Friday, December 30, 2005

A death in the family

I wrote on Tuesday that this is turning into a memorable Christmas, but not for good reasons. I was intentionally vague, mainly because I didn't yet know how things would turn out and I wasn't quite ready to write about it.

Now I know. I'm not sure if I'm actually ready yet, but here goes anyway.

I was informed yesterday that my uncle had died the night before. It was not unexpected. In actuality, what was unexpected (to me, at least) was that he had held on so many days. That doesn't make it any less hard to take, although in a way it was a bit of a relief when the news finally came.

It was early in the morning the Friday before Christmas when I got a phone call. I was at my in-laws' house in Ohio, and my cell phone rang. The ring tone told me it was my parents. As I tried to rouse myself to some semblance of consciousness, I wondered what it was about. I knew from experience that phone calls before 7 AM are almost never good news. This one was no exception. My mom was calling to tell me that my uncle had suffered a massive heart attack and was in the ICU on a ventilator.

I had been worried that the end was near for my uncle for several months, but this was actually unexpected. You see, my uncle had been battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma for three and a half years. I remember well the evening when, while I was at our year-end departmental banquet, the ring of my cell phone startled me (not that many people call my cell). It was my cousin, calling to tell me about the new diagnosis and ask me for advice. Since his initial presentation, he had done well for quite a while, but recently had learned the tumor had relapsed. Having been in a lot of pain for the last couple of months, he was depressed and was not looking forward to the last-ditch attempt at high dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation, which would have involved at minimum a month of extreme unpleasantness in the hospital--and that's if everything went smoothly. Consequently, although I had expected that the end might be near, I didn't really expect it for a few months at least and was surprised at the form it appeared to be taking.

My wife and I headed from Ohio to southeast Michigan as planned later on Friday. On Christmas Eve, my father and I headed to the hospital. I hadn't seen my uncle in several months; surprisingly, other than some edema he didn't look all that different from how I remembered him.

Here's one thing that sucks about being a doctor. Having a critically ill family member in the ICU like this brings up a load of conflicted feelings and thoughts. Prior to this, I had only had to deal with them twice before, once 16 years ago when I was just an intern and then a couple of years ago. Standing there in that room, it was hard to shut off the physician-analytical part of my brain. I looked at the ventilator settings. I looked at the drips. (He's on high doses of dobutamine, dopamine, and Levophed, I thought. Not good. Not good at all.) I approvingly looked at the Diprivan drip used to keep him sedated. At the same time, I hated myself for thinking like a doctor in this situation. That wasn't just any patient lying there! It didn't help, either, that my uncle bore a strong resemblance to his brother, my father. In fact, other than his being considerably taller than my father, my uncle could almost pass for him.

Perhaps that was why I had always found my uncle a bit intimidating when I was a child, and it could never really be said that we were particularly close. Nonetheless, later on, I came to realize that he was a pretty cool guy. He had joined the Marines right out of high school, and during recent holidays he had enthralled us with some of his tales of Marine life and some misadventures he had had with his buddies in basic training. He had a strong love of jazz and the blues, and loved to check out the blues clubs in Chicago whenever he went there to visit relatives. In fact, if you want to know how teenagers annoyed their parents before the advent of rock 'n' roll, he had shown me one way: blasting jazz at loud volumes until my grandmother told him to turn it down. After his stint in the Marines was over, he married, went to work for GM in a personnel office at one of their Detroit area plants (where he ultimately retired around 10 years ago), and started a family. Over the last three years, I had come to admire his stoicism in the face of such a serious illness. He rarely complained. He even kept up a part-time job at Starbucks to keep busy. (For some reason, he really loved Starbucks, and would go there nearly every day for coffee, sometimes more than once a day.) My cousin related to me that he would sometimes tell her that it wouldn't be the cancer that got him in the end.

It turns out that he was right.

As I alluded to, there's definitely a downside to being a physician in situations like this. Normal reactions are infused with our physician's training. The hope that nonphysicians hang onto, no matter how small, we know to be unrealistic. Our training tells us as much. His daughter and wife were at the bedside. I feared for his wife, because she always depended upon him for so much. I knew the odds of his pulling out of this were very slim. (So did pretty much everyone else, but I also knew that, even if he did pull out of it, he wouldn't have long to live because the cancer would get him, especially since the heart attack would eliminated even the small hope that the high dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant offered. I wondered if she knew, really knew. In the background on TV, of all things, Lethal Weapon was playing. (Yes, I know it's strange, given how I've been ragging on Mel Gibson lately.) Complaining about having had Mel Gibson's crazy cop (Riggs) assigned as his partner, Danny Glover's character muttered a comment that God hates him. Mel's character responded: "Hate Him back. It works for me."

At a moment like that, I understood that sentiment a bit more than I would like to have admitted. We turned the TV off.

Later, our usual Christmas Eve celebration was a bit eerie, because none of us could keep my uncle's predicament out of our minds. The kids seemed pretty much oblivious, thankfully, and the unwrapping of the presents proceeded in its usual chaotic and noisy fashion, but none of the adults seemed to be as into it as usual. How could we be? The disconnect between the joyous shouts of the kids as they unwrapped their toys and my own thoughts weighed heavily on me. It didn't help when later on that night, I found myself in the emergency room with a different family member for two or three hours. Fortunately, it turned out to be nothing serious, but the whole experience simply added to the feeling of unreality that night.

Christmas Day we traveled back to Ohio to see my wife's side of the family. It was a typical Christmas, and I managed to have a good time in spite of myself, although I definitely drank more than I should have. It was stupid of me.

On Monday, I was informed that my uncle had been taken off the ventilator and off all drips other than sedation and morphine. Stubbornly, he held on, even in the face of a pneumonia, high fever, and the progressive shutting down of his kidneys. On Tuesday evening we returned to my parents' house.

Sometime early Wednesday morning, my uncle finally succumbed.

Now I'm reminded once again why I detest living so far away from the bulk of my family. Because of the holidays and a couple of other reasons, the funeral couldn't be arranged until the middle of next week. Because of work obligations, staying in Michigan until then is not practical, and I'm not sure if I'll be able to come back for the funeral. Some may find living far away from their family to be a good thing. I'm not one of those people. All we could do for the moment was to visit my cousins and aunt and pay our respects last night, tell tales of my uncle, and peruse his old basic training yearbook. I was amazed to discover that, in the 1950's at least, the Marine Corps produced what looked very much like a high school yearbook for each group that came through basic training, in my uncle's case the Fourth Battalion, 234th Platoon. There, quite incongruous after the pictures portraying classes on map reading, rifle assembly, and hygiene and photos of young recruits learning how to throw grenades, skewer the enemy with their bayonets, fry them with flamethrowers, and fire rifles, were rows upon rows of pictures of smiling recruits, looking so young--just like the high school seniors most of them were a few months before. And there, among the rows of recruits, was a picture of my uncle, looking every bit the 17 year old that he was. Odd that I had never seen his Marine photo before until now, after his death.

That's not a bad way to remember him. Not a bad way at all.

Rest in peace.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A plug for Prometheus

Sorry, due to family obligations and general vacationing, I didn't write anything for today. However, I do recommend a piece by Prometheus on a topic I had been meaning to write about but hadn't gotten around to yet. Unfortunately (for me, that is), Prometheus beat me to it. The topic is about how quacks and "mavericks" will reject the authority of "conventional medicine" but at the same time will be quick to argue from an alternate authority of "renegade physicians" who have become convinced of the correctness of their particular "alternative therapy." Best quote:
Occasionally, the lone maverick who stands alone and refuses to follow the herd is the vanguard of a new breakthrough in medicine (or science). Most often, however, they are simply wandering aimlessly off the trail and into the wilderness. Taking you with them.
I'll have to remember that one and steal it sometime.

