Measles Making a Comeback as Vaccine-Hysteria Builds

July 16, 2008

Measles has already become a resurgent epidemic in England, and now, via Orac, I see that the once nearly-eradicated disease has gained a new foothold in the US as well: 127 cases since this May, springing up in 15 different states. According to the news coverage, that’s the largest spike in cases we’ve seen in a decade.

What gets me is that children in the Third World are literally dying in the hundreds of thousands because of lack of access to vaccines. It’s only here in the states that we even have the luxury to indulge in fact-free scare campaigns against vaccinations. Few people here have any sense of the real cost these sorts of diseases bring with them:

“What you have to remember is that 250,000 children die from this virus every year,” Alvarez added. “So, vaccinations have to be a priority for parents because at the end of the day if you get measles, you can live through it, but in some particular cases you’re going to have complications.”

About one in five measles sufferers experiences more severe illness, which can include diarrhea, ear infections, pneumonia, encephalitis, chronic neurological deficits and even death.

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds has a nice article summing up the problem for anyone not clear what the stakes are, and why the “anti-vaccination” movement is so potentially dangerous. Reynolds doesn’t mention, however, that his presumably preferred Presidential candidate, John McCain, is unfortunately pretty definitively on the wrong side of this issue.


Blog Shorts: Bush Smears Jefferson, Colson Smears Atheists, Cthulhu Smears Your Entrails Across Campaign Trail

July 5, 2008

The web is a wondrous place, isn’t it? From just the last week:

Ed Brayton and Timothy Sandefur catch George Bush “honoring” Thomas Jefferson by altering his actual words to avoid any hint of anti-religious opinions.

From the “Theists Are Far Ruder to Atheists than Atheists Could Be in Return” File comes Chuck Colson, the convicted felon who thinks he’s better than you. Hemant at the Friendly Atheist is having none of it. Hemant’s also not buying the idea that requiring students to actually act out Islamic prayers is a legitimate way to teach them about world religions, even if the teacher is a Christian.

Over at Catholic and Enjoying It, Mark Shea manages to be more far more outraged about a story in which Muslims are supposedly outraged by a puppy than anyone in the story is actually outraged. But he makes up for it by his hearty endorsement of Cthulhu’s 2008 run for the White House. No More Years!

And finally, Orac over at Respectful Insolence bemoans yet another loss to the forces of woo: apparently some states, with Vermont the most prominant amongst them, are starting to require insurance companies to pay for the “evidence-free medicine” of naturopathy. Lest you think that such errant nonsense couldn’t possibly hurt you, Orac points out that it’s a move that will kick you right in the pocketbook:

I don’t know about you, but if I were paying into an insurance plan, and the company administering that plan were wasting money paying for woo, I’d be mightily pissed. This can only serve to drive up the costs for everyone, as patients with non-self-limiting diseases pursue non-science-based modalities, think they feel better for a while, and then find that their disease is progressing, at which point they seek out science-based medical care–which their insurance companies will have to pay for, too.


FDA to Crack Down on Phony Cancer Cures?

June 17, 2008

Apparently the FDA has decided to start targeting internet businesses that have been making bogus medical claims about alt-med cancer cures. If so, it’s about time. I’m not against adults being allowed to imbibe whatever they want to believe will help cure them. I’d counsel strongly, strongly against it, but I don’t think it should be against the law. Companies, however, that prey on desperate folks like this deserve little mercy.

The letters criticized unproven claims made about these products including the ability to “destroy the enzyme on DNA responsible for cancer cells,” and the power to “neutralize” carcinogens. One product’s Web site had a testimonial claiming it had cured a patient’s skin cancer in three days, according to one of the letters.

I’m not even sure what “the enzyme on DNA responsible for cancer cells” is supposed to mean, exactly. I wouldn’t be surprised if the person who wrote it has no idea either. And that’s precisely what’s so screwed up about this entire market. While I’m sure some part of these sellers are sincerely convinced that their powders, chemicals, and rubs have some sort of cancer-fighting powers, they don’t actually know that they do. They believe. Alternative medicine is nothing more than medicine that hasn’t been vetted or tested to see if it actually works.

And in this context, that’s no better than handing someone a gun and telling them that it isn’t loaded… when they haven’t actually bothered to check. As good ole’ Abe Lincoln once said:

It is an established maxim and moral that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false is guilty of falsehood, and the accidental truth of the assertion does not justify or excuse him.


