The Thimerosal (that’s not) in Vaccines Does Not Cause Autism. Can We Stop the Deadly Scaremongering Now?

January 8, 2008

Yet another damning study came out today: damning to those people who have risked the lives of millions of children with phony, unfounded scares about vaccines.

Jenny McCarthy’s babbling mommy-mentalism aside, the case for thimerosal or any other preservative causing autism was never strong to begin with.  But the tide of definitive evidence has come in over and over again, and it all soundly puts the link, both for causation and even correlation, well beyond the realm of the ridiculous.  Read the study.  Recognize that a chemical that isn’t even in vaccines in the first place cannot “cause” anything in the first place.

So now that that’s all taken care of, can we go back to stopping the spread of deadly diseases now?  Ok?

Abstinence-Only Education As Applied to Loaded Guns

December 28, 2007


Detox and Re-Tox: Bad Medicine and Even Worse Homeopathy at Alt-Med Mecca NewsTarget

December 1, 2007

It’s time for another foray into the neverending stream of nonsense that is NewsTarget, the alternative medicine super-site run by bemuscled granola guru Mike Adams.

This edition will be a double feature debunking: two awful articles for the price of none. In the first, Adams himself tries to convince readers that picking your nose all day long once every year is a sensible way to stay healthy. In the second, engineer Sarah Ramratan takes a stock principle from the pseudoscience of homeopathy and drives it off the deep-end. Let’s roll!

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Hoodia Hoodoo can’t Scam Skeptics

November 28, 2007

I knew I couldn’t glance over at alt-med megasite NewsTarget and resist ridicule, but there’s simply too much to dash off before work. In the meantime, check out Secundum Artem a where skeptical pharmacy student N.B. does some quick calculations and figures out that there’s something tremendously fishy about popular weight loss supplement “Hoodia”.

Deepak Attack! Choking on Chopra’s Medical Malarkey

November 27, 2007

Deepak Chopra believes in positive thinking, which is why he’ll never ever realize that he’s a fool.

In response to Chopra’s latest medical advice antics, Orac over at Respectful Insolence slices Chopra’s arguments to nice digestible pieces, and then Mark Hoofnagle of the denialism blog goes and chokes on those pieces anyway.

Both bloggers are well worth a read, delivering useful insight beyond merely exposing inanity. Hoofnagle in particular makes an extremely important point regarding how alternative medicine stacks up against the conventional variety:

The last half is again just an example of the selection pressure for ineffective treatments for altie medicine. You probably can trust most quack remedies to do nothing, and therefore be pretty safe. And lots of people each year do die in hospitals, therefore hospitals must be dangerous killers of the innocent! Or, maybe, lots of people die in hospitals because that’s where the sick people are, and you know what? No one lives forever. Eventually, something gets you.

Chopra makes it sound like a 20-year-old who goes into the ER to get stitches is going to die of MRSA. What this ignores is that hospitals are responsible for taking care of people who are actually really sick, often very old, and frequently near death. In other words, hospitals take care of patients that no altie practitioners in their right mind would touch with a ten-foot pole, you know, those with real sickness. If you actually look carefully at the reports that the quacks cite to show how dangerous hospitals are, it’s really a reflection of just how incredibly sick and likely to die the patients were in the first place.

In any case, go read. I may have gotten all worked up about Chopra’s inane musings on Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness, but those sorts of bad ideas are ultimately pretty harmless. Chopra’s rambling diatribes about health and medicine, on the other hand, have the potential to truly hurt and even kill the people who might buy into his alternate reality. The more people are out there armed with the knowledge to counter him, the better.

Stem Cell Debaterama, Part One: The Stakes

November 22, 2007

With the recent blockbuster breakthrough in stem cell research sparking up plenty of renewed bickering over the importance of embryonic stem cell research, I thought I’d devote a couple of posts to the controversy.

Let’s be honest. Both sides of this issue have long been coasting along on some pretty shady narratives.

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Planned Parenthood is Misleading You: The Pill Probably can Kill Embryos

November 21, 2007

Richard Carrier doesn’t just jujitsu apart bogus books. He also regularly takes his fellow pro-choicers to task for a dirty bit of obfuscation over the issue of the birth control pill’s affect on fertilized embryos.