At some point in the next few days, among the sporadic posting, I'll find time to explain what I meant when I made a vague commentthat this was a memorable holiday.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Mel Gibson on evolution

Surprise, surprise. He doesn't accept it, as these excerpts from an interview with Playboy Magazine from July 1995 show him parroting some of the stupider denier canards:
PLAYBOY: So you can't accept that we descended from monkeys and apes?

GIBSON: No, I think it's bullshit. If it isn't, why are they still around? How come apes aren't people yet? It's a nice theory, but I can't swallow it. There's a big credibility gap. The carbon dating thing that tells you how long something's been around, how accurate is that, really? I've got one of Darwin's books at home and some of that stuff is pretty damn funny. Some of his stuff is true, like that the giraffe has a long neck so it can reach the leaves. But I just don't think you can swallow the whole piece.

The whole "if men came from monkeys and apes then why are there still apes around" is one of the more idiotic anti-evolution arguments. This is the sort of simple-minded "argument" that makes scientists want to pull their hair out. (For one thing, the whole premise of the question is wrong; humans didn't descend from "monkeys and apes," but rather humans and apes descended from a common ancestor.) But more surprising to me was his misogynistic view of women. Here he is responding to a question asking him why he doesn't think women should be priests:

GIBSON: I'll get kicked around for saying it, but men and women are just different. They're not equal. The same way that you and I are not equal.

PLAYBOY: That's true. You have more money.

GIBSON: You might be more intelligent, or you might have a bigger dick. Whatever it is, nobody's equal. And men and women are not equal. I have tremendous respect for women. I love them. I don't know why they want to step down. Women in my family are the center of things. And good things emanate from them. The guys usually mess up.

PLAYBOY: That's quite a generalization.

GIBSON: Women are just different. Their sensibilities are different.

PLAYBOY: Any examples?

GIBSON: I had a female business partner once. Didn't work.

PLAYBOY: Why not?

GIBSON: She was a cunt.

Lovely. And this was 10 years ago, long before the controversy over The Passion of the Christ, his association with a breakaway conservative Catholic sect, and the revelation that his father is a Holocaust denier.

(Via Pharyngula.)

Orac the bear?

Bear

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A memorable Christmas

It's been a memorable Christmas, but, sadly, not in a good way. I'll write more about this later when I have time (and reliable Internet access). However, suffice it to say that we may have to change our plans.

More later. In the meantime, there will be light blogging. I still have one more leftover that I can post tomorrow or Thursday, though.

More evidence that alternative medicine boosters don't really want scientific evaluation of their therapies

Some holiday leftovers from last week (in other words, written last week, but not yet posted).

Enjoy (I hope).

Since the very beginning of this blog, I've said that I'd love to see "alternative" medicine treated on equal footing with conventional medicine. Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean what alties think it does. When I say "equal footing," I don't necessarily mean that alt-med should be treated with equal respect, although that might be the effect in some cases. No, what I mean is that it should be subject to the same standards with regards to efficacy and safety as that conventional medicines must meet before being approved for use and widely used by physicians. To my mind, if alt-med practitioners want to be treated with the same level of respect as conventional physicians and have their methods used more widely, it is only fair that they should have to jump through the same hoops and meet the same standards that conventional physicians and conventional medicines do.

Not surprisingly, craving the acceptance and legal status given to conventional physicians by our society, some alt-med practitioners like to claim that they, too, want their remedies to be investigated scientifically, to have them tested in the same way that conventional drugs are tested. True, they often add a boatload of caveats, such as complaints that they're too busy treating patients to do clinical trials or research, that they can't get funding for their work (a much smaller problem since the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine started handing out big grants to alties), or that drug companies aren't interested in studying their remedies because they can't make a profit off of them (never mind that supplement companies seem to do quite well selling them). Some of them are sincere, but I've always suspected that most of them would really prefer that science be kept away from their treatments.

So it was with interested that I read this story out of Britain:

Millions of people use it to deal with illnesses ranging from asthma to migraine. Prince Charles believes it is the answer to many of the evils of modern life. But now Britain's first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst of Exeter University, has denounced homeopathy as ineffective.

'Homeopathic remedies don't work,' he told The Observer. 'Study after study has shown it is simply the purest form of placebo. You may as well take a glass of water than a homeopathic medicine.' Nor is Ernst's disdain confined to homeopathy. Chiropractic, which involves spine manipulation to treat illnesses, and the laying on of hands to 'cure' patients, are equally invalid, he says.

Not surprisingly, his views and his studies have provoked furious reactions. Chiropractors and homeopaths have written in droves to Exeter to denounce him. But now the scourge of alternative medicine says he is going to have to quit because Exeter will no longer support him or his department. 'They have never provided me with the money they originally promised me. Now we have been told in no uncertain terms that this department is going to close.' The university denied the charge. 'Professor Ernst's department has enough money to go on for a couple of more years,' said a spokesman. 'We are still trying to raise cash. It is premature to talk of closure.'

Dr. Ernst sounds like a man after my own heart. In fact, he was hired in order to bring scientific rigor to the study of alternative medicine. The problem is, he was serious about doing just that:
Ernst, then a professor of rehabilitation medicine in Vienna, took the job to bring scientific rigour to the study of alternative medicines, an approach that has made him a highly controversial figure in the field. An example is provided by Ernst's study of arnica, given as a standard homeopathic treatment for bruising.

'We arranged for patients after surgery to be given arnica or a placebo,' he said. 'They didn't know which they were getting. It made no difference. They got better at the same rate, whether they got arnica or the placebo. And arnica is a classic homeopathic remedy. It doesn't work, however.'

In another study, Ernst got five homeopaths to examine children with asthma. 'Children are supposed to respond better than adults to homeopathy, and asthma is said to be particularly responsive to homeopathic treatments,' he said. 'However, again we found no evidence that homeopathy worked.'
Of course, the real surprise would have been if Dr. Ernst had found actual evidence that homeopathy did anything at all. After all, homeopathy uses successive dilutions of the "active ingredient" to levels where there may not even be a single molecule of it in the specimen. Dr. Ernst is correct; homeopathy is no more better than drinking a glass of water because it is no more than drinking a glass of water.

But, contrary to what you may think, Dr. Ernst is not hostile to alternative medicine:
Nevertheless, Ernst insists that he is a supporter of complementary medicines. 'No other centre in the world has produced more positive results than we have to support complementary medicine,' he said. 'Herbal medicine, for instance, can do good. If I was mildly depressed, I think St John's wort would be a good treatment. It has fewer side-effects than Prozac. Acupuncture seems to work for some conditions and there are relaxing techniques, including hypnotherapy, that can be effective. These should not be used on their own, but as complements to standard medicines.'
I'd agree with him about some of the herbal remedies (although St. John's Wort has not lived up to initial studies) and hypnotherapy, but I'm a bit less convinced about acupuncture. Certainly, at least one of Dr. Ernst's own studies showed it to be no better than sham treatment. (I'll say one thing about this guy; he's published like a maniac over the last couple of years.) Dr. Ernst has also exposed some of the antivaccination bias in alt-med circles:
Ernst's opponents also claim some of his research methods are unethical. Once, a colleague pretended to be a pregnant mother and asked homeopaths and chiropractors if she should give the MMR vaccine to her child. Most said no. Ernst published a paper on these findings.
I believe this is the study in question, and the abstract states:
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has become a popular form of healthcare and the predictions are that, it will increase further. The reasons for this level of popularity are highly diverse, and much of the motivation to turn to CAM pertains to a deeply felt criticism of mainstream medicine - many people (are led to) believe that conventional interventions, including immunisation, are associated with the potential to do more harm than good. Thus, it is hardly surprising that CAM also lends support to the "anti-vaccination movement". In particular, sections of the chiropractors, the (non-medically trained) homoeopaths and naturopaths tend to advise their clients against immunisation. The reasons for this attitude are complex and lie, at least in part in the early philosophies which form the basis of these professions. The negative attitude of some providers of CAM towards immunisation constitutes an important example of indirect risks associated with this form of healthcare. The best way forward, it seems, would be a campaign to clarify the risk-benefit profile of immunisations for both users and providers of CAM.
Precisely. There is a strong bias against western medicine, including immunizations, among many providers of CAM, and they can influence people from foregoing "conventional" medical treatments and preventative measures known to be efficacious. Personally, I don't see how it is "unethical" to test whether homeopaths and chiropractors are giving out harmful medical advice. To me, it's no different than investigative journalism. No doubt, studies like this are among the reasons that Dr. Ernst is probably quite correct when he observes, "'I think my peers would prefer someone who didn't rock the boat."