The New Age “Secret” in Hawaii: You Created Your Cancer Circumstance!

June 8, 2008

In my opinion, Hawaii is the best and most beautiful of our 50 states. But while I was down there blissfully schooling with reef fish, I also happened to notice that the local media seemed saturated with the New Age/New Thought nuttery known as “The Secret.” Many of its luminaries were offering talks, conferences, and workshops throughout the summer, with tickets that ran as high as $250 for “V.I.P.” seats.

For those not duly acquainted with this stuff, it’s essentially a self-help/motivational speaking movement that has proudly leaped off the deep-end with mystical pronouncements about the nature of thought and reality. Namely, they claim that the entire universe is shaped by people’s thoughts, and that a “Law of Attraction” allows you to draw the things you want to you just by thinking about them. The whole shebang is, in the end, pretty standard pseudoscience: lots of very vague claims, few falsifiable, coupled with the attitude that any skeptics are party-poopers messing up all the magic with their negative nancyings.

Wishing got me this hatAnyway, one of Hawaii’s local papers featured an interview with one Mike Dooley “former Hawaii Marine brat,” former tax accountant, T-shirt salesman, and now multi-million dollar motivational mufti for the Secret movement. His trademark idea is that “Thoughts Become Things.” He even, without any sense of self-parody, has some sort of super-adventure club called TUT.com to promote it.

How did he come to conclude that he (and maybe you, if you can afford the 130$ workshop) could recreate reality with his mind?

Not finding answers in the mainstream, including the religion I belong to [I was] a good old Catholic boy. I was left to draw conclusions–deductive reasoning. For instance, [that] we’re powerful, loved, eternal, that time space must be illusions. These were my inner suspicions. We are divine creators. What we focus on, we ultimately manifest. Books helped me confirm my inner suspicions about life.”

I’m not sure how or why “deductive reasoning” got downgraded to “inner suspicion” halfway through this paragraph, but the idea that time and space are “illusions” is a pretty darn extravagant claim. And it’s one that I’m not so sure you can use an “inner suspicion” to discern the truth of. Entirely within the confines of your own mind, it’s perfectly possible to think of the universe, and everything that happens in it, as illusion. That’s because it’s the ultimate in unfalsifiable beliefs: any possible evidence to the contrary can simply be classified as part of the illusion.

But what does it really mean to assert that time and space are a mirage… and then try to simply move on from there as a being within that false reality? If everything is fake, what’s real, and how does Dooley know?

Worse still, Dooley promotes his approach by insisting that his method can deliver all sorts of material wants: money, cars, worldly success. But that’s bizarrely out of step with his own philosophical assertions. If reality is a distracting illusion, then all these physical goodies would themselves also be a distracting illusion. What sense does it make to declare reality a complete fantasy and then spend so much time demanding cold hard cash out of it? At least when most Buddhists tell people to let go of any attachment to existence, they mean it whole-heartedly: not merely as a means to a materialist payday.

So, while Dooley calls his insights a philosophy, insisting that what he’s selling is neither religion nor a cult (and thus wonderfully compatible with either), it’s a woefully incomplete and vague sort of philosophy. This is especially so when he runs up against the obvious problem with his few coherent claims: if people create their own reality, then why would anyone choose to suffer? Wouldn’t this mean that individuals are all 100% to blame for any circumstance they find themselves in? When you get sick, is it merely because of a lack of will? Are cancer patients to blame for their colon killing them and their chemo treatments torturing them?

Well, according to Dooley, in addition to the Law of Attraction, there are “other parameters, none of which take away our power, but do explain the disparity we see in the world.” He doesn’t list any, or explain them further. Instead, he sort of slides around the implication without really answering it:

“Fault is not a word that would be used spiritually. We choose our lives, the stage, knowing ahead of time that there could be hardships. Irrelevant of the circumstances, we are creators. Why was such a circumstance created. Every person that has cancer has it with their own intents, rationale, and motivation. To say “Is it their fault?” is taking the whole thing out of context. They are master creators. There are reasons. Whether or not those reasons can be pinpointed doesn’t take away our ability to recognize that we are creators and that things do not happen to us by chance or accident.” (emphasis added)

“There are reasons”? We have cancer with “our own intents”? I’m not sure what the heck that means, but it sure sounds like cancer patients are indeed due little sympathy for their self-inflicted sufferings.

