Thursday, June 30, 2005

A creationist response to antibiotic resistance?

Here's an amusing take on how creationists might deal with the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance. After all, blaming bacterial resistance to antibiotics on something like evolution by natural selection (the selective agent being the antibiotic, of course) just won't do, will it? Instead, better to let the Creationist Patrol deal with it...

(Via Pharyngula.)

Skeptico finds more RFK Jr. quote-mining

I've been slamming RFK Jr. over the last few weeks for shoddy, one-sided research and quote-mining in his infamous article from a couple of weeks ago, Deadly Immunity, in which he swallowed whole all the mercury-autism hysteria and postulated dire conspiracies on the part of the CDC and IOM to "cover up" the supposed link. I started the ball rolling by pointing out an example of RFK Jr.'s brand of highly selective quoting, and Skeptico took it further by reading the entire Simpsonwood transcript (warning: link to large PDF file) and showing how selectively it was quoted out of context in order to give an impression of a whitewash.

Well, now, challenged by a commenter on the Institute of Medicine report (warning: link to a large PDF file) to "explain to me how these quotes are taken out of context as the IOM president would like us to believe," Skeptico has waded through the report and done just that. He's shown that RFK Jr. didn't confine his deceptively selective quoting to just the Simpsonwood transcript. He applied the same technique to the IOM report, taking quotes out of context to make them sound conspiratorial, as if scientists were trying to hide something. Naturally, it's enraged and frustrated Skeptico, and I can entirely sympathize with his rant at the end:
OK, that’s it. Enough! The conspiracy believers have taken their best shot – and that was your best shot – and neither document quoted by Kennedy shows any conspiracy or cover-up. And frankly, taking a few out-of-context quotes from a 199 page transcript as proof of a conspiracy is pretty stupid anyway, but when the transcript reveals a group of honest scientists trying, with integrity, to grapple a difficult problem, it gets beyond stupid and is just thoroughly dishonest. It’s pathetic, frankly. If there really was a cover up, wouldn’t they have something better than this?

No more. Don’t bother throwing down a url linking to a huge .pdf with a couple of dodgy quotes in it and expecting me to read it. That’s over now.

Wow. First he wades through the entire Simpsonwood transcript in record time, and now he wades through the entire IOM report in similarly record time. I'm impressed, but somehow have to wonder if he needs to get a bit more of a life.

Just kidding--although the three-day Fourth of July weekend is coming up soon.

I also wonder if that means I'm now going to have to try to wade through more of these transcripts; I've just barely finished the Simpsonwood transcript--and that was two weeks in coming....

A scientific creation story

Although I've been slamming the Huffington Post lately for buying into the mercury-autism scare-mongering wholeheartedly, I can't help but give it credit for publishing a column by Michael Shermer. This week, Shermer gives us a scientific creation story. I can't help but think he's being a bit tongue-in-cheek:
...And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that hath life, the fishes. And God created great whales whose skeletal structure and physiology were homologous with the land mammals he would create later that day. Since this caused confusion in the valley of the shadow of doubt God brought forth abundantly all creatures, great and small, declaring that microevolution was permitted, but not macroevolution. And God said, “Natura non facit saltum”—Nature shall not make leaps. And the evening and morning were the fifth day.

And God created the pongidids and hominids with 98 percent genetic similarity, naming two of them Adam and Eve, who were anatomically fully modern humans. In the book in which God explained how He did all this, in chapter one He said he created Adam and Eve together out of the dust at the same time, but in chapter two He said He created Adam first, then later created Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs. This caused further confusion in the valley of the shadow of doubt, so God created Bible scholars and theologians to argue the point.

And in the ground placed He in abundance teeth, jaws, skulls, and pelvises of transitional fossils from pre-Adamite creatures. One he chose as his special creation He named Lucy. And God realized this was confusing, so he created paleoanthropologists to sort it out. And just as He was finishing up the loose ends of the creation God realized that Adam’s immediate descendants who lived as farmers and herders would not understand inflationary cosmology, global general relativity, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, biochemistry, paleontology, population genetics, and evolutionary theory, so He created creation myths. But there were so many creation stories throughout the land that God realized this too was confusing, so he created anthropologists, folklorists, and mythologists to settle the issue.
Alas, it would appear that some people refuse to listen.

Herbs vs. homeopathy

Last week, I was in the recovery room of the Same Day Surgery Unit, having completed my last case of the day. While I was sitting at the computer entering postoperative orders, I overheard a conversation. A middle-aged woman, who appeared to be a relative of one patient lying in one of the recovery bays, was speaking to the patient's nurse. She was expounding in great length and detail about the herbal and homeopathic remedies that she favored, with the nurse politely listening, but with a slight tightening of her mouth that told me she was probably thinking, " I wish this lady would shut up, already." Then the woman said something that I actually found myself agreeing with, although not for the reason this woman would think:

"Remember, homeopathic remedies and herbal remedies are two completely different things."

Believe it or not, I agree with that. A few herbal remedies might actually have a therapeutic benefit, mainly because some herbs contain pharmacologically active compounds that work like drugs (albeit in amounts that vary markedly from batch to batch, making herbs an unreliable source of active drugs). Indeed, many of our drugs are chemically altered versions of active molecules found in nature, usually in plants. For example, Taxol, a chemotherapy drug used to fight breast cancer and a variety of other tumors, comes from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree, Taxus brevifolia. Another drug, digoxin is derived from the foxglove plant, and the list goes on and on. In marked contrast, homeopathic remedies by their very definition don't contain any active ingredients, at least not at any concentration that could possibly have pharmacologic activity. This makes homeopathic remedies completely worthless, the claims of its advocates that somehow the water used to dilute the solution retains a "memory" of the active ingredient that was diluted out notwithstanding.

Remember, if a "homeopathic remedy" actually contains any active ingredient whatsoever, after all, then by the homeopathic Law of Infinitesimals, it is not really "homeopathic" at all!

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The 31st Meeting of the Tangled Bank Society

Join David Winters at Science and Sensibility for the 31st Meeting of the Tangled Bank Society, a gathering of scientific bloggers presenting their findings to their peers:
Welcome to day one of the 31st meeting of the Tangled Bank Society. As you know the Tangled Bank meeting offers a chance for scientists and scientific communicators working in disparate fields to get together and talking about what they are up to, what drives them and what they find interesting Below is a schedule for today's session which is being held in the Winter Lecture Theatre. Each presentation is identified by title which is followed by the author's name and the institution the presenter is representing. As you will note the schedule for today is pretty full so we encourage you to make any comments to presenters in person following their presentation. Enjoy the talks and we hope to see all of you at tomorrow night's banquet!
It's a fine collection of the best science blogging from the last two weeks. My only question is: What's on the schedule for Day #2?

A brief Cablevision rant

Allow me a moment to vent today.

I've come to hate Cablevision.

Oh, I like its high speed Internet access service, Optimum Online. It's blazing fast and generally reliable, albeit a tad on the pricey side, but as a cable TV company Cablevision is the pits. It suffers from all the problems of a monopoly: high prices, piss-poor customer service, and a lack of certain channels that most other cable companies in my area routinely provide as part of basic or enhanced basic packages, such as Turner Classic Movies (available from Cablevision only in the most expensive digital package), BBC America, or Trio.

I was reminded the other day of one of the reasons (well, several, actually) that I hate this company so much. We have two TVs, one in our family room and one upstairs in our bedroom. The cable signal to the TV in our family room has always worked pretty well. In contrast, the the one in our bedroom has been dicey almost from day one, but ever since we switched to digital cable it's always been a problem. Channels pixelate badly, freeze, and the box even turns off and reboots seemingly at random. Often, channels don't even come through at all, and I know it's not the box, because hooking the same box up to our other TV does not result in the same problems. Similarly, rebooting the box repeatedly didn't help. Because we mostly only watched the 11 PM news and Letterman when up there, it didn't bother us too much, mainly because it was usually the premium channels that did this. Besides, both my wife and I work, and taking an afternoon or morning off to wait for the cable guy just never seemed to be worth the pain it would take to get one to come out. Several calls to customer service and going through troubleshooting routines didn't help. I was convinced it was the cable connection, because our other connection worked fine, suggesting that a service call might require major rejiggering of the cable itself. Worse, many months ago, I scheduled a service call to deal with this very problem, and the repair guy never showed up. I was fed up.