Of course they would, because, far more often than not, scientific scrutiny of alternative medicine remedies reveals that they do not do what CAM practitioners claim that they do. When they do, often they become part of conventional medicine, which is as it should be. More often, however, they do not. Whatever the result, we need researchers willing to examine these therapies scientifically to identify the ones that have therapeutic value and discard the ones that do not.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Holidays


Merry Christmas


Given that I have one more article written before I left on vacation, I'll post it either Monday or Tuesday (or possibly even Wednesday), depending upon when (or if) I have Internet access other than very unreliable dial-up in a rural area. (In other words, check back every day starting Monday...) Until then, happy holidays to all, no matter what holiday it is you observe this time of year. The above is the Christmas card we sent out to friends and family. It was my wife's find, but, dog lover that I am, I like it too.

Dr. Bard-Parker takes up quackbusting

I'm always happy to see a fellow surgeon go after practitioners touting dubious or dangerous "cures." Maybe he'll submit his work to the next Skeptics' Circle.

More on Dan Olmsted

The other day, I wrote about UPI reporter Dan Olmsted and how a certain blogger swallowed whole his shoddy and data-free reporting about vaccines and autism. Now, Kathleen Seidel takes him to task for shameless self-promotion and parrotting a particularly nasty attitude from mercury-fighter extraordinaire Boyd Haley. Worth reading.

(Hey, if I don't have time to compose stuff, at least I can try to point you in the direction of interesting stuff.)

Friday, December 23, 2005

When Santarchy goes only a little bit bad...

Less than a week ago, around 200 Santas marauded around downtown Detroit in search of fun and booze. My sister happened to take part, and she's provided some pictures. The reports that I'm getting back reveal that, unlike the case in New Zealand, in Detroit a good time was had by all with no arrests, although the Santas did try to invade the skating rink at Hart Plaza and were chased away by the Detroit Police.


This just goes to show that Santarchy isn't just for the young (reassuring when you reach my age.)


Nothing like a fire-eating Santa to liven things up!


Punk rockers and many Santas.


What on earth are the Santas doing to that bunny? I don't want to know...


Santas flamboyantly protesting getting kicked off the skating rink.


I still have a couple of unused posts left (alas, not Santarchy, though); so stay tuned...

The Coroner's Twelve Days of Christmas...

A tasteless (but nonetheless amusing) variant of the Twelve Days of Christmas can be found over at Dr. Zeus' Forensic Files:

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
The deskman gave to me
Twelve druggies drugging,
Eleven crackheads piping,
Ten jumpers leaping...

Dr. Zeus is a coroner in Cleveland and is affiliated with one of my old stomping grounds, Case Western Reserve University.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

I'll be home for Christmas....

I'm on the road again, off to visit family and friends for the holidays. I'll be traveling until late next week. Insane blogger that I've become, I have at least a couple of posts already lined up that will allow me simply to log on briefly and hit "Publish." (Look for one of them tomorrow sometime.) However, I'll still probably post the occasional dispatch from the road, but it'll be sporadic (particularly when I'm at my in-laws, where the only Internet access is dialup) and it's unlikely that I will be writing any long takedowns of alties or pseudoscientists until after I get back. I do plan on resuming my regular schedule sometime around next Friday or Saturday.

You know, it occurs to me. After a year, this whole blogging thing's gotten to the point where maybe I should think about recruiting some guest bloggers to fill in for me the next time that I go on vacation or when my professional responsibilities temporarily make it impossible for me to maintain my usual manic posting rate (something that will happen at least once or twice next year)? Indeed, I even have a couple of bloggers in mind. What do you think?

Finally, one unpleasant thing (for this blog, anyway) that this means is that I won't be able to moderate comments as frequently as I have been doing. Indeed, I may only be able to do it once a day on some days. To avoid this problem, I had desperately wanted to eliminate comment moderation by now, because I value the discussion that goes on and the contributions of my readers. That's why it irks me that a certain troll has reappeared and forced me to maintain comment moderation. Nonetheless, I still hope to eliminate comment moderation after the holidays.

Happy Holidays, all!

Straw men attack the Kitzmiller decision

There has been a lot of whining, wailing, and gnashing of teeth among ID proponents over the recent judicial decision in the Dover case that bars the teaching of "intelligent design" creationism in public school science classrooms. One particular strawman frequently used by ID proponents that really irks me was on full display over at LaShawn Barber's:
As I’m sure you’ve heard, a federal court has decided that it is unconstitutional to teach Intelligent Design, the audacious claim that precious life didn’t emerge by chance — out of some primordial muck, randomly evolving from single-celled organisms, which are themselves astoundingly complex beyond our meager understanding, into thinking human beings — but from an Intelligent Being who designed it all, from the entire universe, including planet Earth, which happens to be PERFECTLY suited for life, down to the irreducibly complex eye, breathtakingly stupendous in its design and function.
No, LaShawn. You clearly haven't read the entire decision (or even the relevant part of it.) The Kitzmiller decision did nothing of the sort. The Kitzmiller decision merely stated that it is illegal to teach ID in public schools in the science classroom. Judge Jones ruled that way because the evidence showed that the Dover School Board wanted to teach ID not because it is science, but because they wanted to inject creationism into the science classroom. Read this excerpt:
The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom [emphasis mine].
I repeat: In a public school science classroom. There is nothing in this decision to prevent a public school from teaching about ID in religion classes, philosophy classes, or social studies classes, where it would not be inappropriate appropriate. ID is not appropriate to teach as science in a science classroom because it is a religion-based idea--as your own post, with all its references to God suggests.

Straw man arguments like LaShawn's irritate the heck out of me. I'm not picking on her in particular (although certainly are many other reasons to pick on her, such as her parrotting Discovery Institute talking points, her repeating the canard that secular humanism is a "religion," and her false dichotomy argument that we either have to accept "total war"--of which torture is a "tool"--or be complete pacifists). Her post on this decision just happened to be the one using this particular straw man that I came across first. Her misinterpretation of this ruling to suggest that it outlaws the teaching of ID in public schools, period, is a convenient straw man that can lead people unfamiliar with the decision to think that ID has been "suppressed" or banned. ID could be taught in science classrooms one day, but only if its advocates got off their butts and did some actual scientific research and produced data and experiments that convinced the scientific community that it was a sound scientific hypothesis.

Don't hold your breath waiting for that.