Give me old-time theodicy any day of the week. It doesn’t make any sense either, but at least it isn’t quite as vague and off-the-cuff.

Why isn’t “fault” a word that can be “used spiritually” anyway? We’re back to my usual complaint here: tossing the word “spiritual” or “supernatural” into a concept does not magically alleviate one’s need to explain what the heck you’re claiming is going on. Or, in this case, why a concept like “fault” can’t apply to the idea of people apparently choosing their circumstances. And it doesn’t explain how Dooley can know or “recognize” that nothing happens by “chance or accident.”

Traditional motivational speakers don’t dabble in metaphysics like this: they teach people how to improve on their circumstances, find explanations for things after the fact, repurpose lemons into Fruitopia. They teach positive thinking because it can help lead one to more positive behavior, not because it’s some sort of magic incantation.

I know enough about even the traditional “self-help” methods and movements to be highly skeptical of them, and advise the same skepticism for others. But the kooky claims of this Secret stuff positively scream “scam.”


Mike Myers vs. Hinduism. Deepak Chopra vs Skeptics.

April 1, 2008

Mike Myers, comedian of Austin Powers fame, is apparently ruffling some feathers amongst Hindus with his upcoming film “The Love Guru.” I tend to be somewhat sympathetic to the concerns of religious people when films appear to ridicule or caricature their beliefs: particularly religious minorities that aren’t well understood in the U.S. to begin with. My sympathies don’t extend to complaining about the films themselves of course (religion shouldn’t be any more or less open to fair game ridicule than anything else): I can just understand the concerns about the negative cultural results.

It’s one thing to mock a culture we are all intimately familiar with: we have a solid basis of understanding that comedy can enhance or even challenge. It’s quite another thing when the only thing many people have to go on is a caricature. And while Hinduism deserves as much criticism and analysis as any cultural, religious, or political force, Hindus, as people, also deserve better understanding and acceptance as part of the bargain.

That said, what’s of particular interest to skeptics regarding this film are Myers’ comments about Deepak Chopra, who is considered by most skeptics to be the reigning king of new age, pseudoscientific woo. Myers claims that his character is based on Chopra, but also notes that Chopra is a close friend.

Myers… …says in an episode of the Sundance Channel’s “Iconoclasts” that Chopra, his longtime friend, was the inspiration for the Love Guru character.

“He is the basis of why I went down this path of a character like that, and it’s because I am interested in higher states of consciousness and I am interested in comedy,” Myers says. “The guru, he breaks down your barriers, gets you silly and gets you light so you’re in a place to receive love.”

Will Myers be poking fun at woo and alt-med in a way that skeptics can be proud of? Or will he be basically celebrating the Chopra-hype with a lighthearted endorsement of its ideas? Seems pretty ambiguous at this point, but its something to watch.


Totally Made Up, Unilateral Blog Carnival! (And a Tiny Bit on Expelled!)

March 27, 2008

It’s time for another survey of stuff worth reading on the internet, so let’s pretend that I’m hosting some sort of esoteric Blog Carnival. Topic? ME! (And for those readers who are getting sick of Expelled musings, good news: I’ve exiled them to the end of this post)

Anyway, let’s get this thing started with a review of the home-birth-homage film “The Business of Being Born” from someone who might know a little about the subject: family practice doc Harriet Hall. Personally, I think she’s nuts to worry about all the hospital-hate in the film. Doctors are dangerous! That’s why I’m planning on going for an “all-natural” coronary artery bypass when my time comes.

Next, Ed Darrell over at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub points us towards both Cracked list of 11 Movies Saved by Historical Inaccuracy (in which we learn that Mel Gibson’s Patriot hero was, in real life, a notorious slave rapist) and Yahoo’s own similar listing of Greatest Historical Goofups (in which we learn that Mel Gibson’s Braveheart hero would have had to have sex with a three year old to make any sense). Both lists need to apologize for the ridiculousness of calling 2001: A Space Odyssey “historically” inaccurate. It’s called Science-FICTION, guys.