Simply put, there’s a good case that pro-life pharmacists aren’t crazy when they worry that the morning after pill, or even the regular birth control pill, can cause abortions (which they define as including anything that actively prevents a fertilized embryo from implanting and surviving), and then refuse to proscribe the medication on moral grounds. They might be unethically breaching their profession’s duties, depending on how you define them, misleading and hurting their customers, or even dishonestly shortchanging their employers. But their suggestion that these medications can lead to the death of post-conception embryos (via blocking implantation) isn’t, as it is so often portrayed by even some pro-lifers, an improbable lie. Certainly, it isn’t the common mechanism of contraception, but as Carrier notes, the blocking of implantation is perfectly possible (which is what matters to pro-life folks), and the presentation of the science in this area by advocates of the morning-after pill, or even the regular pill, seems decidedly misleading and deceptive. Per Carrier:

Since the effects on the endometrium are fully documented and conceded by these authors, and since as a matter of established physiology these changes will certainly reduce the probability (which is a fancy word for frequency) of successful implantation of fertilized embryos, and since it is an equally established fact that chemical birth control often fails to prevent fertilization, I do not see how the authors of this paper can honestly get away with dismissing the obvious outcome as “unknown.”

Even the maker’s of Plan B, which works primarily by suppressing ovulation, state right on their product information page that it can prevent implantation.  Which is a plus if you are trying to prevent pregnancy, of course.

All this is not to say that I, or Carrier, support, like, or condone anyone pushing to reduce women’s access to birth control or even chemical abortions. In fact, the realization that even the regular birth control pill could be a potential abortaficient might even be a powerful argument for things like Plan B: demonstrating just how widespread and normal the death of embryos via failed implantation is (its something, in fact, that even the human body sometimes does on its own in any case).

Misrepresenting the science doesn’t do the pro-choice side any good: it sets us up to look like liars, and perhaps worse, it distracts us from the harder but ultimately more important work of convincing people that a discarded embryo is not a murdered person.

Liberal Bad Ideas: Incentives & Outcomes in Healthcare

November 5, 2007

It should probably come as no surprise that I’m a pretty devoted Democrat: I mean, I’ve worked for Democrats, I vote for Democrats, I don’t see much of a viable option outside Democrats when it comes to advancing the things I care about. But I’m also a political scientist, economics enthusiast, and a skeptic, and I can’t give lousy thinking a pass just because it’s my team pushing it.

In this case, I’m talking here about the idea that because Americans seem to spend a heck of a lot on healthcare, with results that are poorer than many other nations, that this proves our healthcare system is subpar. Like’m or hate’m, Greg Mankiw does a pretty good job of laying bare how those sorts of claims mislead rather than inform.

Now, I’m not saying that our healthcare system isn’t screwed up, or couldn’t get any better. It’s just that tropes like “Americans spend more on healthcare and get less out of it” are just maddeningly foolish and simplistic as indictments against our system. Any good scientist should know that it just isn’t that simple to draw causal conclusions from such things: there are just too many counter-intuitive factors, countervailing effects and complications. And any good economist should know that changes in, say, the effectiveness of healthcare will unavoidably change people’s behavior, and the effects of those changes can have surprising and often unpredictable confounding results. Reform of our system should be based on understanding, not ignorance and slogans.

Heck, while Mankiw doesn’t really delve into this, the fact that Americans have such seemingly poor comparative health outcomes despite putting so much more money into healthcare could just as well be evidence that our healthcare system is actually well worth the money rather than the claimed opposite.

Consider this: people like to be healthy and live as long as possible. But they also like to enjoy life, take risks, eat fatty foods, and so on. And to some extent, these good things trade off with each other: you can either eat McDonalds every day of your life, or you can live a long healthy life, but you can’t have both.

Or can you?

Well, in fact, more efficient and effective healthcare does provide exactly that: if you are willing to spend the money, modern healthcare really can allow you to enjoy more burgers without as many of the negative consequences on your lifespan. Whether that means you live longer and healthier or just as long but more gluttonously, or even shorter: that’s all up to the particulars of people’s preferences (which is one reason why you can’t just “know” what’s really going on with healthcare from a few stats: you have to do the hard work of finding out).

Now, unless you really love graphs, this is hard to envision without an abstract example, so… consider Jim. Jim currently chooses to enjoy eating a 40% fast food diet which will shorten his life by 10 years. Were he to increase his percentage to 50%, it would shorten his life by 30 years: the cost (dying that much younger) is no longer worth the benefit (Big Macs) to him.