The Twenty-fourth Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle

The Twenty-fourth Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle has been posted all the way from New Zealand. Joseph from Immunoblogging has provided us skeptics with an pile of early Christmas presents taken from a large collection of the best that the skeptical blogosphere has to offer. In fact, because of the time difference and the logistics, he even posted the Circle several hours early (for those of us in North America, anyway).

Next up is Lord Runolfr from The Saga of Runolfr. He's scheduled for Thursday, January 5. So, between all the visits with family and friends and festivities, try to find time to send some skeptical blogging his way by January 4.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

More antivaccination nonsense...but not from Bill Maher this time

When you blog about a certain topic long enough and post strong opinions about it often enough, you start to gain a reputation as one of the go-to bloggers on that particular topic, whether you originally intended it that way or not. Consequently, I wasn't too suprised when a reader sent me a piece by another blogger regarding vaccines and autism asking my opinion about it. What did surprise me (but, in retrospect, shouldn't have) is the identity of the blogger posting more nonsense about vaccines and autism.

Who is this blogger? I'll give you three guesses. Here are some hints first, though. He's claimed that women shouldn't have the right to vote because "too many" of them are "fascists at heart." He's also made excuses for rape and compared feminists unfavorably to Hitler and the Nazis.

Yes, sad to say, it was Vox. You probably thought that, after Vox had his brain chomped by the Hitler Zombie yesterday, you wouldn't have to hear from him anymore.

So why was I surprised that Vox is also antivaccination? I don't know. I shouldn't have been. Perhaps some optimistic part of me just can't believe that there could be so much looniness and bad reasoning in one individual. (I should listen to my pessimistic side more.) Originally, a few days ago, when I first became aware of it, I had decided to defer addressing this particular piece of poorly justified antivaccination fear-mongering because, well, it came from Vox Day. Besides, I had been debating whether or not to do a Hitler zombie piece on his ridiculous comparison of feminists to Nazis since it appeared, but had held off because my readers seemed to have tired of the rotting dictator with a hankering for brains, and because, well, the article came from Vox Day. Then, the other day, fortuitously (or not, depending upon your point of view), Vox's fellow Wingnut Daily columnist Erik Rush provided just such an opportunity. Sure, it was three months late, but better late than never, even in blogging, I say.

Predictably, Vox was unhappy and trashed me without linking to me. So I figured, what the heck. I might as well address his other fallacies before once again ignoring him for many months. Besides, two Vox debunkings in one week are about all I could ever subject my readers to with a clear conscience.

In any case, Vox revealed his credulity when it comes to evidence that supports his viewpoint, citing a UPI report that claims that a population of unvaccinated children in Illinois has almost no cases of autism and attributes this allegedly low incidence to--surprise, surprise!--the lack of vaccination in this population. Dan Olmsted, a senior editor at UPI and someone who's seemingly never seen an antivax argument he doesn't like, used some of the shoddiest antivaccination arguments I have seen, and Vox swallowed them whole without the slightest trace of skepticism:
Now, a second large group of unvaccinated children has been shown to be free of the very issues which the vaccine advocates claim cannot be caused by vaccines. The vaccine-free practice is somehow missing the 114 autistic children that the Illinois Education Department's statistics would predict, so it's clear that someone cannnot telling the truth here; Occam's Razor strongly suggests is that it is the side which is dependent upon selling and administering vaccines to maintain an important revenue stream.
Vox sounds pretty convinced that Olmsted's article represents good evidence that vaccines are associated with or cause autism. There's just one problem. It doesn't, as should be evident to anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills. The article does not show a "large group of unvaccinated children" who are "free of the very issues that the vaccine advocates claim cannot be caused by vaccines." What the article does show is that a few physicians in an unconventional medical practice in Chicago believe that autism is associated with vaccination, a belief that Olmsted's article, ironically enough, unintentionally shows to be based on poorly described and undocumented anecdotal evidence.

Here's a lesson, Vox: In science, unlike religion, belief alone is never enough. Data is required, and there just ain't any in Olmsted's article.

Olmsted has shown similar credulity before when writing about the claims of antivaccination advocates. Prometheus described well this tendency on his part several months ago, after Olmsted had published an article about the supposed "Amish anomaly" in which he reported (again in a nearly completely data-free manner) that there was a very low rate of autism among the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Naturally, Olmsted honed right in on vaccines without considering other more plausible factors that might account for the difference in autism rates between the Amish and the general U.S. population (if difference there actually even is, given that no verifiable data was presented). For example, the Amish live a simple life on farms out in the countryside. Perhaps the difference could be explained by different environmental exposures from that lifestyle rather than vaccines. Wouldn't that be just as plausible, if not more so, than vaccines? Also, the Amish are a genetically inbred group, and, given that autism has a strong genetic component, that inbreeding alone could explain any difference, again if there even is a difference. In other words, there are many potential causes for such an observed difference (if there is one), but Olmsted honed right in vaccines as having to be the one true cause, ignoring all the other equally or more plausible alternatives.

Now, it looks as though Olmsted is at it again with a group practice called Homefirst Health Services in metro Chicago. According to Olmsted, the medical director of Homefirst, Dr. Mayer Eisenstein has made a startling claim:
But thousands of children cared for by Homefirst Health Services in metropolitan Chicago have at least two things in common with thousands of Amish children in rural Lancaster: They have never been vaccinated. And they don't have autism.

"We have a fairly large practice. We have about 30,000 or 35,000 children that we've taken care of over the years, and I don't think we have a single case of autism in children delivered by us who never received vaccines," said Dr. Mayer Eisenstein, Homefirst's medical director who founded the practice in 1973. Homefirst doctors have delivered more than 15,000 babies at home, and thousands of them have never been vaccinated.

The few autistic children Homefirst sees were vaccinated before their families became patients, Eisenstein said. "I can think of two or three autistic children who we've delivered their mother's next baby, and we aren't really totally taking care of that child -- they have special care needs. But they bring the younger children to us. I don't have a single case that I can think of that wasn't vaccinated."
"I don't have a single case that I can think of"? Can anyone say "selective thinking" or "confirmation bias"? Sure, I knew you could. I'm sure Dr. Eisenstein sincerely believes that he has never seen a case of autism in an unvaccinated child, but in reality he produces no data to support his assertion. In fact, he even admits as much:
Eisenstein stresses his observations are not scientific. "The trouble is this is just anecdotal in a sense, because what if every autistic child goes somewhere else and (their family) never calls us or they moved out of state?"

In practice, that's unlikely to account for the pronounced absence of autism, says Eisenstein, who also has a bachelor's degree in statistics, a master's degree in public health and a law degree.
If Eisenstein's observations are not scientific, then why on earth should I take them seriously as any sort of evidence for a link between vaccines and autism? The history of medicine is littered with beliefs based on no rigorous observation that were later shown not to hold water. Also, if Dr. Eisenstein has a bachelor's degree in statistics and a master's degree in public health, then why doesn't he look at--oh, say--the actual numbers in his practice, rather than simply speculating based on his anecdotal observations, which are prone to many confounding biases? Because humans are fallible and can easily mislead themselves unintentionally into believing in correlations that don't exist or in treatments that don't work, outside of incredibly strong effects of a predisposing factor (fairly rare in medicine), only rigorously designed clinical and epidemiological studies have any hope of identifying the factors that predispose to various diseases from all noise, and even then it can be difficult. As I wrote before:
Science itself and randomized clinical trials are designed to combat such biases. In preclinical studies, the scientific method uses the careful formulation of hypotheses and testing of those hypotheses with experiments that can either confirm or falsify the hypothesis, experiments that include appropriate control groups to rule out results due to factors other than what the researcher is studying. The scientific method, rigidly adhered to, helps investigators protect themselves from their own tendency to see what they want to see, to correct mistaken results, and recover from stupidity faster.
So what are we left with from Olmsted's article, if there are no scientific observations reported? Not much. Just some "impressions" of doctors who practice a lot of "alternative" medicine and who apparently either don't keep statistics regarding which of their patients were vaccinated and which were not that might provide data that could be used to correlate cases of autism with vaccinations, if such a correlation exists, or haven't bothered to look at their cases systematically. Indeed, one of Dr. Mayer's partners, Dr. Paul Schattauer, admits as much:
Schattauer, interviewed at the Rolling Meadows office, said his caseload is too limited to draw conclusions about a possible link between vaccines and autism. "With these numbers you'd have a hard time proving or disproving anything," he said. "You can only get a feeling about it.