Basically we just lived with it, with me occasionally making calls and going through trouble-shooting routines that either didn't work or only marginally (and briefly) helped. A few weeks ago, though, the broadcast channels started doing the same, and the other day, after procrastinating and taking the temporary measure of occasionally hooking the cable directly into the TV (which gained back the broadcast channels but lost the digital channels), I finally got fed up enough to do something about it. I called customer service.

Big mistake.

First off, since the last time I went through this, Cablevision has added an annoying computerized "customer service" system that speaks to you with "artificial intelligence" using a creepily inhuman sounding female voice, much like the system Sprint PCS uses when you call customer service. "She" sounds like a female version of HAL 9000. I hated that system enough, but at least you can get past Sprint's electronic gatekeeper if you use the right phrase or just request a representative. Not so this electronic gatekeeper Cablevision has employed, whom I'm now dubbing "She-HAL 9000" and whose dedication to keeping you the customer from getting through to a real human being rivals the tenacity of Heimdall in guarding the Bifrost Bridge and preventing trespassers from entering Asgard. A horde of enraged frost giants could be trying to get past this electronic fortress wall, and their catapult projectiles would bounce harmlessly back, rebounding on them with devastating power.

But enough of the Norse mythology references, as much as I like them.

"Hello," said She-HAL 9000. "Tell me what your problem is."

"My picture is pixelating and even freezing up."

"Please repeat." I repeated it. "I didn't get that. I'm going to list some complaints. Please repeat the complaint when you hear it." She (it?) listed five or six problems, none of which quite fit my problem. I picked one that was the closest and ran with it.

What followed were 15 minutes of ever increasing frustration. My temper and blood pressure steadily rose as I tried to go through this damnable system. The computer had me reboot the cable box twice. The first time, as I waited for the box to reboot, the she-HAL 9000 "helpfully" kept telling me that it could take "several minutes" for the box to start up. (Thanks, I never would have guessed that myself.) After I rebooted, it asked me if the problem was fixed. I said no. So it went through the same troubleshooting routine again! My answers slowly got louder and more insistent and then finally more laced with profanity. I was beginning to feel like Sysiphus, pushing the stone up the hill, feeling as though I was getting closer to the Holy Grail of finally talking to an actual live human being, only to have it roll down again. Unfortunately, She-HAL 9000 was impervious to my best cussing, which usually resulted in a reply along the lines of "please repeat."

I did. With gusto. (Never mind what cussing like a longshoreman at a computer says about me.)

Finally, after the troubleshooting didn't work again, the machine asked, "Would you like to speak to a customer service representative?"

"YES!" I bellowed.

Finally, a live human being, capable of understanding more than a few preprogrammed phrases! Of course, by this time, I was in such a thoroughly foul mood that, had I been more in control of myself, I would have realized that this could only end badly. Either that, or what was to come probably wouldn't have irritated me nearly as much. Nonetheless, I tried to compose myself and explain my problem, after pithily (I thought, anyway) pointing out to him why Cablevision's new electronic gatekeeper was an object worthy of derision and destruction.

That's when things got off on an even worse foot, when he said, "Well, if you don't want to do what it takes to take care of this..."

If I don't want to do what it takes? If I don't want to do what it takes. I pay this damned company well over $1,000 a year for cable and Internet access, and they expect me to jump through hoops and run the proverbial electronic gauntlet to get service when their crappy product isn't working?

I restrained myself, but it took a Herculean effort. When I got to the end of my explanation, the customer service representative, in his infinite wisdom, sized up the situation, and asked me what model number cable box I had. I told him. "Do you turn your cable box off at night?" He said.

"No. Why do you ask?"

"Well, there's your problem," he said, in a condescending tone.

"There's no way that's the problem," I said, "because I have tried turning off the cable box for extended periods of time and rebooting. I've tried all sorts of permutations, with no effect."

"I'm telling you, that's probably the problem."

"Don't insult my intelligence." I finally muttered, exasperated.

"I'm not insulting your intelligence," he said cooly. "I'm just giving you information about your cable box."

Now I was really pissed. Was he really telling me that (1) despite the fact that I had told him that I've turned this box off many times for hours at a time that doing it again one more time would fix a problem that none of the previous shutdowns did or (2) that Cablevision was using boxes so ridiculously badly designed, so primitive, that they have to be turned off overnight or they cease to work properly until they are? I couldn't tell, but either option painted a very bad picture of the company. It's either moronic customer service or bad equipment (or both). Never mind that the installation guy never mentioned anything of the sort, and there's nothing in the cable box instruction manual saying anything of the sort. I went back and forth with this guy, trying to restrain my temper and avoid losing it. This guy wasn't worth it. Finally, he said dismissively, "I have an appointment aon Friday between 2 and 5 PM. Do you want someone to come out?"

"I'll take it," I growled into the phone, knowing that I would be at work. I didn't care. I could always change the appointment later; Cablevision does have a phone menu option that lets you reschedule already scheduled appointments, as I had found out in previous encounters. It's only to make the first appointment to have someone come out to check it out in the first place that you have run the gauntlet of She-HAL 9000 and then the cable version of David Spade's impassable receptionist, the one who wouldn't let Jesus Himself pass. I will admit, though, that, if I could have reached through the phone, down the line, to the switching station, and to the customer rep's phone, grabbed him by the lapels, and pulled him through to face him, I would have, just so I could cuss him out face to face and give him an eye-gouge, Moe-style. But why bother? Just get the cable guy out to our house and forget the annoying customer service flack.

And, in case you're wondering, out of curiosity, I did do what the David Spade wannabe recommended and turned off the cable box overnight. Guess what?

The picture was even worse in the morning.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A fellow MD scores a takedown!

RangelMD is on a roll. First, he gave Bill Frist the major thrashing that he deserved for his behavior with respect to the Terri Schiavo case, as I mentioned last week.

Now he's joined the fight against the antiscience known as "intelligent design" creationism. It's not often that you see a more dedicated medblogger like RangelMD take on "intelligent design" creationism, but I find it quite heartening to see. (I only say "more dedicated medblogger mainly in comparison to me, because Respectful Insolence is rather like a Frankenblog; it's the medical/science/history/skepticism/silly rants blog, whereas RangelMD tends to stick more closely to medicine and medical science.) A choice excerpt:
Not only are they stuck without any direct evidence of intelligent design (ID) but also proponents of ID don't have a viable theory on exactly how God implemented her design into the universe. Any proposed mechanism paints them into a corner. If the universe was designed at the start and put into motion then God is a metaphysical being and thus beyond our ability to prove or disprove her existence beyond that of a concept. If God directly manipulates her creation on the go then where is the evidence for supernatural activity (i.e. a corporeal event completely unexplainable by conventional science)? If any supernatural manipulation of nature is beyond the ability of science to detect then we are back to square one in which ID is just another philosophy. If we can't directly prove anything about the activities of God then ID proponents must accept the fact that their theory has exactly as much weight as Flying Spaghetti Monsterism!
Nice takedown, and welcome to the fight, Chris. I might have to add an appropriately rephrased version of this paragraph to my Reply to a 14-year-old creationist.

Grand Rounds XL

Grand Rounds XL has been posted at Health Business Blog. It's yet more more medical blogging goodness all gathered into one nice easily digestible package. It should be enough to satisfy even the geekiest docs around here. Check it out.

