Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Theme Thursday: Climate Change   19 comments

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I’ve been interested in science, mathematics, and philosophy for a long time now.  At various points in my life, I’ve been a practicing mathematician and an armchair philosopher, and I’m currently engaged in scientific research.  I’ve worked for an educational institution specializing in hard core research for almost a decade now.

I’ve known scientists for a long time.  I’ve seen grumpy scientists and happy scientists, conservative scientists and liberal ones (somewhat more of the latter than the former).  I’ve seen scientists have arguments with each other just this short of breaking out firearms and elevating to mayhem, and those same scientists publishing work together after they discovered that they were both wrong about their relative positions and finding the results of their argument to actually be interesting.

I’ve seen lazy scientists, venal scientists, greedy scientists, and scientists with such an odious personal manner that you’d be hard pressed to share a meal with them.  I’ve seen lots of towering egos, and almost as many deflated ones.  Quite a few reconstructed ones in the mix as well.  [edited to add: lest this sound like all scientists are stereotypical difficult personalities, I’ve also known plenty of nice, friendly, and outgoing scientists.]

I have never seen a scientist actually engage in unethical behavior in their own field.  I know it happens, there are plenty of examples… but on the whole the act of deliberately falsifying results and misrepresenting reality is as uncommon among scientists as running away from a burning building is among firefighters.  Most of them can’t even conceive of the idea; it’s almost incomprehensible.

This is not because scientists are a uniformly ethical crowd (although anyone who will spend their entire life on research that they largely don’t profit from in proportion to the impact of their work is probably going to have at least a high baseline sense of ethics).  It’s because scientists know that reality wins.  If they publish bogus results, sooner or later someone will try to replicate their results, or find some other results that contradict the bogus results.

Scientific argument isn’t like political argument.  The scientific method isn’t even like mathematics.  In mathematics, you declare your axioms and prove interesting stuff follows logically as a result.  In science, you observe reality, make notes, and draw conclusions.  You can have all the nice, logical, consistent theories you want… but when you put a paper up for peer review, or attend a conference, or try to discuss your work with another scientist they’re only interested in the theory in passing.  Reality wins.

What they want to see is the evidence.  Not “beyond reasonable doubt” evidence, but “towering monolithic gargantuan piles of evidence”.  If you don’t have it, you can get eaten alive (at least, metaphorically speaking)… if you don’t have it, you’ve got what is commonly referred to as, “An interesting little theory”, a phrase that itself carries a depth of meaning that isn’t parsed well by people who aren’t learned in the particular field.  The difference between a cap-“T” theory and a little-“t” theory is the difference between the Nobel Prize (not the Peace prize, which has no measurable standard, but the other prizes, that you can only get if you’re the freaking grandmaster ninjitsu tenth-level jedi master gun-kata guru 1,000 lb gorilla of a scientist)… and not getting the invite to go out bar hopping after the keynote speech.

Even if you *do* have a huge pile of evidence, you can get eaten alive if your resulting theory directly clashes with existing theory.  This isn’t because science is hidebound or dogmatic; it’s because scientific theories are based on lots and lots of observations, and if you come up with a new theory that challenges existing theory, you’ve got a pretty high bar to climb over.  People point to all of the major turning points in science as if those moments represented some sort of failure… “See!  They used to think exactly the opposite of what they think now!  They can never make up their minds!”

What those naysayers don’t realize is that “never making up your mind” is a central tenet of being a scientist.  You take some things for granted because nobody has time to learn everything and someone else is better versed than you are, but if someone shows that what you took for granted is wrong, you change your mind.  If you don’t, you don’t get published (at least, not for very long), and that’s the long slow death of the scientist.  Tenure doesn’t mean much if you can’t get a grant.

Reality wins.

Of course, scientific discourse isn’t political discourse.  Scientific discourse isn’t legal discourse.  There’s plenty of studies that show cigarettes cause cancer; it still took decades of fighting misinformation before anyone who worked in the tobacco industry would admit that reality really was described best by the theory that there was a causal link between tobacco and cancer… and it wasn’t piles and piles of scientific studies that convinced anybody, it was a legal and political battle.

