More bloviating by discredited Dr Wakefield

Outbreaks of  fully-preventable diseases are increasing

As reported on Thursday, April 11th in the UK paper The Independent, Swansea measles outbreak: Confirmed cases rise to nearly 700″, which is worse than than last year’s outbreak in Merseyside, England.
Over 2,600 MMR vaccines were given last week, but are still insufficient to counteract the number of unvaccinated people, or those who lack the full number of necessary dosages. Public health officials explained that the outbreak will continue to grow. (This is what is meant by “herd immunity”: there needs to be a sufficient percentage of people who are immune to prevent the spread of infection.)
And as the article reminds us,

Before the introduction of the MMR jab in 1988, about half a million children caught measles each year in the UK. Approximately 100 of those died.

But for reasons I don’t understand, Andrew Wakefield (who apparently suffers from ‘Center of Attention Deficit Disorder’*), was not just mentioned as a historical reference, due to being a pivotal figure in the paranoia that led to the drastic drop in immunisations. The front page of The Independent’s online edition for Saturday, 13 April 2013, has in its top, featured article a large photograph of him, Struck off MMR scare doctor: Welsh measles outbreak proves I was right. What in the world for?!

Why the concern over Wakefield’s opinions being published, with a newspaper’s front-page lead?

Andrew Wakefield should not be a featured person of interest for opinions. He is no longer a licensed doctor in either the UK or the US. In 2011, Medscape designated him “Worst Physician of the Year” and in 2012, Time listed him in, “Great Science Frauds”.  There is also a good editorial in the same edition of The Independent“Andrew Wakefield’s baleful legacy”.
Wakefield’s unprofessional behavior as a researcher and false assertions that MMR vaccines can lead to autism (in a 1998 article in The Lancet, later withdrawn by the journal) are  a bunch of frass (insect dung). Plus, his ongoing media attention and involvement with what initially were fringe groups, inflated such ‘antivax’ sentiments to mainstream popularity.
Vaccination rates dropped drastically, from 92% to as low as 50% in some areas. Measles outbreaks began occurring across Britain, and in 2006 for the first time in 14 years, someone died of this preventable disease.
(Similar outbreaks happened in the US as well, including mumps. In 2006 got an MMR vaccine then because I had never had mumps, nor been vaccinated for it. Even if I had, the old killed-virus mumps vaccine used when I was a child was found to be ineffective.)
Included in The Independent’s series of articles is the useful, “Timeline: How the MMR scare story spread”  by Jeremy Laurance.

The feature article: the good, the bad, and the problematic

The front-page feature by Jeremy Laurance is titled, “Struck off MMR scare doctor: Welsh measles outbreak proves I was right”. Which of course, is not true; Wakefield is just bloviating again**. As the front-page subhead reads, “Experts condemn discredited doctor’s outburst pinning the blame for the outbreak of measles in Wales on the Government as cases in the Swansea area rises”.
The linked article posted in the Health News section has a different title, “MMR scare doctor Andrew Wakefield breaks his silence: Measles outbreak in Wales proves I was right” (subhead: “As measles cases rise, experts condemn Wakefield’s outburst”), which begins with with six paragraphs of current events, then describes Wakefield’s assertions in the next eight paragraphs.
BUT, the factual counterpoints to the nonsense, clearly stated by, Adam Finn, paediatrics professor at University of Bristol, and childhood vaccines expert, are not given until afterwords, in the next nine paragraphs of the article.
Unfortunately, not everyone is going to read that far, nor stop to digest the complete refutation of all the idiocy that Wakefield said.
I think Finn’s factual material would have been more useful if presented earlier, such as a point-by-point dismissal of nonsense, e.g. ‘Wakefield claims … but Professor Flinn refutes …’
Alas, perhaps due to following the common news formula of, So-where’s-he-working-now, included this last paragraph, which unfortunately lends him what some might perceive as professional credibility:

“Dr Wakefield moved to Texas, US, in 2001 where he is director of Medical Interventions for Autism and in January was promoting a reality TV series on autism.”

Remember, Andrew Wakefield uses the title “Doctor” because he earned a degree in medicine; he is not licensed to practice medicine in either the UK or the US.
As I said, Wakefield should remain a historical warning, rather than a featured person of interest for opinions. Adding on the reasons why his comments are harmful nonsense at the end of an article are not enough to detract from the fact that all this frass is featured for free!
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* I didn’t make up the (fictional) COADD — ‘Center of Attention Deficit Disorder’, but I sure see a lot of it in our problem students (as opposed to the students with problems, who generally want to avoid being in class).
** Bloviating: a lesser-known, but useful addition to one’s vocabulary: to speak boastingly, pompously, aimlessly; as the OED says, “talk at length, especially in an inflated or empty way”