RINO sightings (not to mention eminent domain)

The very first ever edition of RINO sitings, a forum where secular and moderate conservatives who are being driven away from the Republican Party by the loonier elements of the right wing (creationists, religious fundamentalists, etc.), has been posted at SayUncle. As they say, it's Republican, without all the crazy (well, mostly, anyway; a few of these guys are still quite a bit farther to the right than me). In any case, I joined the RINOs because it is at least attempting to provide a forum for secular moderate conservatives like myself.

One post I do agree with 100% is this attack on the recent Supreme Court ruling on eminent domain. As Barry puts it:
As a practical matter, this means that you've got good title to your property, and the right of ownership, as long as there isn't a politically connected developer in your hometown who'd like to build a Wal-Mart where your family home sits now.
Sadly, unless you live in a state that has stronger protections against eminent domain seizures than the U.S. Constitution (which, given this ruling, is now essentially no protection at all), Barry is not exaggerating.

Besides my belief that property rights are fundamental rights in a democracy, meaning that the government should not be able , this issue also resonates with me because of what happened 24 years ago in my hometown of Detroit. In 1981, General Motors and the cities of Detroit and Hamtramck collaborated to displace 4,200 people from their homes in a neighborhood known as Poletown in order to build a new auto plant. In essence, Detroit and Hamtramck used eminent domain to seize private property to give to another private entity, setting a standard that served as the basis for other governments to justify making similar property transfers to private entities for stadiums and the like. Last year, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the Poletown seizures unlawful and placed limits on the rights of state and local governments to use eminent domain to seize land, a significant victory against abuse of eminent domain.

Too bad the U.S. Supreme Court couldn't have seen its way to do the same. At least in the Poletown case, the actions of Detroit and Hamtramck, although an example of the abuse of eminent domain, are somewhat understandable. It was the middle of the deep recession of the 1980's, and unemployment rates were in the double digits. Anything that could create badly needed manufacturing jobs was highly tempting, even if the cost was the destruction of an old ethnic neighborhood. The Connecticut case that the Supreme Court ruled on was a land grab to transfer property to wealthy developers for "economic development" and increased tax receipts.

It would appear that the title to your house now means very little if the government decides it would generate more tax revenue as an office park or a hotel.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Mercury and autism: More Huffington Post nonsense

A few days ago, I linked to a great article on the Huffington Post by Michael Shermer defending evolution and pointing out the weaknesses in "intelligent design" creationism. Unfortunately, I spoke too soon. Remember how much I bored you all with my broadsides against the antivaccine paranoia running rampant on the Huffington Post (1, 2, 3, 4)? Well, the paranoia is back with a vengeance (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). I guess that's what I get for not looking for this stuff on the Huffington Post for a week or two and for writing my piece about the Michael Shermer article several days before actually posting it.

I should have expected this, though, after RFK Jr.'s one-sided deceptive screed against the pharmaceutical companies blaming mercury in vaccines for autism and crying coverup, the one that I've been pounding on for the last 10 days or so (1, 2, 3, 4). In fact, I was sort of wondering why our favorite conspiracy-mongering pediatrician from the Huffington Post, Dr. Jay Gordon, hadn't yet weighed in on this issue. I toyed with the idea that perhaps he had been so taken aback by the blog tag team slapdown administered to him by myself and Skeptico (1, 2) for his irritating tendencies to take the irrational position of ignoring out of hand any research funded by pharmaceutical companies simply because they were funded by pharmaceutical companies and to give backhanded "compliments" to the principle investigators of such studies by calling them "honest" while simultaneously insinuating that they're hoplessly biased because of their connections to big pharma without being able to point out any specific flaws in their studies.

No such luck. He's like the Energizer Bunny on this issue. He keeps going and going and going and going....

In his post, No Conflict of Interest, Dr. Gordon not surprisingly swallows whole all the distortions and conspiracy-mongering that RFK Jr. could lay down and completely buys into RFK Jr.'s complaint that ABC News changed a more positive segment to an attack piece at the behest of its pharmaceutical advertiser masters. Quoth he (with Orac's pithy comments):
Mercury in vaccines causes autism and other brain injury. [Orac says: There is no good evidence that mercury in vaccines cause autism. Indeed, the most recent experience from Canada and Denmark strongly supports the contention that it very likely does not. The jury's out on other brain injury, but, based on current evidence, the likelihood of a connection there is also probably low.] The IOM twisted the facts to suit the CDC and the vaccine industry. [Orac says: Care to provide evidence for that assertion that, Dr. Gordon? Certainly RFK Jr. failed to do so and was reduced to twisting facts and misrepresenting the Simpsonwood Conference to make his fallacious case.]
This week, ABC TV (my old employer) twisted the editing and commentary to weaken Mr. Kennedy's interview. [Orac says: Care to provide evidence that it was intentional "twisting" and "editing" designed to "weaken" his interview? Of course, Orac can't help but savor the utterly delicious irony of RFK Jr., who proved himself to be a master at selective quoting in the service of making the Simpsonwood Conference seem ominous and conspiratorial, now complaining about his supposedly being selectively quoted by ABC News!] For ABC TV, hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue are at stake and they were irresponsible with the lives and health of children at risk. They should be ashamed of themselves. [Orac says: I have two words for you, Dr. Gordon: Vioxx and Merck. Gee, the mighty pharmaceutical company didn't seem able to stop the barrage of negative publicity from the press on that story. Yep, the fear of losing advertising revenue really shut 'em up that time. Even in the absence of that example, perhaps you could show us some hard evidence, rather than speculation, that ABC News altered its story for fear of losing pharmaceutical company revenue. Just a little evidence? Even a tiny bit? You can do that for a fellow M.D., can't you?]
Yes, once again, Dr. Gordon insinuates conflicts of interest and dire conspiracies without showing the least bit of evidence. Of course, the funniest line in Dr. Gordon's post is this one: "David Kirby's book, Evidence of Harm is meticulously-researched and a great read." Just ask Autism Diva, Aubrey Noelle Simola, Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, or Kevin Leitch (1, 2) about how "meticulously researched" it is. A lot of references and a nice index do not necessarily indicate "meticulous research," just voluminous research. It is quite possible to do a ton of research and come up with an utterly incorrect conclusion if you berry-pick the data and ignore data that does not support your thesis, as certain political pundits have proven time and time again.

Speaking of David Kirby, though, he's also now over at the Huffington Post blog bellicosely braying, Bring It On to his "naysayers," gloating, and taking credit for getting this whole media firestorm started in the first place:
We have just witnessed the biggest week ever in the history of reporting on this high-stakes debate and, naturally, I could not be happier. A nationwide discussion about thimerosal and autism was my primary goal in writing “Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic,” and at long last the conversation has begun.
At least Kirby finally admitted his bias openly.

In any case, Kirby also boasts of his media appearances on Don Imus' show, the Montel Williams Show, and MSNBC's Connected, bragging about how difficult it has been for him to find someone willing to "debate" him on the issue in a public forum. He's being disingenuous, of course, as this is a very old tactic frequently used by purveyors of dubious science. Although orders of magnitude more dubious than the science behind the mercury-autism link (which is why I make this comparison with a bit of trepidation), "intelligent design" creationism does provide some guidance here. Creationists have long "challenged" scientists to "debates" on evolution and then used the absence of takers as "proof" that scientists are "afraid" to debate them. Besides the fact that such debates are almost always held in venues sympathetic to the pseudoscience (which is very relevant to the case at hand, given that Don Imus, who has been pushing the mercury/autism link on his radio show, will likely host the proposed debate), creationists know that just standing on the same stage or sitting in the same TV or radio studio with a serious scientist automatically gives the impression that they have something scientifically valid to say and that there is a real controversy. Scientists have been arguing amongst themselves for years whether or not it helps or hurts the case for evolution and against ID in the public's mind if they formally "debate" creationists in public forums. Many of the same arguments for and against "debate" apply to David Kirby's challenge. Scientists have learned the hard way that advocates of dubious science like David Kirby and RFK Jr. are often quite good at media-friendly sound bites, whereas debunking those sound bites often requires lengthier (and therefore less glib) responses. As Lenny Flank puts it in reference to creationism:
For this reason, the "debate" is one of the ICR's [Institute for Creation Research] primary tools. . . Nearly all of their opponents make the fatal mistake of underestimating them. . . They [ICR debaters] are highly educated people who possess enormous personal appeal and charisma. They are also highly skilled orators and polished debaters. . . As master showmen, however, they are very capable of turning an unprepared scientific opponent into the equivalent of a blithering idiot.
I don't know if David Kirby falls into the above category as far as his public speaking and debating skills go, but any vaccine scientist who contemplates accepting his challenge to debate would do well to heed Lenny's warning, particularly since the proposed venue (Imus in the Morning) will be so hostile. (At least Imus is on vacation until July 11.) If I were the pharmaceutical executive who, according to Kirby, has accepted his challenge, I'd insist on a change of venue to a show with a more neutral host.