The “Climate Change Debate” is just like that.  There isn’t a climate change “debate” among climatologists.  There isn’t even really a climate change debate among scientists in general (a couple of outliers, none of whom study climate science, does not a debate make), nor is there serious belief in a  “non-anthropocentric cause”.  Not because scientists are out to get rid of technology (I have yet to meet one that didn’t love his or her computer).  Not because they’re out to halt progress (you pretty much need to be on board with the *idea* of progress to become a scientist in the first place).

It’s because the evidence for other theories isn’t there.  There are several major research journals in climate science, and (unsuprisingly) the Caltech library subscribes to electronic versions of them all.  When someone pointed me at Senator Inhofe’s web site, claiming that there was peer-reviewed science that refuted global warming, I went looking for it.  I didn’t find it.  Irritated that I had no actual citations to start with (something I find to be a general media failure, so I could hardly assume that the lack of such was immediate evidence of nefariousness)  I looked again.  I still couldn’t find it.

So I went out on the general Intranet and tried to find any sort of reference to the actual journals these papers were published in, or what their titles were.  I didn’t find that, either, but I did find a whole pile of blog posts by scientists on Inhofe and dismantling the claim into teeny, tiny little shreds.

If you believe that global warming is bunk, you’re very, very likely to be very, very, horribly wrong.  Not guaranteed wrong, of course.  Again, science is not mathematics.  We can’t say that anything is definitively true, because we don’t know for certain what all the axioms of the Universe are.

So what?

We also can’t say that it’s definitely true that if you stick a loaded gun against the side of your noggin and pull the trigger that you’re going to die.  The gun might not fire.  The bullet might be a dud.  The gun could explode in your hand, and just cause a terrible injury, or the bullet might bounce off your skull or by some random roll of the dice not hit anything critical on its way through your grey matter.  Maybe we’re all plugged into the Matrix and the truth is, there is no gun.

I wouldn’t bet on it.  It astonishes me that so many people are not only willing to bet on it, they’re eager to do so.

Posted October 14, 2009 by padraic2112 in science, Theme Thursday

Feature Added   1 comment

Germane to my last post, check this out (from Wired, via Bruce’s blog):

Researchers at the University of Utah have found a way to see through walls to detect movement inside a building.

The surveillance technique is called variance-based radio tomographic imaging and works by visualizing variations in radio waves as they travel to nodes in a wireless network. A person moving inside a building will cause the waves to vary in that location, the researchers found, allowing an observer to map their position.

Add a nice little HUD and you could have your own personal radar, tracking all movement inside your evil genius lair.

Posted October 13, 2009 by padraic2112 in information science, security

Existence Statements & Probability   2 comments

Posted September 23, 2009 by padraic2112 in philosophy, science

Only 10%?   5 comments

Really?  Only 10% of the population can get all 12?  Why are we worried so much about high school exit exams?  Apparently adults need to crack open a book or three…

12

How well can you do?

(tip o’ the blogger hat to the Skeptical Teacher)

Posted September 22, 2009 by padraic2112 in science

More on Argument   1 comment

Corey and I were having a discussion over Gale recently, and during a conversation he said this:

“In my highschool philosophy class, we had a Professor (or an Associate Professor?) from a school (I think it was UMKC) come in and talk about framework arguments one day, asserting that most every argument you’ll ever hear is a framework argument, and unless you can get past that you’re wanking.  That’s what it seems to me that 99% of internet “debates” are.  You know?”

Corey’s right.

For those not dabbling in philosophy, syllogistic logic, or argumentation theory, a framework argument goes something like this: “I believe in a class of thought (liberalism, libertarianism, free-market capitalism, Zoroastrianism, logical positivism, whatever).  Your point is contraindicated by some premise in my class of thought.  Ergo, your point is wrong.”  You see this a *lot* in political discourse.  You also see the inevitable related behaviors: “Your point is a point that is commonly associated with a class of thought with which I disagree, ergo I will assume that you are a believer in that class of thought and argue against the class of thought, rather than the point (which I will coincidentally ignore completely, as it is inconvenient),” and “Your point is a point that is commonly associated with a class of thought with which I agree, ergo I will assume that you are a believer in that class of thought and assume all base principles are true in our discussion.”  There’s also my most favoritist extended version of this, “Your point is a point that may or may not be associated with the fringe of a class of thought with which I disagree, but I will counter your point by using a badly-constructed reductio ad absurdum to imply you’re a loony.”