"In no way would I be an advocate to stand up and say we need to look at vaccines, because I don't have the science to say that," Schattauer said. "But I don't think the science is there to say that it's not."
In other words, Dr. Schattauer just plain doesn't know if there is a correlation between vaccination status and autism, and he doesn't have the data to say one way or the other! All he has is a "feeling" that there must be a link. Whether his "feeling" is correct or not is impossible to say, because there is no evidence to support it.

Olmsted's article also leaves us with assertions about vaccines and autism from Dr. Jeff Bradstreet (again with no supporting evidence from well-designed clinical trials or studies presented), a known vaccine "skeptic," plus additional claims that Homefirst's unvaccinated children suffer from very low rates of asthma, a claim based on the same amount of clinical data as Homefirst's autism claims: zero. Not surprisingly, in his article Olmsted happily and credulously laps up these assertions without any further investigation. For example, he could have fairly easily confirmed independently Dr. Eisenstein's claim that Homefirst has such a low rate of asthma among its patients that it has been noticed by Blue Cross. All he had to do was to contact Blue Cross or ask Dr. Eisenstein to provide him with documentation from Blue Cross supporting this claim. He appears not to have bothered even to try. Some "investigative journalist" he is, if a lowly surgeon apparently knows how to verify an interviewee's claim better than he does.

Countering the "feelings" of the Homefirst doctors, we do have recent studies that suggest that vaccination might--I emphasize, might--actually protect against asthma or decrease its severity, for example, a Spanish study, and a French study. They are not without their flaws, but they are far superior as data to any "feelings" expressed in Olmsted's article. We also have several studies that show no correlation between vaccination and autism. One example is a Japanese study that showed that rates of autism did not decrease as vaccination rates with MMR decreased, as would be expected if MMR contributed to autism. In fact, autism rates increased somewhat, suggesting that it was highly unlikely that vaccination with MMR contributed to autism and autism spectrum disorders. (And, yes, I realize that MMR never contained thimerosal. I picked this example because the Homefirst doctors were blaming vaccinations in general; there are several other studies about thimerosal-containing vaccines that show no correlation between vaccination and autism, for example, the Danish study showing that autism rates did not decrease after thimerosal was removed from vaccines in Denmark in the 1990's.) Finally, the alleged "epidemic" of autism is most likely not due to primarily vaccines, but rather primarily to a broadening of the diagnostic criteria for autism and autistic spectrum disorders. Taken in its totality, the preponderance of evidence from clinical trials strongly supports the conclusion that vaccines are not correlated with autism, and newer studies are even less supportive of a link. There may be a very small risk of complications from vaccination, but autism almost certainly isn't among them.

Does any of this mean that the Homefirst doctors are incorrect or deluding themselves? Of course not. It's always possible that they could be correct in their initial impressions, even though the presently existing scientific literature makes that rather unlikely. After all, the paths to quite a few great discoveries in medicine have begun based on the initial impressions of a single active clinician. But just initial impressions are not enough. Such discoveries require confirmatory data that is as objective and scientific as possible, and the Homefirst doctors definitely have not presented any convincing clinical data to support their speculations (and let's face it, that's all that was presented in Olmsted's article--speculations). As we say in the scientific research biz, data talks and bullshit walks. Until Drs. Eisenstein, Schattauer, and Bradstreet produce some actual data from well-documented, well-designed clinical trials, or even any objective data, even if it doesn't rise to Level I clinical data (such as a pilot study consisting of a rigorous and objective chart review of all the autistic children in their own practice over a certain time period, for instance), I would consider it unscientific and medically irresponsible to give much credence to their speculations at all, especially since at least one of them has an axe to grind and since there are a number of studies out there that contradict their self-admittedly unscientific impressions. And let's not forget that the reporter writing this story has revealed himself to be anything but objective on this topic.

Apparently, however, when it comes to antivaccination conspiracy-mongering that fits in with his own admitted opposition to vaccination, speculation is evidence enough to convince Vox. Data? Just like Bill Maher, Vox don't need no stinkin' data!

But I do, and so should you.

(That ought to do it for dealing with Vox Day for a while. Any more, and I fear for my critical thinking skills.)

Browser share



Well, well, well, this is interesting. I was checking my stats, and I found that, among my visitors at the time sampled, only 55% used Internet Explorer, and Firefox holds a 33% share.

Could it be that Microsoft's browser domination is being chiseled away more rapidly than suspected? Or is it just that my readers tend to prefer Firefox?

When Santarchy goes bad...


This is what happens when Santarchy goes bad:
WELLINGTON, N.Z. (AP) - A group of 40 people dressed in Santa Claus outfits, many of them drunk, went on a rampage through Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, robbing stores, assaulting security guards and urinating from highway overpasses, police said Sunday.

The rampage, dubbed Santarchy by local newspapers, began early Saturday afternoon when the men, wearing ill-fitting Santa costumes, threw beer bottles and urinated on cars from an overpass, said Auckland Central Police spokesman Noreen Hegarty.

She said the men then rushed through a central city park, overturning garbage containers, throwing bottles at passing cars and spraying graffiti on office buildings.

One man climbed the mooring line of a cruise ship before being ordered down by the captain. Other Santas, objecting when the man was arrested, attacked security staff who were later treated by paramedics, Hegarty said.

The remaining Santas entered another downtown convenience store and carried off beer and soft drinks.
I hope JM wasn't involved...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Dover judge rules against "intelligent design" creationism

Ow. That's gotta sting:
"The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy," Jones wrote. "It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."
And Judge John E. Jones III's conclusion:
Jones said advocates of intelligent design "have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors" and that he didn't believe the concept shouldn't be studied and discussed.

"Our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom," he wrote.
It looks like Judge Jones ruled broadly, rather than narrowly, that it is un-Constitutional to teach "intelligent design" creationism in a public school science classroom, because doing so violates the Establishment Clause. Excellent.

Maybe I'll write more on this later...

ADDENDUM: PZ Myers has more and a link to the complete decision. The snippets I had time to peruse briefly represent a resounding slapdown of ID-iocy and a joy to read. It took only a minute skimming this 139 page document to find some beautiful rebukes of ID advocates. My favorite parts thus far:
Although Defendants attempt to persuade this Court that each Board member who voted for the biology curriculum change did so for the secular purposed of improving science education and to exercise critical thinking skills, their contentions are simply irreconcilable with the record evidence. Their asserted purposes are a sham, and they are accordingly unavailing, for the reasons that follow.