Over at Exploring Our Matrix, religious religion prof James F. McGrath asks “Can (the story of) Noah’s Ark Be Saved?” I’m not sure if his answer is yes or no, exactly but I’m pretty sure that whatever it is, it’s the right answer. The stories of Noah and Job cannot be reconciled any better to modern morals than they can to modern science. That doesn’t mean that we cannot learn things from them (whether believers learning about God, or even non-believers learning about believers).

Then we have Hemant at Friendly Atheist who sees Jesus everywhere he looks. Fair warning though: be prepared to squint.

To pad out my fake Carnival, I’ll also note Bug Girl’s submission to the all-too-real 83rd Skeptic’s Circle/Carnival. The title is simply irresistible: Pubic Lice: “Sea monkeys in your pants” Speaks for itself, right?

Finally, if you want to know more about my sense of humor, here’s Exhibit A: new internet sensations FAIL blog and Stuff White People Like.

Oh, and in case you yourself had PHAILed to notice it, that big honking graphic over on the top right goes to Expelled Exposed, the soon-to-be official National Center for Science Education response to that expelled movie thingy everyone has been going on and on about. I highly recommend other bloggers doing something similarly prominent to get the word out: feel free to steal my graphic if you’re lazy.

It’s also worth noting that, for some unknown reason, this teensy blog is actually the or at least amongst the top results when you search for information on the film, which is pretty odd, because I almost never post about the darn thing. While I’m flattered, Internet, I can’t help but think that other science sites should be up there instead.

Finally, as I noted over at Skepchick, what is probably one of the most crucial Google search terms in this little PR war, “expelled movie,” didn’t have a single critical, pro-science site on the all-important first page of results. But then, lo and behold, the very day after I complain about it, Phil Plait and I break into the big time! Somehow, I have gained the power to move digital mountains.

Beware!


Think You Can See the Dead? Skeptics Can’t Wait to Test Your Brain and Find Out

March 12, 2008

One of my favorite articles of blogging past was the piece I did on “Spiritualism Camps” in which I mused over just how it was that a camp counselor medium like Judy Ulch could litterally see “stubble on their faces” of ghosts.  Just today I received the first and only comment on the piece… and was given a terrible review.  “Jean” even said that I looked stupid: trying to apply scientific hypothesizing to spirits, pshaw!  I’m crushed.

Of course, Jean was apparently so outraged by the mere idea of examining spiritual phenomenon that she didn’t bother to read far enough to see all her complaints addressed.  And her post did spark an bright idea of bloggy  back-issue synergism.

You see, just last week I came across a story about some scientists at Berkeley who are working on an MRI technique that could potentially allow scientists to reconstruct the images that a brain is seeing. Now, for mediums like Judy Ulch to be registering anything ghostly as a visual image at all, let alone something detailed enough to have distinct facial features, it almost certainly has to show up in her brain.  And if we can reconstruct that image… well you probably see where I’m going with this.  If we can see what they see, then we can see if they really see what they say they see.  See?

Of course, most mediums will probably balk at the very idea of testing their powers of paranormal perception in such a definitive fashion, and are as unlikely to let scientists strap them into an MRI machine set up in the middle of an Indian burial ground as they were to take James Randi’s million dollar challenge.

Which is a sad thing really.  If spirits really did exist, and mediums really could perceive them, then even a failure in this case could teach us all something.  That is, if a ghostly visage fails to appear on the processed MRI scan at the moment the medium claims to see one, then at the very least we’ve been able to rule out yet another false model of how spirit images work.  We could rule out all sorts of things in fact:

  • The possibility that mediums have special rods and cones in their eyes that allow them to detect spiritual radiation.
  • That any kind of optical image (light waves hit the ghost, bounce off, are captured by human eyes, etc.) is involved at all.
  • That mediums are really “seeing” the ghosts in any meaningful sense, as opposed to the ghostly gaze being somehow superimposed onto the mental results of regular vision.

And of course, there’s always the possibility that spirits would show up on the MRI technique, in which case mediums would be vindicated and heralded as ingenious and overlooked pioneers in a entirely new realm of scientific exploration.

I’m game.  I bet most skeptics would be.  All we have to lose is the money for the use of the machine.  What we have to gain, however, is knowledge, one way or the other.  Sounds good to me.

So how about it, mediums?  Ready to do your part for human knowledge?