Finally, there was one useful link in Dr. Gordon's post to demonstrate yet again RFK Jr.'s disingenuousness, a fawning Scarborough Country interview. Check out this quote:
Thimerosal is a preservative that was put in vaccines back in the 1930s. Almost immediately after it was put in, autism cases began to appear. Autism had never been known before. It was unknown to science. Then the vaccines were increased in 1989 by the CDC and by a couple of other government agencies.
I've already dealt with this utterly idiotic "correlation does not necessarily indicate causation" canard before, as well as the myth that autism didn't exist before thimerosal-containing vaccines were introduced in the 1930's. Shall I repeat myself? Yes I shall:
No, the reason the disease was "unknown" until 1943 was because it was not described as a specific condition by Dr. Leo Kanner until 1943, after which Dr. Hans Asperger described a similar condition that now bears his name in 1944. Before that, although Dr. Eugen Bleuler had coined the term "autism" in 1911, no specific diagnostic criteria existed for the disease. Even for decades after 1943 autism was not infrequently confused with mental retardation or schizophrenia, and over the last two decades the diagnostic criteria for autism and autism spectum disorders have been widened.
To which I now shall add: It goes back way further than that. There are published accounts of behavior that resembles autism in the 18th century. In the 18th and 19th century, there were many accounts of idiot savants, many of whom were likely autistic or had Asperger's. There are even some who speculate that Sir Isaac Newton may have had Asperger's, although I'm not sure I entirely buy their argument. Does RFK Jr. really mean to argue that autism and ASDs just popped up almost overnight a few years after mercury was introduced into vaccines? These diseases most definitely did not. They've probably been around as long as humans have been around; it's just that before the mid 20th century sufferers of these diseases were relegated to insane asylums, lumped together with the mentally retarded and schizophrenics, used as entertainment in freak shows, or simply labeled as "odd" or even "mad." RFK Jr. only shoots himself in the foot and makes himself look a fool by constantly repeating such an easily debunked canard.

RFK Jr. even repeated his misrepresentation of the Simpsonwood Meeting:
And we now have the transcripts of the secret meeting that they did in Simpsonwood, Georgia, in the year 2000.

And it's the most horrifying thing that you can read, Joe. There are scientists there from the government who are saying — who are reading the reports and saying, this is undeniable. There's no way we can ever deny this. I am not going to give this to my children, but now let's hide this from the American people. And it's that clear. And this is what I write about. It's this language that I write about in the "Rolling Stone" and the "Salon" piece that is so shocking, where we have the guys who are supposed to be protecting Americans` health who are actually conspiring to keep this stuff in the vaccines.

RFK Jr., meet Skeptico and Majikthise. Majikthise and Skeptico, meet RFK, Jr. You should all have a lot to talk about, such as what really happened at Simpsonwood, rather than RFK Jr.'s paranoid account. Finally, RFK Jr. stated that he was going to write an article that would go through "all the science" around the thimerosal/autism issue. I assume it's this article (which I haven't had time to read yet, given that it's 66 pages long). Fortunately, Skeptico and Autism Diva have had time to look at it and begin the necessary deconstruction. It looks as though RFK Jr.'s probably going to be the gift to skeptical bloggers that keeps on giving, requiring periodic debunkings.

Unfortunately, I'm becoming more concerned than ever that we are entering a time when good science is too easily cast aside and ignored. As a a surprisingly good recent New York Times article about thimerosal/autism controversy stated:
Yet despite all evidence to the contrary, the number of parents who blame thimerosal for their children's autism has only increased. And in recent months, these parents have used their numbers, their passion and their organizing skills to become a potent national force. The issue has become one of the most fractious and divisive in pediatric medicine.

"This is like nothing I've ever seen before," Dr. Melinda Wharton, deputy director of the National Immunization Program, told a gathering of immunization officials in Washington in March. "It's an era where it appears that science isn't enough."
Indeed it is, and, sadly, not just for the issue of whether thimerosal in vaccines causes autism. This dubious and excessive focus on mercury as a cause of autism frightens parents unnecessarily about the safety of vaccination and drops a load of guilt parents with autistic children who did vaccinate their children, making them wonder if they caused their children's condition. Worse, it wastes scientists' and legislators' time and effort and diverts money from research that might actually get us closer to understanding the pathogenesis of this disease and offering real hope to parents with ASDs.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

And on the seventh day, the Hitler zombie rested (I hope)

The Hitler zombie's been a busy undead Führer the last three weeks (1, 2, 3, 4), and it's time (I hope) for him to go back into his coffin for a while, assuming the politicians and pundits so enamored of letting him out don't open the casket again. But, before I nail the lid shut on this undead eater of politicians' brains, I thought it was worth briefly answering one question that was asked in the comments of his last appearance:

But again I ask, to whom should he [Durbin] compare the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo?

A fair question, and here's my answer:

A more appropriate comparison for the abuses at Gitmo would be "banana republic" authoritarian regimes like Manuel Noriega's, Fidel Castro's, or regimes like those of our erstwhile "allies" Pakistan or Egypt. Even these would still be somewhat overblown comparisons, but they wouldn't be nearly as ridiculously overblown.

Now that I've answered that, something else came to mind. The Hitler zombie is such a great device, that I'm sure I'll have reason to open the coffin and let him out again from time to time. Given that, I thought it would be cool to have an actual picture of a Hitler zombie to use as a graphic. I did a Google picture search, but all I could find were the pictures I've posted here. I rather like the Robot Brain vs. Hitler's Corpse graphic, but I don't think the zombie Hitler should be carrying a gun. His weapon is his ability to eat the brains of politicians and pundits; he needs no other.

So, if anyone knows where any good Hitler zombie pictures can be found (or pictures that could be easily altered to become Hitler zombie pictures), let me know. Who knows? If I get a chance, I may even have a little fun with Photoshop, although I'm not that talented with it. Of course, if anyone out there is really creative, I would be more than grateful to see your creation.
For now, though, it's time for the Hitler zombie to go back to his unnatural sleep for a while (hopefully a long while). There he will stay in his underground resting place. There's no doubt that he will return again someday, but for now, he is satiated. Until someone like Charlie Rangel, Rick Santorum, Dick Durbin, or anyone else revives him, let's be grateful for a break from the hyperbole. But, believe me, the shambling, rotting corpse of the deceased Führer will be ready and waiting--as always.

ADDENDUM: Argh! Josh Rosenau has pointed out another victim of the brain-eating Hitler zombie, Rachael Lea Hunter, a candidate for Supreme Court Justice in North Carolina. Apparently the undead Führer somehow managed to grab a little snack on the side while I wasn't looking. I'll have to keep a closer eye on the sneaky little bastard!