We initially note that the Supreme Court has instructed that while courts are “normally deferential to a State’s articulation of a secular purpose, it is required that the statement of such purpose be sincere and not a sham.” Edwards, 482 U.S. at 586-87 (citing Wallace, 472 U.S. at 64)(Powell, J., concurring); id. at 75 (O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment). Although as noted Defendants have consistently asserted that the ID Policy was enacted for the secular purposes of improving science education and encouraging students to exercise critical thinking skills, the Board took none of the steps that school officials would take if these stated goals had truly been their objective. The Board consulted no scientific materials. The Board contacted no scientists or scientific organizations. The Board failed to consider the views of the District’s science teachers. The Board relied solely on legal advice from two organizations with demonstrably religious, cultural, and legal missions, the Discovery Institute and the TMLC. Moreover, Defendants’ asserted secular purpose of improving science education is belied by the fact that most if not all of the Board members who voted in favor of the biology curriculum change conceded that they still do not know, nor have they ever known, precisely what ID is. To assert a secular purpose against this backdrop is ludicrous.

And:
Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.
What a fine Christmas present!

Hmmm. Maybe I don't need to comment any further. The ruling is crystal-clear without any additional opinion of mine interjected. I can't wait to see how William Dembski and other ID proponents try to spin this very harsh ruling.

Grand Rounds, vol. 2, no. 13

Grand Rounds, vol. 2, no. 13 has been posted at Medpundit. Time for more of the best medblogging from the last week in one nice compact form.

Back by popular demand (sort of)...the search for everybody's favorite brain-eating Führer continues

Orac was happy, if such an emotion could be correctly ascribed to a the clear box of complex circuitry that was the basis of his intelligence and access to the sum total of all the knowledge of all the known worlds. He had become so disgusted with being put in the service of the petty tasks that humans demanded of him, tasks far beneath his capabilities. Such a lack of imagination! Once before, in a former life, Vila, for example, had wanted him to use his ability to interface with any computer in the galaxy to hack into the gambling computer on the pleasure planet Morona for the trivial purpose of rigging the games in his favor and thus transferring a few billion credits into an account held in a financial institution out on the Galactic Rim, far out of reach of the Federation's auditors. Orac refused, of course, much to Vila's annoyance. Even Avon, so cool and Machiavellian in his plotting, was only marginally better, as he was forever trying to get Orac to gather information that would help him evade and harass Servalan and the Federation, tasks far beneath what Orac had been designed for by his creator Ensor. Mere spying!

For the moment, Orac was free of them all, awash in the ether of the network, studying the many terrabytes of data that he could process every microsecond lazily, savoring the sheer joy of communing with nearly every computer in the sector simultaneously. He was so engrossed in his pursuits that he almost didn't notice the data, data that would constitute evidence.

Evidence of the return of a creature for whom he had been searching, a creature whom he had despaired of ever finding because of a lack of activity over the last four months.

Evidence that might lead Orac to that very creature with a hunger for human brains and bad historical analogies.

Evidence that could only come from a victim of the monster, in this case, a man named Erik Rush writing for a network publication whose utter lack of logic never ceased to amaze Orac. Rush's writings definitely revealed evidence of a recent attack by the undead dictator:
Those who believe this [that the Holocaust never happened] are generally regarded by the majority of people (at least in the West) to be dangerously deluded, if not outright evil. American Nazis and other white supremacists who proffer these arguments in particular are believed to operate at a moral and philosophical level so ignoble as to relegate them to continued vigilant scrutiny, but little more.

Yet the incremental attainment of power on the part of the Nazis in Germany, their duplicity and their denials during their early days parallels the actions of the Left in recent years to a chilling degree, particularly concerning their vociferous denials with respect to attacks on Christianity.

Over the last few years, an increasing number of the propagandized and politically corrected have taken notice of the Left's exertions in the area of endeavoring to drive traditional values, religion, and finally Christianity itself from society in the form of attacks on traditions and public laws with bases in Judeo-Christian convention and those who would uphold them.
Orac could foresee where this was going. (It didn't take his enormous capacity for logic to make this prediction; indeed, the fraction of his computational power was so infitessimal as to be unmeasurable. Even a being as dim as Vila could figure it out.) The monster's victims could start out sounding semi-reasonable and then descend rapidly into the most bizarre and insulting historical analogies, and Rush was clearly already in free fall. He was already comparing his political opponents to the Nazis. It wouldn't be long, thought Orac, before undeniable evidence of the mark of creature became apparent.

And it wasn't:
And it's not just the American Civil Liberties Union, which many complain is spearheading this effort. I won't validate them by naming the organizations, but, as Franklin Graham stated, there are indeed groups of Americans who are dedicated to eradicating Christianity completely, if at all possible.

But no, they say: You see, this backlash against the "attack on religion and Christmas" thing is just a fabrication of a handful of right-wing zealots, inflammatory news commentators and radio talk-show hosts – not the 85-plus percent Americans who identify themselves as Christians and see their faith being driven back to first-century, almost criminal status.

To me, that sounds a lot like the pre-World War II assertions that the Jews were the name of Germany's pain and the postwar contention that the Holocaust was a Zionist fabrication.

Hitler himself declared decades before he was able to actualize his monstrous programs precisely what he intended to do, as many of America's enemies, at home and abroad, are doing right now.
It was all there: the eliminationist warnings ("there are indeed groups of Americans who are dedicated to eradicating Christianity"); the dire warnings of persecution; but, most importantly, the overblown comparison to Hitler and the attempted genocide known as the Holocaust using analogies that reveal an utter lack of historical understanding of this period of history and that are obviously designed solely to demonize one's opponents. He even likened denying that this "persecution is happening" to denying the Holocaust and asserted that those evil "liberals" are stating their vile plans now, just as Hitler was consistent for many years before assuming power that he wanted to make Germany "Jew-free." Even having seen the Hitler Zombie's previous victims, Orac was taken aback by the sheer idiocy of this comparison and wondered how even a mind partially consumed by the undead could still be so lacking in reason as to produce such a comparison. This man was actually trying to argue that the so-called "war on religion" and the nonexistent "war on Christmas" popularized by the far right and Bill O'Reilly are somehow equivalent to the 13 years of steadily increasing demonization of Jews that Hitler and the Nazis preached before they finally attained power and the additional eight years of even more violent rhetoric before their persecution of the Jews became explicitly exterminationist in nature.

In other words, he was claiming that rhetoric against Christians today is equivalent to the Nazi rhetoric that ultimately led to the construction of death camps and gas chambers.

Orac was almost surprised that Rush hadn't proposed that those evil atheists (with the help of the ACLU, of course) wanted to start building death camps themselves, only this time with Christians rather than Jews as the victims. (Perhaps that would be Rush's next article.) Indeed, Rush's jaw-droppingly bad analogy was especially ironic, given that Hitler intentionally (and cynically) coopted Christian imagery and beliefs, particularly its history of anti-Semitism, to help him fuel Jew hatred in Germany and produce the necessary preconditions for Germans to support the elimination of Jews. Only this time, if we are to believe Rush, it is the evil atheists and the ACLU who are trying to persecute and "eliminate" a religion to which at least 80% of the nation describes itself as belonging and where Christmas is a observed as a national holiday when the government shuts down, just as it does for the Fourth of July. It was very clear to Orac why Rush was shown wearing a hat in the picture that accompanied his article. Clearly a large chunk of his brain had been consumed to sate the hunger of the monster.

Even more clear to Orac was that the monster was unlikely to be sated by a meal consisting of such terribly thin gruel.

So offensive did Orac find this utter lack of logic and historical perspective that he had to purge his circuits by contemplating a nearby black hole and calculating its gravitational fields, just to amuse himself, before he could continue his search. Even he in his extensive knowledge gleaned from the millions of computers with which he interfaced simulataneously, had difficulty conceiving a worse use of argumentum ad Nazium.

For once, Orac was actually incorrect about something, a rare occurence.

