is that the increase in vaccination, specifically the hepatitis B vaccine, has been associated with a corresponding rise in autism diagnosis (from IDEA data). Curiously, Dr. DeLong doesn’t explicitly mention that her study is looking at the impact of the hepatitis B vaccine, although the rise in vaccination rate she follows is due to the addition of infant hepatitis B vaccination to the recommended schedule. Figure 1 clearly shows that, in the period 1995 - 2001 (the period Dr. DeLong covers), the US uptake of DPT, polio, measles and Haemophilus influenzae B (HiB) vaccine (the line marked 4:3:1:3) were relatively constant, while the hepatitis B vaccine coverage (included in the line marked 4:3:1:3:3)  showed an increase during that period. I have taken the liberty of showing the data on vaccine uptake after 2001 to show the later trend.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sorry About the Silence

Dear reader,

My apologies for the sudden silence and lack of posts.  Due to numerous unforseen circumstances, I have neglected to pass along news and updates.  I am just writing this entry to let you know that I shall endeavour to update this page with a few more entries and updates in the near future.  There has been quite a bit of news that needs to be covered, as well as some upcoming web page updates that I need to accomplish.  Please bear with me as I get these incorporated and taken care of.

Also, while Avicenna and I are the primary bloggers here, I am always looking for more people to help out.  There are many team members listed on this blog, however I have not heard much from them.  I am leaving them on the blog since I owe a certian amount of allegiance to them, but I am always looking for more people.  Please feel free to drop me a line at Larian@LarianLeQuella.com if you are interested in contributing.  Thank you.