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Tom Cruise in meltdown

I think that Scientology has finally affected Cruise's brain, perhaps irreparably. I really do. Want evidence? Read this hilarious transcript of Tom Cruise's interview with Matt Lauer last week. He calls psychiatry a "pseudoscience" and tries to justify his statement that Brooke Shields shouldn't have used antidepressants to treat her postpartum depression. Repeatedly claiming that he "knows the history of psychiatry," Cruise fallaciously concludes that, just because there have been abuses in the history of psychiatry that it is all bad. Here is one amusing excerpt:
TOM CRUISE: But what happens, the antidepressant, all it does is mask the problem. There's ways of vitamins and through exercise and various things. I'm not saying that that isn't real. That's not what I'm saying. That's an alteration of what-- what I'm saying. I'm saying that drugs aren't the answer, these drugs are very dangerous. They're mind-altering, anti-psychotic drugs. And there are ways of doing it without that so that we don't end up in a brave new world. // the thing that I'm saying about Brooke is that there's misinformation, okay. And she doesn't understand the history of psychiatry. She-- she doesn't understand in the same way that you don't understand it, Matt.

MATT LAUER: But a little bit what you're saying Tom is, you say you want people to do well. But you want them do to well by taking the road that you approve of, as opposed to a road that may work for them.

TOM CRUISE: No, no, I'm not.

MATT LAUER: Well, if antidepressants work for Brooke Shields, why isn't that okay?

TOM CRUISE: I-- I disagree with it. And I think that there's a higher and better quality of life. And I think that promoting for me personally, see, you're saying what, I can't discuss what I wanna discuss?

I just wish Lauer had asked Cruise to justify the utterly ridiculous pseudoscience behind Scientology, such as the "E-meter" that its adherents use to diagnose the "mental and spiritual condition" of the test subject. Naturally, the conclusion is always that the subject needs more "auditing" (Scientology's "diagnosis and therapy" for such problems) at a cost of thousands of dollars. And this ridiculous pseudoscience is not without other costs. For example, there is the case of Jeremy Perkins, a schizophrenic many of whose family were members of the Church of Scientology and who was left untreated. He ended up stabbing his mother 77 times. Apparently Tom's ability to recognize pseudoscience when he sees it isn't quite as fine-tuned as he seems to think it is.

Of course, The Onion, as usual, got it just right a few years back when writing about John Travolta's Scientology beliefs...

On the uselessness of chelation therapy for autism

In my recent blog frenzy (1, 2, 3, 4) about thimerosal in vaccines and autism brought to the forefront by RFK Jr.'s deceptive and biased article, Deadly Immunity, a fair number of comments and e-mails came up about whether chelation therapy is useful in treating autism. In this regard, there is no evidence whatsoever that it does any good or improves the symptoms of autism. However, there are parents out there who are utterly convinced that it helped their child enormously. Such cases are hard to deal with for the simple reason that no matter how much you point out that it is mechanistically implausible for chelation therapy should help autism or ASDs and that there is no evidence that it does anything good whatsoever for these neurodevelopmental disorders, they tend to remain utterly convinced that it helped their children. And, because the nature of medicine and science is such that impossible ever to prove a negative, you can never rule out 100% that chelation may have helped in this one case, chelation therapy lives on, and the quacks continue to profit off of preying upon the hopes of desperate parents who want to do something to help their children.

As dubious as intravenous chelation therapy is for autism, though, there is a newer form of "chelation therapy" that is even more dubious. That is the so-called "transdermal" chelation therapy championed by Dr. Rashid Buttar (what an utterly appropriate name, given that it's been called the "Buttar treatment," and the cream could be said to look a bit like butter). Dr. Buttar claims that TD-DPMS can do wonders for autism. Unfortunately, he presents no data. He can't even present pharmacokinetic data to show that the active chelating agent is actually absorbed through the skin in sufficient quantities to chelate anything. Yet he treats children with it.

Fortunately, Kevin Leitch is on the case, writing this fantastically sarcastic letter to Dr. Rashid Buttar. Money quote:
Such an important scientist as yourself must surely have peers flocking to review your work. As such an august scientist you are no doubt aware of the most basic scientific precept of subjecting your scientific work for review so that others may critically appraise your work and replicate it. I was surprised therefore to discover that a search of – the site that lists all scientific articles in peer-reviewed scientific literature – and found nothing when searching for ‘Rashid Buttar’. Did you submit your thesis under a pseudonym perhaps? I’m positive this must be an oversight and that the safety and efficacy of a product that you regularly use on children has been regularly tested and re-tested by both yourself and your peers as to do otherwise is tantamount to admitting one is afraid to submit one’s work for peer review – I’m certain that can’t be the case for you!
Alas, such is not the case. Perhaps Dr. Buttar will use the "too busy taking care of patients to get published" excuse that alties frequently use. I wish I could get away with that one when I come up for my yearly review. Somehow, I don't think my division chief would buy it.

The Onion does it again!

Imagine, if you will, The Onion as it will appear fifty-one years from now. I'm just bummed that much of the Midwest will be radioactive ruin then and Haliburton will get the contract to rebuild it.

And wouldn't you like it if your horoscope looked like this? Sure, it's just as much a bogus pile of B.S. as horoscopes are now, but at least it has way cooler signs. So, what's your sign? Asimov, Zelazny, or Bester?

Friday, June 24, 2005

Maybe there's hope for the Huffington Post after all

In the cause of going back to blogging about topics less controversial than the alleged thimerosal-autism connection or dubious Nazi analogies and the people who love them, I note that there is actually a nice article by Michael Shermer on intelligent design at the Huffington Post. An excerpt:
Since the U.S. Constitution prohibits public schools from promoting any particular brand of religion, this has led to the oxymoronic movement known as “Intelligent Design” (ID) where ID (aka God) miraculously intervenes just in the places where science has yet to offer a comprehensive explanation for a particular phenomenon. ID used to control the weather, but now that we have a science of meteorology He has moved on to more obdurate problems, such as the origins of DNA or the evolution of cellular structures such as the flagellum. Once these problems are mastered then ID will presumably find even more intractable conundrums. Thus, IDers would have us teach students that when science cannot fully explain something we should look no further and declare that “ID did it.” I fail to see how this is science. “ID did it” makes for a rather short lab lecture.

By contrast, a scientist would want to know how ID did it. Did ID use known principles of chemical bonding and self-organization to create the first DNA molecule? If so, then ID appears indistinguishable from nature. Is this the God IDers worship? No. IDers want a supernatural God who uses unknown forces to create life. But what will IDers do when science discovers those forces? If they join in the research on them then they will be doing science. If they continue to eschew all attempts to provide a naturalistic explanation for the natural phenomena under question, IDers will have abandoned science altogether. This is, in fact, what they have done.
Isn't this what I've been saying all along? If God did create it all, that would not change the desire of real scientists to figure out as much as they can understand about how He did it.

Wow, and I thought I was annoyed at Bill Frist

But my annoyance about his playing politics with the Terri Schiavo case is nothing compared to that of RangelMD, who calls for the State of Tennessee either to revoke or suspend his medical license for his rendering a medical opinion on Schiavo's state without ever having actually examined her and using the authority of being a physician to persuade Congress to pass an ill-advised law allowing the Schiavo's parents to bypass Florida State courts and go straight to Federal courts.

He has a point, though. Frist was shamelessly playing on the fact that he is a surgeon to play politics with a tragic case. Although it probably doesn't rise to the level of an offense worthy of the revocation of his medical licensure, his behavior in the Schiavo controversy (among other things) makes me hope that Frist never gets close to the Presidency.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

I fought the Hitler zombie, and the Hitler zombie won...maybe

It would be no fun at all to write this blog if everyone always agreed with me. (Of course, it would be even less fun if everyone violently disagreed with me and, as some of the antivaxers did, angrily and gleefully wished that I should have an autistic child, but that's another issue.) In any case, every so often I'll post something that produces a reaction that surprises me. So it was as I was looking over some of the comments on yesterday's post about Dick Durbin's recent use of the Nazi analogy. Given my history of going after such analogies, I thought it might be a nice diversion from vaccines to comment on it. Silly me. I had expected a more mixed response, but that's not what I got. Instead, the response was overwhelmingly negative. Consequently, I thought this would be a good time to do an "aggregate" response to the commentary. At the risk of angering a few loyal readers, I'll share two thoughts that came to mind:
  1. A few people didn't read what I actually wrote or read it through the prism of their biases.
  2. In my haste to get the article posted, I didn't make my point as cogently as I'm normally capable of doing, leading to an impression I hadn't planned on making.
In reality, I think it was a combination of #1 and #2. You can decide for yourself which of the two predominates. Personally, I like to think it was more #1, but then, hard as it is to believe sometimes, actual humility overtakes me and I have to admit that it could well be #2. On the other hand, it could also be that I've become enamored of the concept of a Hitler zombie eating people's brains a little too much, so much so that I like to bring out the shambling corpse with the Swastika and the Charlie Chaplin mustache a little more often than he's needed. Who knows? (Come on, admit it, though. Don't you think that the Hitler zombie is a really cool writing device to use to take down idiots who make such silly Nazi/Hitler analogies, like Rick Santorum and Charlie Rangel?)