I'm picking up good fermentations

… but the Woo is giving off bad vibrations!
OhMyGosh the world is full of idiots! Tonight I was stocking over in the health foods section, which is either a great place (for our large selection of gluten-free products for coeliacs) or a magnet for all people woo-stricken.
A woman came to the grocery wanting “bread made without yeast” — I gestured to the big display of matzo (unleavened for Passover), but no, she wants loaf bread, but without yeast so her son “doesn’t get yeast infections”. I tried to explain they’re not even the same kinds of yeast, and it’d be dead after the bread’s baked anyway, but NO-O-O-O…
[facepalm]
Yeasts are a kind of fungus: yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae is necessary for yeast-breads, beer and wine fermentation.  For sourdough breads, a variety of wild yeast Candida milleri plus acid-producing bacteria Lactobacillus sanfrancisco that gives the dough the distinctive “tang”.
For our confused customer, the yeast infection [mouth, digestive tract, vagina] is from an entirely different fungus, Candida albicans.
If you’re curious, the fuzzy black stuff that grows on bread is a mold, Rhizopus nigricans. Molds are another kind of fungus. Yummy blue cheeses [Maytag blue, Dana-blu, Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton] are made possible from the mold Penicillium roqueforti or Penicillium glaucum that were naturally present in the [naturally cool] caves where the cheeses were made & aged. (Nowadays the cheese wheels are injected with the appropriate mold). A few people with Penicillin antibiotic allergy may have a reaction to blue cheeses, but the quantity of the material is so much smaller in the cheese, it is rarely a problem.
I almost mentioned yogurt as a source of probiotics  — I was “this close” — but refrained. Trying to add bacteria to her mental mix of Bad Things We Can’t Pronounce & Must Avoid would have been too much for the both of us.
Related to fungi (well, related just in the sense of small organisms helpful to food), are bacteria. Most of the bacteria that exist in the world are neutral to humans, and many are beneficial.  Only a relatively small number are responsible for bacterial infections.  Truth be told, we NEED bacteria, because they are responsible for the fermentation processes that turn raw food items into different, processed food items that have better/different flavor, are more digestible, and store for long periods of time.  Some examples of these great bacteria include: Continue reading I'm picking up good fermentations

The Silver (Smoke-) Screen

O.M.G. Last night at the grocery I was stocking non-prescription meds, and a couple came in asking for … colloidal silver! (Meaning, microfine silver dust suspended in water or another carrier.)
I was baffled; she explained that “Dr Oz” suggested it for sore throats.
“I don’t think we carry that,” I answered, somewhat stunned. “I’ve only used it in a research lab.” (In the teensiest of microdabs, to glue ultra-fine gold wire electrodes to insects.)
“Oh, it’s all-natural!” she asserted cheerfully.
Giant mental sigh and cringe on my end; lots of “all-natural” stuff can be all-naturally poisonous.
The guy with her added something to the effect of, “I bet you all don’t like Dr Oz.”
Er, I’m wary and alarmed by media personalities who promote misleading, useless and/or dangerous medical information. (Last year this celebrity was the recipient of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Media Pigasus Award.)
But I’m guessing the customer was assuming that if people use bizarre “all-natural” remedies, then stores would not sell as many manufactured remedies. Hey, if I want salicylic acid (the stuff in willow bark and spirea that acts as a pain-reliever, fever-reducer and anti-inflammatory), then I will buy it as acetylsalicylic acid, AKA aspirin, because that formulation is less harsh on the digestive system, and you know how much active ingredient you’re getting.
When one of the pharmacists was no longer directly busy with [other] customers, I went up and told him about the customer enquiry. His eyebrows danced a bit at this latest oddity.
“The only thing I’ve heard about taking colloidal silver,” I began, and then the pharmacy intern nearby then chorused with me, “Was about the guy who turned blue!”
“It bio-accumulates, doesn’t it?” I asked, and the pharmacist nodded. That of course, was why I was careful to not let any dots of the lab stuff stick to me. Plus, any clean crumbs re-deposited could be re-used, especially if I held the bottle to the vibrating vortex mixer.
Note: there are antibacterial uses for various ionic silver (Ag+) compounds, such as silver nitrate (AgNO3), but the colloidal stuff is non-ionized metallic form, which has a different biological effect. Of course, poison is always in the dosage — too much silver nitrate can be equally bad. You can read about the hazards of argyria here at the Quackwatch site.
Oh by the way — if you want an “all-natural” remedy for the ordinary sore throat, may I recommend some strong mint tea with honey?

"Attention grocery shoppers!"