Not to give reductio ad absurdum a bad name in general, but it’s so grossly misapplied in today’s discourse I would like to see a two year moratorium just on the principle of forcing people who misuse it to find something else to abuse horribly.

This is annoying when you’re not a liberal, and conservatives assume that you are because you are discussing a political stance that is commonly associated with liberalism, or vice versa.

It’s deuced rare to see anyone acknowledge that this is even a problem in today’s “discourse”, much less write a couple of thoughtful posts on the subject.  From the first link:

This is critical – free market advocates, particularly in recent months, have tended to adopt pretty straightforward anarcho-capitalist rhetoric even though precious few of those advocates are actually anarcho-capitalists. The reason this is such a problematic line of attack is that anarcho-capitalist rhetoric only makes sense if you’re willing to go the Full Monty in favor of anarcho-capitalism.  If you’re not willing to go that far, then you have to be able to argue against a particular government proposal for intervention or in favor of a particular proposed deregulation on terms specific to that proposal.  Simply assuming that what already exists is in some way more of a free market than what would exist if a particular government action were taken too often ignores the way in which the very system one is defending is already dependent on any number of government interventions. [ed. note: emphasis mine]

I suspect that Mr. Thompson and I might disagree on a topic or two, but at the very least arguing with him over beer and peanuts would likely be the sort of discussion that would be worth having in the first place.

Posted August 24, 2009 by padraic2112 in philosophy, politics, rants, religion, science

What Is The Law?   1 comment

The Oingo Boingo fan immediately responds, “NO SPILL BLOOD!”

That’s not what I’m going to talk about today, though.  I’m going to be talking about some other laws.

First, The Law of The Instrument.  In the book, “The Psychology of Science”, written back in 1962, Abraham Maslow famously said, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Second, The Law of Unintended Consequences.  Often times in complex systems, an action has unforseen reactions, due to the layering of dependent variables.

If you ever run across one of those silly internet tests that attempts to tell you what your political affiliation is, you may be surprised with the results.  I’m still looking for a good one, because whenever I take those tests it invariably tells me that I’m a Liberal, and yet I find myself arguing with Liberals at least as often as I find myself arguing with Conservatives.  This recent discussion over at Phil’s blog is a perfect example of the sort of proposition that is usually supported by liberals with which I disagree.

The question at hand, for those who don’t want to read the entire screed is, “Should vaccinations be mandatory?”

(I’m really verbose on that particular thread, which is one reason why I haven’t been blogging recently on my own blog)

Now of course, you’re getting the standard votes of “no” for the standard reasons.  The Slippery Slope (“Nanny State!”)  The Religious Freedom argument, and so on.  Of course, you’re also getting the standard “yes” votes, for the standard reasons.  Nobody’s actually interested in the *first* question anyone should be asking, which is, “is this practical?”

From a philosophical standpoint, the question of individual freedom vs responsibility to the community is a question that is never going to go away.  It’s certainly well advised to have these discussions, I’ll grant you .  [edited to add]  For the record, I agree with Janet; people who don’t get vaccinated are rightly categorized as free riders.  [/edit].  However, if we’re going to be discussing one of the central, weighty issues concerning human societal structure, perhaps we ought to start with those questions that actually have a reasonable chance of being worthwhile.

As I argue over at Phil’s place (and also at Janet’s and at Jimmy’s), a government-enforced mandatory vaccination program is going to be expensive.  More importantly, most of that money goes directly to overhead.

