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A public conversation about our worlds.

  • Monday: Morgan J. Locke
  • Tuesday: Madeleine E. Robins
  • Wednesday: Maureen F. McHugh
  • Thursday: Bradley Denton
  • Friday: Steven Gould
  • Saturday: Caroline Spector
  • Sunday: Rory Harper

Brain Activity



Defending Freedom of Speech Thru Gag Orders or Belief Versus Knowledge

January 11th, 2010 by Steven Gould

I am a fervent supporter of the separation of Church and State for several reasons.  Among other things, I believe that people should be able to hold any spiritual, religious, and crackpot notions in their head that they want.  Thus, if Tom Cruise wants to believe that the director of the galactic confederacy (a guy named Xenu) brought aliens to this planet, stacked them around volcanoes, and killed them with H-Bombs 75 million years ago, causing their essences to pollute us ever since, then that’s fine.  If Christians want to believe that children are born inherently sinful, great, go for it.  If Buddhists want to believe that they will be reborn after they die, not necessarily as a human, but reborn nonetheless, fine.  None of them should be able to tell the others what to believe anymore than I should be able to tell them that when we Frisbeetarians die our souls go up on the roof and we can’t get them down.

That’s what faith is about.  A belief in something without evidence.  Yes, the Catholic church believes in miracles.  Documentation on the other hand, is iffy.  Never mind.  Let them believe.

Behavior on the other hand is a different thing.  If we are to agree on public policies that affect everyone, they really need to be based on things we can demonstrate to each other.

For instance, it is generally agreed that stepping off a cliff is a bad idea.  You can demonstrate this in many ways.  I prefer dropping a watermelon rather than an actual person, but we can clearly demonstrate, time and again, that whether the watermelon hits the ground or the ground hits the watermelon, it’s not going to end well for the watermelon.  This is called evidence.  Whether I’m an atheist, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Scientologist, we can agree, stepping off cliffs–generally bad.

Interestingly enough, it was probably only anecdotal, at first.  “I heard this guy, named Ugh went off the cliff after the mastodon and it was not pretty.” “Yeah?”  Then, through something we call inductive reasoning, we saw that every time someone went off the cliff (and lets not be petty, we’re talking cliff, not a slight drop–fifty feet minimum) there was clean-up involved.  (Unless you landed in a big pile of dung like what happened during the second defenestration of Prague.  And there was still clean-up involved.)

So, here’s where I get really incensed.  I believe that our public policies on health should be based on this evidence thing.  I don’t want people going, “Oh, my brother-in-law got aids and they threw him off a cliff.  It cured him completely.”  In particular, I am upset with the Anti-Vaccination movement, a “health” movement that is killing people daily. In the 1980′s there was doubt raised about the safety of vaccinations and ingredients used to preserve those vaccinations.  When concerns are raised, people conduct studies.  They investigate the concerns.

Consider Vioxx (rofecoxib).  On September 30, 2004, Merck voluntarily withdrew rofecoxib from the market because of concerns about increased risk of heart attack and stroke associated with long-term, high-dosage use.  Previous and subsequent studies demonstrated an 4-fold increase of heart attack and stroke.

In the late eighties, a concern was raised about vaccinations, the preservative thiomersal, and autism.  There was a concern so studies were done.  There was no correlation.  Tiomersal was removed from vaccines though in 1999 and in the interval since, there has been no drop in autism.  More detail here.

And still the anti-vaxxers claim it causes autism, though they’ve mostly shifted their attacks to the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine.  Again, evidence is against them.  Unfortunately, their influence has increased the number of families who don’t vaccinate their children leading to increased outbreaks of these diseases, some leading to death or permanent disability.

Here’s a related insanity, aptly described by Rebecca Watson of Skepchik and the Skeptics Guide to the Universe.

Posted in Medicine, Politics, Religion, Science | 13 Comments »

13 Responses

  1. Christopher Long Says:

    Uh. I know that the anti-vaccine people exist. I never knew how far they would go, or that they were quite *this* stupid. If not that their kids would pay the price, I’d be all in favor of letting them die out from their own stupid . . . but the kids may learn better, if their parents don’t get them killed.

    Nice to see the blog active again.

  2. Caroline Spector Says:

    Why do these things always remind me of the witch scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

    As for Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vaccine zealots, I know that when I want sound medical advice I always choose the chick who shows her titties off in Playboy over say, an actual doctor.

  3. Stan Says:

    Belief is, however, a powerful force. Belief that something can be done even though there is evidence to contrary is often the deciding factor that gets it done.

    It is interesting, too, how often people who don’t buy the whole creation and afterlife myth and see organized religion as pinheaded are very quick to toss the baby out with the bathwater. There are social norms and principles of behavior there that have been good for mankind. That doesn’t mean I need or want the vatican, John Hagee, or Mohammed messing up the government – that is best left to the professionals who have been doing that job very well over the last hundred years or so. But, we don’t need to discount that 10% (or less) that is good and useful there. Same with the anti-vaxxers (but probably not the moon landing deniers), it is mostly hype and hysteria, but there may be some nugget in what they say that actually has a basis in reality. Completely writing them off as fruitcakes is easy. The hard job is finding out whether or not there is a nugget there worth the effort of uncovering it.