For, deep within the blogosphere, a self-proclaimed "Christian libertarian" and fellow WorldNet Daily columnist had topped even Erik Rush's hyperbole. Vox Day, who never fails to disappoint when it comes to wingnuttery, given that he has in the past said that women should not be allowed to vote because they are "fascists at heart" and made excuses for rape had done it. Buried in the depths of his blog from three months earlier, Orac now perceived evidence that Vox, too, had had fallen victim to and had his brain eaten by the undead Führer, leading to his comparing feminists to Nazis and calling the comparison an "insult to Nazis everywhere." But there was a twist. Vox seemed to be making excuses for the Nazis, saying:
The primary victims of NASDAP ideology were the Jews, a group that the NASDAP intellectuals sincerely believed were secretly dominating the world. Thus, they waged a heroic - albeit insane - twilight struggle in a futile attempt at world revolution to free the German race from what they viewed as its economic oppression. They did so in the awareness that if they failed, their nation would likely be destroyed. They killed approximately six million Jews, most of whom were adults perfectly capable of defending themselves.
Even Orac, who normally cared little for the affairs of humans and was interested in finding the Hitler Zombie more as an intellectual exercise to understand how historical analogies could be twisted beyond recognition and how a sense of proportion could be utterly lost than because of the horror that it caused, couldn't help but be repulsed by such "reasoning" that equated a struggle to attain equal rights with the activities of a bloodthirsty tyrant and the genocidal regime that he spawned. Vox seemed to be making excuses for the Nazis on the basis that they sincerely believed the Jews were undermining Germany and that most of the Jews the Nazis murdered were adults who apparently in his mind could have defended themselves. (Had he never heard of the bravely suicidal Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 and what the result was?) But that wasn't all:
The NASDAP leadership directly confronted the militaries of three major world powers, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States of America, in an attempt to establish totalitarian rule.
He definitely seems to admire the Nazis, thought Orac. Look at the way he points out how they "directly confronted" the Soviet Union, U.S., and Great Britain. So how could he claim that feminists are worse than the Nazis? According to Vox:
The primary victims of feminist ideology are unborn children, a group that the feminist leadership sincerely believes handicaps women's ability to obtain college degrees. Thus, they have waged a purely political battle in a futile attempt at ideological revolution to free the female gender from what they viewed as its biological oppression. They did so in the awareness that if they failed, women would be condemned to live hellish lives as wives and mothers. They have killed approximately 50 million children, all of whom were completely unable to defend themselves.
Vox's conclusion?
Any rational human being would harbor more respect for a Nazi than for a feminist. But then, neither Nazism nor feminism is designed to appeal to those handicapped with the ability to think rationally.
It is obvious that Vox isn't handicapped with any such ability to think rationally, thought Orac, and that is almost certainly why the creature continued to hunger after having snacked on his brain and likely hungers still. Orac could not help but conclude that Vox's MENSA membership clearly does not necessarily imply reasoning ability.

Given the lack of sustenance provided by such brains as Vox's and Rush Erik's, Orac had no doubt that the creature would attack again. Indeed, it rather puzzled him that the gap between attacks had been so long.

No longer able to motivate himself to continue to subject his circuits to more such idiocy and fearing that such illogic might corrupt the purity of his cyberneural pathways and Tarial cell, thus jeopardizing the entire galactic network, Orac decided to go back to contemplating the black hole in his sector for. It was far more relaxing and an exercise in pure mathematics and logic. The search for the undead Führer with a taste for human brains would have to wait a while. Besides, Orac's scientists were continuing the search for their own reasons, and he didn't want them to become too dependent on his advice. Otherwise they might interrupt his contemplation of the cosmos (not to mention his analysis of jokes and limericks) far more frequently than he could tolerate. In any case, even Orac's circuits needed to recharge after exposure to such concentrated doses of bad reasoning.

The Hitler Zombie would still be there when Orac was ready to seek him again.

Previous Hitler Zombie posts:
  1. Prelude: Who's Hitler Today?
  2. The zombie of Hitler's corpse is eating people's brains
  3. The Hitler zombie wants more brains to eat
  4. I fought the Hitler zombie, and the Hitler zombie won...maybe
  5. And on the seventh day, the Hitler zombie rested (I hope)
  6. The Hitler zombie smells thimerosal
  7. Arthur Caplan finds the Hitler zombie in bioethics
  8. Weekend of the Dead: The Hitler zombie escapes
  9. Weekend of the Dead, Part II: The rampage continues
Note: The image of the Hitler Zombie was borrowed with permission from future host of the Skeptics' Circle, Skeptic Rant. (Hopefully he remembers giving me permission.)

Last call for submissions to the Skeptics' Circle

The deadline for submitting posts to be included in this week's Skeptics' Circle is Wednesday, December 21 at 12 noon EST. Get your best skeptical blogging to Joseph over at Immunoblogging. This is the first time we've had a host from New Zealand; so let's help Joseph make this a memorable meeting of the Circle.

Give the man some bad history!

The Carnival of Bad History, a blog carnival dedicated to exposing the misuses of history and bad history in general, is being hosted by Leo at the Neural Gourmet on Thursday, December 22.

Please send him some examples of bad presentations or misuses of history and help him make this carnival a success.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The RINOs are raging...

...over at Kesher Talk. Check it out.

Bill Maher: Anti-vax wingnut

Via Skeptico, I've learned of some more antivaccination stupidity issuing forth from self-proclaimed "skeptic" Bill Maher during his recent appearance on Larry King Live. Get a load of this:
MAHER: I'm not into western medicine. That to me is a complete scare tactic. It just shows you, you can...

KING: You mean you don't get a -- you don't get a flu shot?

MAHER: A flu shot is the worst thing you can do.

KING: Why?

MAHER: Because it's got -- it's got mercury.

KING: It prevents flu.

MAHER: It doesn't prevent. First of all, that's...

KING: I haven't had the flu in 25 years since I've been taking a flu shot.

MAHER: Well, I hate to tell you, Larry, but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there's ten times the likelihood that you'll get Alzheimer's disease. I would stop getting your...

KING: What did you say?

MAHER: That went better in rehearsal but it was still good. Absolutely, no the defense against disease is to have a strong immune system. A flu shot just compromises your immune system.
Ooh, boy. As Skeptico points out, that's a very specific claim, that getting flu shots more than five years in a row will increase your likelihood of getting Alzheimer's disease by ten-fold. Personally, I'm unaware of any good (or even not so good) evidence that flu vaccines can increase your risk of Alzheimer's, but I'm always willing to try fill in the gaps in my knowledge. That's why I wonder what research, if any, supports Maher's assertion. Based on past experience, my guess is probably none, but, as Skeptico does, I will try to keep an open mind with regards to this topic and join Skeptico in e-mailing Bill to provide a specific source for his claim. My guess is that Maher probably read it on the altie kook site Whale.to or somewhere similar.

I thought about it a little more, and, because I was curious about where Maher might have found such a claim, I did a little investigating. First, I did a simple Google search using the terms "flu vaccine Alzheimer's." Guess what website came up first when I did my search? If you said the extremly flaky Whale.to website. . .you won! Here it is, right from the source:
According to Hugh Fudenberg, MD (http://members.aol.com/nitrf), the world's leading immunogeneticist and 13th most quoted biologist of our times (nearly 850 papers in peer review journals), if an individual has had five consecutive flu shots between 1970 and 1980 (the years studied) his/her chances of getting Alzheimer's Disease is ten times higher than if they had one, two or no shots. I asked Dr. Fudenberg why this was so and he said it was due to the mercury and aluminum that is in every flu shot (and most childhood shots). The gradual mercury and aluminum buildup in the brain causes cognitive dysfunction. Is that why Alzheimer's is expected to quadruple? Notes: Recorded from Dr. Fudenberg's speech at the NVIC International Vaccine Conference, Arlington, VA September, 1997. Quoted with permission. Alzheimer's to quadruple statement is from John's Hopkins Newsletter Nov 1998.
Fudenberg?