“We have a special going on in our natural foods aisle, right now!  You can get your specialty questions answered by our very own over-educated scientist-grocery stocker!  That’s right, weekends and evenings only, over in our natural foods aisle!  And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”

Oh, boy.
It’s one thing to be helping someone find the curious location where the grocery manager decided to stock the barley.  No, not with the rice and beans — that’d be too easy; it’s with the bouillon.
And it’s another thing — but I get ahead of myself.  (Alas, when I do that I’m likely to trip over my own feet and sprain an ankle, but that’s hypermobility for you).
One evening, every other row of fluorescent lights was off, as was the canned music.  Apparently they were filming a commercial or some advertising stills. Whatever, we had a couple hours of bliss.  Why can’t the store be so calm and pleasant all the time?  Because the people who study customer behavior say that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe the grocery industry just thinks that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe old research suggested such.  Or maybe stores are following some historical misinterpretation of behavioral research. Hell if I know.  As for me, the canned music just adds unnecessary background noise, aggravating my Auditory Processing Disorder.  Did someone just page Manager to the Customer Service Desk or Andrea to the Customer Service Desk?  Did my boss just page me to dial 14 or aisle 14?  “Oops, sorry, mis-heard you with all the background noise,” I apologise to an older gentleman, as I lead him away from the [recycled paper] brown plates to the bran flakes.
Sometimes a customer will ask for something not on the shelf, so I helpfully zip down to the back room to see if there’s any in backstock. Usually, there isn’t, because by definition, backstock is the overflow that won’t fit on the shelves.  Alas, if I’m in a distracted mood, I will forget to make a mental note of what the customer is wearing, and upon my return, will have that panicked second when I realise that they have moved onto another aisle, and I am supposed to find them.  Oh, the perils of being faceblind: I can’t remember people!  Were they alone, or with another adult, or children?  Did they have a large or small cart?  Do I have any idea of whether they were male, female, or some overbundled or indeterminately-coiffed gender?  Were they were pink- or brown-skinned?  Hat? Fancy purse?  Team jacket?  Why can’t everyone be as distinctive as the fellow who dressed like Eddie Izzard’s less-chic sibling?
My other problem of course, is that I actually answer the questions about the things we sell.  Some day, someone is going to get annoyed.
Once in a while I stock groceries over in the natural foods section.  It’s pretty much like stocking groceries over in the unnatural foods section, except that omitting artificial coloring makes food more expensive.  That and the aisles are narrower, so I have to park the flatbed down at the ends of the aisles and lug more cases.  One day I forgot my knee pads, and realised with a heavy note of irony that stocking all the arthritis treatments was making my knees ache.
“Um, where do you sell the sugar?”
“The sugar?” I repeat, buying a moment’s time while I re-engage my customer-conversation scripts, and activate my mental map of the store.
“Yes, I want the sugar without any chemicals.”
Omigod.  Aside from bottled water, the bags of sugar are probably one of the purest chemical resources in the entire store.
“But sugar is just sucrose; it doesn’t have any added chemicals,”  I manage to shut my mouth before going onto explain that sucrose is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose.  Nobody cares … “Here are our organically-grown sugars on this shelf.  And we also have sucanat and turbinado, if you’d like.”  (These latter two are less-processed forms of cane sugar; they have varying amounts of tasty molasses impurities that also make them brown.)
Honestly, a “chemical” is simply a substance with a defined composition.    You already know what H2O is.  Sucrose is C12H22O11 – there are 12 Carbon molecules, 22 Hydrogen molecules and 11 Oxygen molecules.  Of course, just knowing how many atoms of each element isn’t enough – other sugars such as lactose and maltose also have the same formula.  The differences are in how those atoms are arranged.
And if you’re shopping for plant fertilizer, a nitrate is a nitrate is a nitrate, and they’re all NO3-. The plant doesn’t care where the molecules came from, nor can it tell the difference if the nitrate came from an organic (naturally-derived) source or an artificially-manufactured source.  That said, organic fertilizers are more expensive and less concentrated, but are less likely to result in a build-up of salts atop the potting soil.
But please, don’t ask me for anything “chemical-free”; the only thing that is “chemical free” is an absolute vacuum.
I retrieve random things left on the shelves, where someone has left a box of Big Name mac & cheese amongst the organic mac & cheese, a shopping list, a wee sample cup given out by the guy flogging new flavors of hummus, and a box of Airborne.
“What does that do?” asks the other grocery stocker, gesturing at the colorful box that proclaimed, “Created by a school teacher!”
“Nothing.  There’s no research evidence to support it at all.  A grade-school teacher is not the same thing as a compounding pharmacologist.”  Were I in charge of ordering, we wouldn’t waste shelf space for nonsense like that, or for things like Bragg vinegar that is supposed to “help remove body sludge toxins”.  Body sludge toxins, what nonsense!  (I suppose it’d help the lime buildup in my sink drain.)
“Excuse me, where are your all-natural gummy candies?”
Because you know, gummy candies are so natural. Wow, I’d love to have a shrub that produced gummies, especially the cherry and liquorice sorts.  Does the soil have to be aerated by gummy worms?  I hope it’s not thorny …  “They’re over here, on the top shelf.  Is there anything else for which you’re looking?”