    Finally, Strunk & White tell me you might have a little typo there – affect vs effect. It is minor and hyper picky, but it somehow jumps out there.

  4. Michael Shannon Says:

    @Stan – as Steven points out, we’ve already done the hard job of figuring out whether there is a nugget of truth there (at least for the anti-vaccine group), and there is not. There is some very good evidence to explain why some people draw that (erroneous) conclusion, and there have been a number of studies showing no correlation, let alone causation.

  5. Madeleine Robins Says:

    I firmly support the right of parents to make stupid medical decisions for their children…as long as their stupid medical decisions do not affect the health and well-being of my children the kids around them. And for people with weaker immune systems, anti-vaxxers pose a positive threat.

    Years ago I had a friend whose mother went on an anti-vaccination kick. His sister got tetanus, something rare enough that no one recognized what it was until she was too sick to save. Thereafter the mother was firmly in the pro-vaccination camp, but that’s a hell of a lesson to learn.

  6. Steven Gould Says:

    Stan,

    As Michael pointed out, government, academic, and medical establishments bent over backwards, spending a LOT of money to examine the claims of anti-vaxxers. This is not “writing them off as fruitcakes.”

    Anecdotal claims are not the basis for making policy decisions. They often are, though, the basis for starting serious investigations into a possible effect and that’s what happened.

    When people maintain their position in the face of well-established contrary evidence they have certainly walked over the line into fruitcake land but we should definitely continue to discuss the claims, not the people.

    Madeleine,

    I would actually disagree that parents have the right to make stupid medical decisions about their own children. A recent case in Australia resulted in the death of an infant whose parents continued to treat eczema with homeopathic cures. This for a condition easily treated by evidence-based medical practices. We’re talking a horrible death. Parenting has responsibilities as well as privileges.

    This is a far more extreme example than deciding not to vaccinate your kids and I know it’s not what you meant. However, even deciding not vaccinate ones own children has effects on other peoples kids as those unvaccinated kids become vectors to, as you noted, people with weaker immune systems.

    Like most things, there’s got to be a balance between our own parental rights and our parental responsibilities, and a balance between our rights that the rights of others.

    (I’ve jumped on your sentence to make a point, but I’m pretty sure you agree with me on most of this.)

  7. Steven Gould Says:

    Stan, thanks for the note about affect v. effect. Will fix.

  8. persky Says:

    There is another way that not vaccinating your own children affects everyone’s health. The rate at which a disease spreads is proportional to the rate at which it is cleared relative to the rate at which it can propagate to a new host. Therefore, the fraction of the population that is vaccinated can make the difference between a widespread outbreak, a locally contained epidemic, or the erradication of a disease entirely.

    Here is an interesting article from Microbe magazine on the percent of the population that would need to be vaccinated in order to obtain “herd immunity” from measles:

    http://forms.asm.org/microbe/index.asp?bid=44732

  9. Madeleine Robins Says:

    Steve: you’re right. I was being tongue in cheek–a parent has a right to inflict faith based medicine only to a point (if the parent wants to cultivate Good Thoughts to deal with her own pesky liver cancer, well, that’s their perogative). My friend’s sister died a horrible and wholly unnecessary death because her Mom believed that Nature was Best.

    This goes sort of hand-in-glove with people I know who believe that anything “natural” is superior to anything “chemical.” A friend switched to herbal tea when she became pregnant because she didn’t want “caffeine or other chemicals” to hurt the baby. What she chose to drink was a tea blended with white mint, aka pennyroyal–a known abortifacient. She almost lost the baby, and felt a powerful sense of betrayal: the natural herbs had turned out to have chemicals in them too…

  10. N.G. Says:

    I love how people do not realize that everything “chemical” comes from what we see around us: it’s not like it suddenly appears out of thin air. I mean, aren’t most of the ingredients of medicinal “man-made” cures taken from plants and brewed for greater potency and effectiveness?
    Oops, I’m sorry. I forgot — mixing things together is evil and vindictive.

  11. phm Says:

    Madeline, I have a friend who is a chemist. Don’t get him started on “organic.” The main thing he points out is that some of the nastiest chemicals out there are organic compounds. You have to use care with any chemical, organic or otherwise,

    I think the anti-vaxxers are close to beneath contempt. I know several people who recovered from getting polio and IT CAME BACK when they got to middle age (like the chicken pox virus, it can hang out undetected and inactive in nerve tissue).

  12. JJM Says:

    “…a concern was raised about vaccinations, the preservative thiomersal, and autism. There was a concern so studies were done. There was no correlation.”

    Just for argument’s sake, who paid for these studies? Who are the ones benefiting from a “no correlation” verdict? Could it possibly be the ones making money for the vaccinations??

    I don’t believe one can be poisoned into health. And I am not alone.

  13. Steven Gould Says:

    JMM,

    Here are decent summaries on the state of the science on thimerosal.

    http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/Concerns/thimerosal/index.html

    http://www.fda.gov/BiologicsBloodVaccines/SafetyAvailability/VaccineSafety/UCM096228

    Show us your evidence (not conspiracy theory driven speculation. Not what you believe.) The fact that you (and others) “believe” otherwise puts you in the same camp as moon hoaxers, 911 Truthers, and flat earthers.

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