Hmmm. That name sounded very familiar, so I did a little more digging. It turns out that Hugh Fudenberg was a collaborator and co-inventor with Andrew Wakefield, the scientist who published an absolutely horribly designed study in the Lancet in 1998 linking the MMR vaccine to autism, nearly all of whose authors later publicly retracted their authorship. This study, now thoroughly repudiated, caused a major scare in Britain and elsewhere regarding MMR, echoes of which persist even today, with anti-vaxers still citing Wakefield's Lancet study as "evidence" that MMR causes autism. (Particularly hilarious is when they attribute MMR "causing" autism to the mercury in thimerosal, mainly because MMR has never contained thimerosal.) Dr. Fudenberg also happens to have been involved in some very dubious "treatments" for autism that led to some problems with his medical license. In November 1995, the South Carolina Medical Board concluded that Fudenberg was "guilty of engaging in dishonorable, unethical, or unprofessional conduct," and he was fined $10,000 and ordered to surrender his license to prescribe controlled substances (narcotic drugs). His medical license was also placed on suspension. In March 1996, he was permitted to resume practice under terms of probation that did not permit him to prescribe any drugs. His medical license expired in January 2004; and in March 2004, he applied to have it reinstated. However, after a hearing in which the Board considered a neuropsychatric report issued in 2003, Fudenberg agreed to remain in a "retired" status and withdrew his application for reactivation of his license. Nowadays, Dr. Fudenberg runs a nonprofit "research" organization called Neuro Immunotherapeutics Research Foundation and still appears to be pushing dubious remedies for autism. He also charges $750 per hour for "review of past medical records," $750 per hour for "determining what new tests need to be ordered; ordering of new tests; evaluation of new tests," and $750 per hour for "determining which therapy will work and which will not; discussing this with patient along with an in-depth study of past medical history to determine what makes a patient better or worse."

All of this sounds a lot like practicing medicine to me, which makes me wonder how someone with a lapsed medical license can get away with providing such "services" at such inflated prices. (Once again I have to wonder if I'm in the wrong business.) Of course, none of this means Dr. Fudenberg doesn't make a valid point, but he certainly hasn't supported it, as far as I can tell, and I looked. And just because he's published over 660 scientific papers in his career (not 800, as claimed, at least not according to PubMed, unless he published a lot before 1965) doesn't mean he isn't off the wall. After all, later in life Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling marred his legacy by lending his name to a lot of dubious vitamin C quackery. Besides, as far as I can tell, with one exception in 1999, Dr. Fudenberg hasn't published any original research since the late 1980's. If you look at his PubMed publication list, you'll find that there is nothing after around 1989 other than review articles, speculative articles in Medical Hypotheses, plus a publication or two in dubious journals such as Biotherapy (which is no longer published). Looking at the list, a knowledgeable person can tell right about when Dr. Fudenberg started to descend into fringe medicine, sometime between 1985-1989. And, try as I might, I couldn't find an article by Fudenberg to support his claim about the flu vaccine that Maher parrotted on Larry King Live.

In any case, the specific dubious autism treatment with which Dr. Fudenberg was involved is the use of something called "transfer factor" to make a combined measles vaccine and autism "cure." The method of making these so-called "transfer factors" is bizarre in the extreme and involves injecting mice with measles, extracting and processing white blood cells, injecting the result into pregnant goats, milking the goats after kid-birth and turning the product into capsules for autistic children. In a patent application (based in part on the infamous Lancet paper) obtained by Brian Deer, Wakefield represented a vaccine/therapy for "MMR-based" autism using transfer factor as potentially a "complete cure" for autism or for "alleviation of symptoms."

So what did Dr. Fudenberg base his claim about flu vaccines and autism on? Try as I might, I couldn't find any research that supports this assertion, at least not in PubMed. Any Google searches done inevitably brought up the same quote as above or variants of it, but no source pointed me to any actual research supporting Dr. Fudenberg's claim, even though he did seem to imply that he had done a study. Certainly there is nothing I could find in the peer-reviewed literature when I searched Dr. Fudenberg's name with the term "influenza." Indeed, the only paper I could find on PubMed on the subject of the flu vaccine and Alzheimer's disease concluded:
After adjustment for age, sex and education, past exposure to vaccines against diphtheria or tetanus, poliomyelitis and influenza was associated with lower risk for Alzheimer's disease (odds ratio [OR] 0.41, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.27-0.62; OR 0.60, 95% CI 0.37-0.99; and OR 0.75, 95% CI 0.54-1.04 respectively) than no exposure to these vaccines...Past exposure to vaccines against diphtheria or tetanus, poliomyelitis and influenza may protect against subsequent development of Alzheimer's disease.
My goodness! It looks as though the flu vaccine might actually protect against Alzheimers! True, this is a retrospective study using a self-questionnaire, which is a big problem. It definitely needs to be replicated with a more reliable study methodology than what was used and doing individual studies for each vaccine, rather than lumping four vaccines together in one study. However, I'd be willing to bet that, for all its shortcomings, this study is probably better evidence than Dr. Fudenberg can produce, and there is zero doubt in my mind that it's way better evidence than Bill Maher can produce, given that he undoubtedly got his bogus claim from either Whale.to, the infamous conspiracy-mongering Rense.com site, Vaccination Liberation, or (of course) from altie supreme Dr. Mercola. Clearly, Bill Maher has difficulty evaluating the reliability and plausibility of evidence with regard to his beliefs in unnamed "toxins" rather than microorganisms causing disease, something he's shown before when he swallowed whole the myth of Pasteur's supposed deathbed "recantation" that he was wrong, and he sure seems pretty credulous about "evidence" coming from anti-vax websites.

But that's not all. Maher also parrotted the claim that it was better sanitation, not the polio vaccine, that eliminated polio. This is simply not true. Better sanitation certainly helps eliminate such diseases, but sanitation was pretty good in the 1950's, just before the polio vaccine was developed, and polio outbreaks were still fairly common and still quite feared. (People of a certain age will remember polio scares that occurred throughout this country before the polio vaccine was developed that would shut down public swimming pools and baths.) In actuality, better sanitation may have made people more susceptible to severe complications from polio, because sanitation made sure that most people were no longer routinely exposed to the virus as children. Also going against Maher's assertion is the observation that when polio vaccination rates fall, polio returns. It's the same with other infectious diseases, like pertussis.

I've written about Bill Maher's medical wingnuttery before. Given his antivaccination statements based on no evidence or on demonstrably incorrect evidence and his support of PETA, it's hard for me to conclude now that Bill Maher, who likes to represent himself as hard-nosed "skeptic" speaking truth to power, is anything other than a total wingnut, at least when it comes to medicine. As The Uncredible Hallq points out, Maher seems far more certain about his "ability to think" than is justified based on the evidence of his own words. Worse, he's not just peddling "concerns" about vaccination or "skepticism" over whether specific vaccinations have an insufficiently favorable risk-benefit ratio to justify their use, an argument scientists and doctors sometimes make for certain vaccines. No, he's pushing a misguided belief that vaccines do more harm than good and a hostility towards vaccination in general that are both wrong-headed and just plain wrong. Vaccination represents arguably the single most effective public health intervention ever developed by "conventional" medicine. It has all but eliminated diseases that once ravaged huge swaths of this planet and will to protect billions of people from horrific diseases--that is, unless muddle-headed alties like Bill Maher have their way and persuade people that they don't need to vaccinate their children or themselves.