“Attention grocery shoppers!  Are you looking for holiday candy and merchandise?  You can find it all over in aisle 14, where we have a wide selection of holiday candies in Fun Sizes, all your same favorites as the last holiday, but wrapped in this holiday’s color themes!  Don’t forget to get some holiday-themed merchandise for your loved ones, and holiday-themed party goods as well. And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”

The sum of good intentions

Feel free to insert the more familiar or acceptable word of your choice.  But regardless of your word choice, the equation stands:

Good Intentions plus Bullshit still equals Bullshit

It doesn’t matter if you are a parent earnestly trying to help your child improve lagging developmental skills — if the information you are disseminating to newbies or news agencies is based upon bogus treatments and world-wide conspiracy theories, then the information you are giving others is still bullshit. (Example: vaccines cause autism and/or dozens of unproven “cures” for all sorts of developmental/educational difficulties.)
It doesn’t matter if you are an elected official trying to get funding for projects that could potentially improve the local economy — if your cherry-picked “experts” assert that there are no ecological problems, but the overwhelming majority of experts from agencies around the world say there will be serious consequences, then your assertions are still bullshit.  (Example: Sarah Palin on global warming, oil pipelines, and polar bears.)
It doesn’t matter if you are a news reporter trying to ensure “balanced coverage” of a story by quoting from “both sides” — when one of those “sides” lacks credibility and just presents distraught protagonists ranting over perceived injustices because fact-based reality keeps intruding upon belief systems based upon magical thinking and millenia-old folk tales, then your editorial judgment is weak and the news is full of bullshit.  Respecting others’ feelings and beliefs does not mean that those should usurp sound legislative, educational or economic practices, or be allowed to trump everyone’s civil rights.  (Example, Creationism/Intelligent Design being taught in science classes.)
Nope; the earnestness and good intentions part cannot gloss over the huge piles of bullshit.  Crap is still crap, and the best thing we can do with crap is to put it with the rest of the dead stuff and compost it, until the bacteria and worms and arthropods have broken it down into something useful.

Skeptic's Circle #85: Looking under rocks

It’s amazing what you can find if you start looking under rocks. You can find isopods, fossils, a spare key to the front door, ant colonies, Hitler Zombies … and of course, the inevitable proof of physics (F = m*a) if you stumble and “OW!”

Today the Skeptic’s Circle meets out on the rocky plain to see what we can dig up. We are sure to not be disappointed. Of course, the whole Expelled nonsense is fresh in our minds and as we unpack our gear. Blake Stacey pauses to point out, “Open your mouth about evolution around the wrong people, though, and you can find yourself harassed, ejected from your job and even beaten in the street.” The long list of instructors and others mentioned is alarming.

Before our expedition falters, Joe Dunckley lightheartedly shares Continue reading Skeptic's Circle #85: Looking under rocks

Wicked Good funnies

Two short things I want to post before I get distracted (again!):
BigHeathenMike put up a riotously funny edition of The Skeptic’s Circle: “Every One Of You Is Expelled!”, narrated by Ben Stein, if that is his real name. Probably should be rated NSFW, if only from the coffee-spew LOL potential.
The second is the funniest prank I’ve ever seen; it’s clever and tongue-in-cheek rather than mean. Safe for work, silent YouTube video with captions.
TIP:  This vid seems to “stick” a few seconds in; just pull the thermometer bubble to the right a millimeter or two. 
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBJQ5085kSo]

Two more species of Fallacies

After you’ve become familiar with a variety of stupid political arguments or with spotting pseudo-science, you find yourself making a mental game of it: Name That Fallacy. It’s gratifying to know that there are terms for the sorts of things that used to “make your brain all hurty” because you knew they were wrong. Such terms are a great time-saver in discussions: being able to assign those names means that others know what you’re talking about, and that you don’t have to explain why the fallacious thinking is not correct.
But every now and then I run into something that cannot be easily defined by a term. Such things may be multifactorial in the numbers of cognitive biases and argumentative fallacies; there’s no one reason why the reasoning is bad. But boy, are they off the mark!
Right now, I have two fallacies I would like to discuss. (Maybe there are names for these that I’ve not yet run into — let me know; they could be from fields that I’m not well-versed in.)

~ I ~

I call this first sort of über-fallacy-bias Continue reading Two more species of Fallacies

Just bothering, telling you so,

We’re past the mid-week “hump”, but the weekend is still just a calendar square after Pi Day. However shall we slog through?!
Fear not, for salvation is at hand, or at least something profoundly mind-bending. (Given the shape of some of our minds, that’s probably best.) Hie ye’self on over to Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes for The Genesis of the 82nd Edition of the Skeptic’s Circle.
“Be there or be dodecahedral.”