But along comes modern medicine: instead of the snake oil tonics of yesteryear, there are cutting edge cholesterol drugs, EMTs with defibrilators, and heart valve replacements. If Jim is willing to increase his healthcare expenditures considerably, then he can increase his fast food consumption to 50% but only shorten his life by 20 years.

This all being worth it to Jim, he does so. And the outcome is 1) way higher healthcare costs 2) seemingly worse healthcare outcomes 3) Jim is happier overall.

Now, you can claim that Jim is nuts, or you can claim that Jim isn’t representative of most Americans. Those are, in fact, important empirical matters when it comes time to debate the reality of healthcare reform. But my point here is simply that unless you understand and consider the possibility of cases like Jim, and how they can have counter-intuitive effects that totally negate any simplistic comparisons of inputs to outputs, you’re pushing crap rather than understanding.

Don’t DO that!

Tales of Splenda: Wacky consumer scares and complaints

September 16, 2007

Ages ago, I used to work for the company that made Splenda, a popular artificial sweetener that is basically sugar that’s chemically altered so that it mostly passes through your digestive system instead of being absorbed. My job at the time was to read over and sometimes respond to all sorts of consumer complaints. And as such, I got to see depressing examples of how even adults can be grotesquely ignorant of everything from chemistry to basic material physics.

For instance, we got all sorts of people writing in horrified that Splenda contains chlorine, which is dangerous and caustic gas!!!!! Now, personally, I have no idea whether Splenda is 100% safe healthwise (but then, I have no idea whether natural sugar is 100% safe healthwise either). But I do know that the hysteria over it containing chlorine, which is still being pushed by alt-med “naturopaths” (i.e. people who irrationally believe that chemistry done by human beings is somehow different and more dangerous than chemistry done in nature), is pure poppycock. Our standard response at the time was “well, while it’s true that there are chlorine atoms in the sucralose molecule, the exact same atoms, in a far higher proportion by weight, are found in salt (NaCl)!”

Today, I still just stand in amazement that anyone could be so ignorant of basic chemistry as to think that molecules somehow necessarily have all the same properties as the atoms they contain. Heck, most of the basic atoms found in organic molecules are extremely toxic in ionized or pure elemental form: raw potassium or sodium, for instance, explode when they get wet. Heck, the very things which the chlorine atoms replace in the sugar molecule, Hydroxyl groups, would be crazy bad for you en masse in their free-floating ionized form.

For goodness sakes: the whole takeaway point of molecular chemistry is that the affects and properties of molecules and elements depend crucially on their exact configuration and the sorts of bonds they can make or break. I can understand most people not remembering the exact details of things from high school chemistry, but you’d think they’d at least retain some sense of the the basic idea.

Anyway. The second most common Splenda complaint was from folks who were utterly outraged that their box of Splenda didn’t weigh pound for pound like sugar. Now, it says pretty clearly on the box that Splenda measures “cup for cup like sugar,” and this is done so that people can directly substitute it for sugar in a recipe (Splenda, unlike most other artificial sweetners, holds up taste-wise in baking applications pretty well). Since the Splenda molecule is far sweeter on the tongue than sugar, it takes far less of it to match the same sweetness. This means that it would be flatly impossible for Splenda to match sugar along all three important variables at once: sweetness per volume per pound. The solution was simply to make Splenda exactly dense enough to match sweetness and volume.

Unfortunately, by law, the package also has to say something like “equivalent sweetness to 2 pounds of sugar.” People were apparently looking at that statement, looking at the actual listed product weight, seeing that they were different, and then concluding that they had been ripped off. Somehow, the phrase “equivalent sweetness” never made them stop and think about an alternative explanation.

Of course, having to explain things like the difference between weight and volume to adults is embarrassing no matter how politely you try to phrase it. Sparing their feelings, we mostly just offered to send people more free Splenda.

Speaking of which, my favorite consumer complaint was from a guy who wrote in threatening to sue us because we had sent a free sample of Splenda to his house, addressed to his then ex-wife. His current girlfriend got pissed off when she saw it and supposedly left him.

Not knowing what else to do, I simply wrote back our standard form letter response, which was basically “Well, we hope you at least enjoyed your Splenda, and we’d be happy to send you more Splenda!