I was puzzled by the reaction because what was being said was not that far off from what I said in my post. I agree 100% that the main problem is the way that Durbin's remarks have been reported and spun throughout the right wing blogosphere and talk radio. Indeed, I characterized the response as "way out of proportion to the actual offense" and described the right wing as "really out for blood." I even provided a link to an article by a conservative who was critical of the right wing nutcases who were out for Durbin's blood and a direct link to the text of Durbin's remarks, so that people could judge for themselves. As for the comment that Durbin never actually compared anyone to Hitler, I respond that that's a distinction without a meaningful difference. Whenever you invoke the Nazi regime, you invoke Hitler. Hitler, the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, they're all part of the same vile package. There's no easy way around it, because Hitler was the absolute dictator of the regime and no major policy the Nazi regime undertook happened without his order or at least tacit approval. Indeed, the equivalence of references to Hitler and the Nazis in practical terms, as far as rhetoric goes, is implicitly understood, which is why Godwin's Law is about Hitler and the Nazis, not just Hitler.

However, the intentionally overblown reaction of pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and Mark Levin, and opportunistic right wingers like Newt Gingrich does not excuse Durbin. Durbin's a big boy, and the reaction should not have come as a surprise to him. As a seasoned politician who's been in a few nasty campaigns himself, Durbin should have been able to predict what the right wing echo chamber's reaction to his comparison of our excesses at Guantanamo to those of totalitarian regimes like the Nazis or Pol Pot would be. In fact, part of what angers me about Durbin's use of the Nazi analogy is that he was making such good points up until then. His comparison of our policies to the mistake of interning Japanese-Americans during World War II was particularly effective, as was his emphasis that we do not have to sacrifice our American ideals to win the war on terror. He didn't need to drop the H-bomb (much less add the Stalin-bomb and Pol Pot bombs) to be effective in making his point. He really didn't. But drop it he did, and by dropping it he foolishly gave the right wing an easy opening to drown out the substance of his criticisms of how the U.S. has been conducting the war on terror in general (and how it has been running Guantanamo Bay in particular) with hyperbolic distortions, false claims of treachery, and comparing Guantanamo Bay to a death camp. Now he's been forced to apologize, and the neocons will count it as a "victory."

But the above complaints are matters of Durbin screwing up political tactics, a critique that I could have made even if I didn't find his use of the Nazi analogy offensive and foolish. One commenter asked me what it was that I found offensive about Durbin's use of the Nazi analogy. That's a fair question, and perhaps my mistake is that I didn't expand upon it in the original post. Basically, it's a matter of degree. Yes, the Nazi regime (and the Stalin and the Pol Pot regimes) did things similar to what the FBI agent's report said we did to prisoners, such as leaving them chained for 24 hours or more in the fetal position, or in excessively hot or cold conditions, and mentally abusing them. (They probably would indeed have subjected prisoners to loud rap music, had such music existed then.) But they also did so much more to their prisoners. The Nazis, for example, intentionally exterminated millions, systematically building up a machinery of death camps with gas chambers in the service of eliminating the Jews and those whom they considered their racial enemies. In their camps, they intentionally starved and worked their prisoners to death. They performed brutal medical experiments on them, all in the name of "racial hygeine" or "race science." It is because their crimes were so great that they have become synonymous with more than just authoritarian regimes and thuggish interrogation techniques; they have become synonymous with evil. The Soviet regime ran a string of gulags in which millions died. Pol Pot's regime used similar tactics, starving and working Cambodians until they died of malnutrition or malaria, as well as carrying out brutal purges:
Purge after purge of high and low Khmer Rouge followed. They increasingly filled the cells of the major security facility in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, with communist officials and cadre. Pol Pot's gang had these people tortured until they fingered collaborators among higher-ups, who were then executed. Confessions were the aim of most torture, and the gang would even arrest, with all the lethal consequences, interrogators who were so crude as to kill their victims before getting a confession.

On the suffering of the tortured, one such interrogator reported. "I questioned this bitch who came back from France; my activity was that I set fire to her ass until it became a burned-out mess, then beat her to the point that she was so turned around I couldn't get any answer out of her; the enemy then croaked, ending her answers..."

The sheer pile of confessions forced from tortured lips must have further stimulated paranoia at the top. The recorded number of prisoners admitted to Tuol Sleng was about 20,000, suggesting how many were tortured and made such confessions. Only fourteen of them survived this imprisonment--fourteen. And this was only one such torture/execution chamber, albeit the main one in the country.
I'm sorry, but even the worst abuses at Guantanamo Bay are similar to those of Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin only in the same way that a firecracker is similar to a thermonuclear device. Both are explosive devices, but they are so many orders of magnitude different in force that comparisons between the two should be undertaken with a great deal of care. Comparing Guantanamo Bay to such brutality not only grossly exaggerates how serious the abuses at Guantanamo Bay are beyond reason but also, as was suggested as one reason for my disgust, "waters down our collective memory about these horrors." It's also so inflammatory that it instantly incinerates whatever other points a speaker is trying to make, no matter how thoughtful or reasonable. As Marc at Spinning Clio has put it, "once the Führer enters the room, the debate has probably 'Jumped-the-Shark.'" It certainly did in this case, as no one paid attention to the rest of what Durbin said, particulary this, which I agree with:
The issue debated in the press today misses the point. The issue is not about closing Guantanamo Bay. It is not a question of the address of these prisoners. It is a question of how we treat these prisoners. To close down Guantanamo and ship these prisoners off to undisclosed locations in other countries, beyond the reach of publicity, beyond the reach of any surveillance, is to give up on the most basic and fundamental commitment to justice and fairness, a commitment we made when we signed the Geneva Convention and said the United States accepts it as the law of the land, a commitment which we have made over and over again when it comes to the issue of torture. To criticize the rest of the world for using torture and to turn a blind eye to what we are doing in this war is wrong, and it is not American.
Too bad no one was listening anymore after he dropped the H-bomb. His opponents were sharpening their knives and firing up the attack machine, and those who might have been predisposed to agree with him heard only sound bites. If you're going to make comparisons to Nazis, the bare minimum criteria should be that the crimes are at least somewhere on the same order of magnitude, unless you're going to do a lot of careful qualification, something political speeches are quite unsuited for.

Is argumentum ad Nazium always a fallacy? No, but in most cases as used by most pundits, it is. But because it is so toxic, to avoid being a fallacy, it should be done with extreme care and only rarely, as I've explained before. David Neiwert has accomplished this in his two famous series (and here) but, unfortunately Dick Durbin did not. He came close but couldn't quite manage it, and it would have been better for him and his message if he had not even tried. It just goes to show that no matter how fast on your feet (rhetorically speaking) you think you are or how thoughtful you think you are, you use the Hitler zombie at your own great peril. Just when you think you've successfully sent him against your opponent, you'll turn around and find yourself staring into a rotting maw with a funny little mustache getting ready to take a bite out of your skull.

The Skeptics' Circle XI

The Eleventh Edition of the Skeptics' Circle has been posted at Anne's Antiquackery and Science Blog. It's the first time we've had a blogger whose first language isn't English host, and she's done a fine job of rounding up the best skeptical blogging from the last couple of weeks.

In honor of the Circle, I thought I would also point out this article about one of the most famous skeptics of all, The Amazing Randi, and skepticism in general. It makes the rather interesting point that the the targets most in need of a good skeptical debunking today are harder to take care of than they were in the past, because they require science, rather than demonstrating sleight of hand or hidden tricks, to debunk, and it's hard to explain good science to the general population. Consider this excerpt:
To us, Uri Geller seemed small-time: The enemies we had in mind were fundamentalist ideologues, like the ones on the Kansas school board who have tried to demote evolution in the science curriculum.

That's the conundrum of the modern skeptics movement: Intelligent Design theorists and deniers of global warming may very well be phonies and scoundrels, but no one is going to debunk them in the classic sense. You can't reveal their hidden microphones or mimic their tricks with sleight of hand. Intelligent Design, after all, is an attempt to recast (even to "rebunk") Creationism in scientific terms. The best weapon against it isn't dramatic exposé, but scientific argument. So a change in tactics makes sense for the movement.

Still, the fervent response to Randi's tirade suggests a deep-seated nostalgia for old-fashioned debunking. In the end, it's just more fun to see a fake like Geller squirm than it is to hear a science lecture. Supernatural scammers may not be the most dangerous opponents of reason, but why not knock a few off every now and again to rally the troops?

And that's what the Skeptics' Circle is good at, although it's also great for exposing the false science that is "intelligent design" creationism and phonies promoting bogus "alternative" medicine "cures." So head on over and enjoy the debunking. Oh, and don't forget to enjoy this clip of Randi and Johnny Carson conspiring to reveal Uri Geller for the fraud he is on the Tonight Show by having arranged for the props and then not allowed Uri or any of his people to have any access to them before the taping of the show. It's an oldie but goodie.

The IOM slaps down RFK Jr.

Dr. Harvey Fineberg, President of the Institute of Medicine of the National Acadamies, has slapped down RFK Jr.'s shoddy paranoia piece in this letter. In it, he points out even more of the selective and deceptive quoting RFK Jr. engaged in and pointed out other factual errors and distortions.

Orac sez: Read it!

Also, Rolling Stone has "updated" RFK Jr.'s article to "correct several inaccuracies":
NOTE: This story has been updated to correct several inaccuracies in the original, published version. As originally reported, American preschoolers received only three vaccinations before 1989, but the article failed to note that they were innoculated a total of eleven times with those vaccines, including boosters. The article also misstated the level of ethylmercury received by infants injected with all their shots by the age of six months. It was 187 micrograms - an amount forty percent, not 187 times, greater than the EPA's limit for daily exposure to methylmercury. Finally, because of an editing error, the article misstated the contents of the rotavirus vaccine approved by the CDC. It did not contain thimerosal. Salon and Rolling Stone regret the errors.

I'll bet they do. One only hopes they are starting to regret having published such a trashy piece of "investigative journalism."

Hat tip to Autism Diva.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Catblogging taken too far

You knew it had to happen sooner or later: A cat hosting the Carnival of the Vanities.

As someone who favors dogs myself, I'm disappointed that it wasn't a dog who first broke the species barrier in blog carnival hosting.

Skeptico gives RFK Jr. the RFK Jr. treatment

Bad Skeptico!

Naughty, bad Skeptico!

How could you do something as unfair as giving RFK Jr. a taste of his own medicine in describing a speech he gave earlier this year at the Ramtha School of Enlightenment?

I'm only sorry I didn't think of it first.

The Hitler zombie wants more brains to eat

I've been wanting to write about Senator Dick Durbin's ill-considered use of argumentum ad Nazium last week in the light of my previous posts (here and here) on the the use of questionable Nazi analogies for political purposes. However, mercury/vaccine blogging took over and got in the way. It's time for a vaccine blogging break, at least as far as longer posts go (barring new developments, of course). I'm a bit burned out on it.

In any case, there's not much for me to add about the Durbin quote at this late date, given that fellow RINO John Cole at Balloon Juice handled the issue quite pretty well. Yes, Senator Durbin's remarks were over the top, although he did try to make a valid point on how the interrogation tactics at Gitmo resemble those of repressive regimes more than I'd like to admit; it's just that he botched his point. He also seemed unable make a coherent case afterward when the right wing pundits started attacking him as having called our soldiers Nazis. Even so, Durbin certainly made a more valid point than, say Rick Santorum or Charlie Rangel did when they dropped the H-bomb). However, the reaction of the right to Durbin's turn at exhuming Hitler's corpse (not to mention Stalin's and Pol Pot's corpses) in the service of his political agenda is way out of proportion to the actual offense. They're really out for blood this time.

Of note, Orcinus has a stronger condemnation of the right on the whole affair. Unfortunately, he lets Durbin off the hook way too easily. Durbin may have had a point worth making, but he overplayed his hand and deserves a decent fraction of the criticism he's getting.

Yes, it would appear that the Hitler zombie has claimed at least part of another victim's brain, which is probably not surprising. Given the paucity of nourishment devouring the brains of Rick Santorum and Charlie Rangel provided in the recent past, the Hitler zombie was almost certainly still famished. We can only hope that Dick Durbin's brain provided a more substantive snack for the undead Führer, at the very least so that the Hitler zombie won't be looking to feed again soon. We could all use a break from the hyperbole and ill-considered Hitler/Nazi analogies used for political purposes.

Make no mistake, though. It will be back. The Hitler zombie always comes back. Which makes me wonder: Whose brain will it eat next? Howard Dean's? Bill Frist's?

ADDENDUM: It looks like Durbin apologized.

I had thought this issue was settled...

After all the abuse I took for taking RFK Jr. and the mercury-autism activists to task for relying on shoddy science to promote a probably nonexistent link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism, I thought it was time to take a break and deal with a less controversial topic.

How about evolution?

I had thought that this issue was more or less settled, but it appears that the fundamentalists opposed to teaching the science of evolution are still at it. They're still pressuring museums--museums!--not to show IMAX films that refer to evolution. One example is Volcanoes of the Deep Sea. Its crime? It states that life originated in the oceans:
"Volcanos of the Deep Sea" has prompted some radical religious conservatives to blow their own tops.

But oceanographer Richard Lutz, who collaborated on the movie, said the controversy centered on "a reference in the film that life may have originated in the deep sea."
Museum owners downplay evolution as a reason for dumping the films, but there's little doubt that that's the real subtext lurking behind the fear of Museum owners to show these films in areas where there are large concentrations of fundamentalist Christians:
Earlier this year, the Museum of Science and History of Fort Worth, Texas, refused to show the volcano film after a screening for a test audience.

"At the time, we had better choices that scored better in our screening tests," said Margaret Ritsch, the museum's Director of Public Affairs.

She admitted, however, that some people had made comments about the theory of evolution.
Of course they did, and that was almost certainly the reason the Museum caved. It's not enough for these religious zealots simply to hold whatever religious beliefs they want about evolution, even if those beliefs are not consistent with what we know from science. They have to shut down any references to evolution and try to get their religious beliefs taught to other people's children as "science."

(Via fello RINO Right Thoughts, who was even harsher than I was about this. And, just for fun, a link to a fellow conservative-leaning blogger who doesn't drink the creationist Kool Aid either. As a West Virginian, he's all in favor of "dumbing down" his northern neighbors in Dover, where the school board has been trying to get "intelligent design" creationism in the high school curriculum, concluding, "I guess I shouldn't complain- we will take whatever competitive edge West Virginia can get." Finally, of course, there's always the Founder of the RINOs, the Commissar, who weighs in on the right's tendency to promote, or at least tolerate, antievolution antiscience in its ranks.)

Dare I hope?


My hometown team the Pistons just pulled it off, beating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the NBA Finals 95-86.

I thought they were toast after they lost Game 5, given that they'd have to take two at San Antonio to win the championship, but a Detroit repeat is starting to look less unlikely. True, the Pistons are still the underdogs going into Game 7, but there does appear to be hope that they might just take it all.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Simpsonwood redux: Isolation is a state of mind

In the comments of Skeptico's takedown of RFK Jr.'s distorted and one-sided description of the Simpsonwood Conference on the postulated link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism, David Schmitt made my day yesterday. As you may recall, JFK Jr. started his article out with this ominous-sounding introduction:
In June 2000, a group of top government scientists and health officials gathered for a meeting at the isolated Simpsonwood conference center in Norcross, Ga. Convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the meeting was held at this Methodist retreat center, nestled in wooded farmland next to the Chattahoochee River, to ensure complete secrecy.
Fortunately, David Schmitt lives not too far from Norcross and Simpsonwood, and was willing to point out yet more support for RFK Jr.'s distortions in the comment section of Skeptico's piece:
And for a visual look at the retreat center "nestled in the wooded farmland next to the Chattahoochee River", look here.

(zoom in and click on the Satellite link)

I live near this place, and it's smack in the middle of the suburban "sprawl" that environmentalists like Kennedy are constantly criticizing.
To me, it looks as though the conference center is located in an area that's pretty densely built up. It also looks as though it's surrounded by multiple subdivisions in suburban Atlanta, complete with the usual cul-de-sacs and winding streets, as any quick search using Google Maps, Mapquest, or Mapblast would have shown. The satellite picture in Google Maps just makes it all that much more obvious.

I guess "isolation" is a state of RFK Jr.'s mind. Of course, the real reason Simpsonwood was chosen was not to "ensure complete secrecy," but rather because a huge computer conference was in Atlanta at the same time, and Simpsonwood was the only facility that had space on such short notice.

On the other hand, to be fair, the Simpsonwood website does have lots of bucolic pictures, with deer and walking trails; so maybe it's similar to some of those large office complexes you often see in outer suburbs that have nice wooded grounds around them but are surrounded on all sides by suburban sprawl. We have many complexes like that around where I live, some of which are corporate facilities. Too bad this didn't come up before my trip to Atlanta three months ago. I might have been able to cruise up there to check the center out for myself.

In any case, I've made my way through more of the Simpsonwood transcript, and I've yet to find evidence of the coverup RFK Jr. insinuated. It also looks as though Majikthise is also making the painful slog through the 11 MB and 286 pages. I look forward to seeing what she has to say.

Grand Rounds XXXIX

Grand Rounds XXXIX has been posted at A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure. Given that the inimitable Dr. Bard-Parker is a fellow surgeon, I'd like to try to use my newfound (and almost certainly fleeting) notoriety, as minimal as it is, for good rather than evil and send him some traffic. There's good stuff there, as usual the best of the medical blogosphere from the last week.

The Skeptics' Circle is fast approaching

Time flies. The next edition of the Skeptics' Circle is due to hit the blogosphere on Thursday, June 23. This time around, it's being hosted by Anne at Anne's Anti-Quackery & Science Blog. So, skeptical bloggers, get going. There's a lot of credulity out there to take on out there, with the Schiavo autopsy report having been released and, most of all, this horrendously bad and one-sided article about the supposed link between thimerosal and autism written by RFK, Jr. and posted at and Rolling Stone that I've already commented on here (the most infamous of the lot), here, here, and here.

Submission instructions are here.

Skeptico reads the Simpsonwood transcript so that you don't have to (unless you really want to)

I have to hand it to Skeptico. I really do. He's managed to go through the entire 286 page transcript (warning: direct link to big file) of the infamous Simpsonwood Conference in a mere three or four days--over a weekend, yet! Given that it's a big document full of really dull, dry discussion among scientists and that this is June, when many people think of having fun outside on weekends instead of reading hundreds of pages of such tedium, that's a real accomplishment, one I haven't managed yet. (It shames me to admit that, in comparison, I've only gotten about a third of the way through it.)

He's also managed to get me to write one more time about this whole affair, even though I had said that I was going to try not to discuss this particular topic again for a while.

The Simpsonwood Conference was the conference that RFK Jr. opened his article making such dire insinuations about, claiming that it was primarily a strategy meeting to discuss ways to cover up the alleged link between mercury in vaccines and autism. I have discussed before how RFK Jr. used highly selective quoting to make what was in reality a discussion among scientists about the data for and against the hypothesis that thimerosal in vaccines cause autism and determining what studies should be done next seem very dark and conspiratorial when it really was neither. However, for reasons of space (and because there were so few examples of any excerpts that I could find that sounded even slightly conspiratorial), I only cited one example. Now, Skeptico utterly demolishes RFK Jr.'s treatment of this conference. In fact, after reading Skeptico's piece, I've been forced to change my opinion. Before, I just thought that RFK Jr. had simply let his bias and his close contact with Lujene Clark and other mercury-autism activists during the preparation of his article lead him astray. After reading Skeptico's take on the matter, now I reluctantly have to conclude that it is more likely that he was being downright dishonest in his treatment of the entire issue of the Simpsonwood Conference.

But let Skeptico explain it in the money quote from his piece:
When I first read Kennedy’s piece, I was shocked that there had apparently been some kind of cover up about thimerosal. It seemed I would have to re-examine my previous views on the subject as all good skeptics should when new evidence appears. And that was even though I have full knowledge of studies in Denmark and Canada that show autism rates increasing even though thimerosal has been banned in those countries for years. Even though I knew this, the article still sounded convincing. So I can well understand people reading this article and believing it and being livid with the vaccination industry, the CDC and everyone else involved.

But I now know Kennedy’s article is a shockingly dishonest piece of crap from beginning to end. Dishonest and manipulative. He starts with sensationalist language to imply there is something wrong going on, softening up his readers for what comes next. The scene set he, frankly, lies about what happened at the meeting. (Either that or he didn’t read the transcript – your call.) And in the absence of evidence to back up his claim, I suggest Kennedy also made up the bit about the Institute of Medicine whitewashing any embarrassing results. Kennedy wrote his alarmist piece in the knowledge that very few people (in reality – virtually zero) would bother to read the lengthy transcript to find out what actually happened. It’s nothing short of shameful from someone who I had previously believed to have the highest integrity. My only question is, why? Perhaps he’s just losing it, I don’t know.
Contrary to Skeptico's disillusionment with RFK Jr., whom he seems to have respected before this travesty, I never really thought that RFK Jr. ever really "had it" in the first place as an "investigative journalist," although he had never given me this much reason to dismiss him as a hack before. My guess is that RFK Jr. probably didn't bother to read the entire transcript in detail, just the specially berry-picked excerpts. At least, the trusting part of me that wants to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and doesn't want to have to conclude that anyone (much less RFK Jr.) intentionally distorted what was said at the Simpsonwood Conference to serve his agenda would prefer to attribute this level of misrepresentation and manipulativeness to laziness rather than dishonesty. On the other hand, as I discussed here, even a fairly cursory look at his article and the Simpsonwood transcript shows that RFK Jr. did use highly selective quoting to give the incorrect impression that Dr. John Clements, for example, urged a coverup when the full quote in context shows that he did not. Worse, Dr. Clements' in-context words were quoted almost completely even in the excerpts, making it hard to conclude anything other than that RFK Jr. was intentionally quote-mining.

But, as I said before and as Skeptico also points out, you don't have to take either of our words for it, although Skeptico made a very compelling case for intentional distortion of the contents of the transcript by RFK Jr and his making an unsubstantiated claim that the CDC paid the Institute of Medicine to "whitewash" any thimerosal/autism link. Fortunately, if you don't believe us, you are perfectly free to download the complete 11 MB PDF file of the transcript and see for yourself, and I highly encourage you to do so, if you have the stomach for it (or a case of insominia that this transcript could help with).

Just be sure to drink a lot of coffee or caffeinated colas before you start reading.