See, audit is by its very nature very inefficient.  What you are attempting to do, in any audit process, is verify that something has happened.  This has several design considerations.  For starters, you need to recognize that if you’re auditing a process that is infrequently bypassed, *most* of the time you’re pouring money down a hole.  For the parents out there, here’s a humorous example: when you’re potty training, your toddler is somewhat likely to have accidents.  Therefore, when you take off the diaper and go with underpants, you’re going to spend a certain amount of time checking with your toddler fairly frequently.  “Did you go to the bathroom?”  “Do you need to go to the bathroom?”  “I think you need to go to the bathroom.”  “Honey, before we leave, I want you to try and go potty.”  In frustration alone (if you have a headstrong child), this can be a taxing process… your payback comes because you avoid cleaning up a mess in public.

However, once the child gets the gist, you don’t bother auditing them anymore.  They voluntarily go potty on their own.  You might have an occasional accident, but the occasional accident happens so infrequently that it’s simply no longer worth your while to constantly badger your toddler to go to the bathroom (unless of course you’re a control freak, but then you’re going to have slightly messed up children, and that’s a topic for another post altogether).

Enforcing government mandated vaccinations is a very costly proposal.  Some of the questions you need to consider (dragged from my commentary over at Phil’s) include:

  • What behavior are we trying to enforce?
    * A full vaccination schedule? Partial?
  • Who decides what’s on the list?
    * The CDC? How often to they revisit the list?
  • Who are we covering?
    * Just school-age children? Infants? Adults?
  • How many of them are already doing what we want anyway?
    * In which coverage windows?
  • How do you propose that they prove their compliance?
    * Required to… enter public school? What about private schools? Daycare? Drive a car? Register to vote? What are your avenues for authorization?
  • How do you propose that we trust the authorization mechanism?
    * Who can sign off? Doctors? EMTs? Nickel clinic workers? How do the people who *check* the authorization actually check it? Do they check a doctor’s signature against an authoritative database? Is there a physician ID number? Who has access to this information? How do you secure it? How do you ensure that FERPA, HIPAA, and other privacy regulations (in the case of the U.S.) are followed and enforced?
  • How do you have a reasonable audit?
    * You must assume that in the above there are going to be people who attempt to circumvent the process. Your audit design must therefore incorporate every weak part in the chain to a suitable degree, and in the above there are thousands of venues. How do you make sure that doctors are legitimately signing the forms? How do you make sure that school clerks who don’t believe in vaccination aren’t just rubber-stamping forms out of a sense of political freedom? How do you prevent fraud? How do you prevent forgery?
  • How do you enforce the audit?
    * What is your penalty system when people circumvent the process? Do doctors lose their license? Do you expel children, so they’re now uneducated and unvaccinated? Do you revoke driver’s licenses, so drivers now can’t get insurance? Revoke licenses for professionals?

Now keep in mind that most people vaccinate already (of course, there are communities of non-vaxxers, but we’re talking about universal policy here, not fixing the outliers)… so all of the above checking, auditing, authorizing, with all of the attendant red tape, paperwork, and frustration is being borne by all those people who vaccinate voluntarily to no benefit.  We’re not even considering legal costs, legislative costs, etc. involved with getting such an initiative on a ballot and past the inevitable court challenges.

Whatever you believe that is going to cost per capita (and keep in mind, there’s 80 million children under the age of 19 in the U.S. – thanks to Jimmy for checking my numbers there – and 306 million people), that’s going to wind up being a pretty big chunk of change.  The NIH funds cancer research at the National Cancer Institute to the sum of $660 million dollars (in 2007).  Cancer kills a half a million people every year.  If you’re going to convince me that this audit process is going to be worthwhile, you’re going to have to convince me that spending all that money is a better idea than just taking the lump sum and transferring it wholesale to the NCI.

Or better yet, give the money to the NIH or the CDC and ask *them* how they think it ought to be spent.  I bet dollars to donuts anyone who works at the CDC would recommend spending that red tape money on buying vaccinations for those that can’t afford ’em before funding red tape.

[edited to add]

Dr. Paul Offit, director, Vaccine Education Center, and chief, Division of Infectious Diseases, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) penned an editorial in 2007 in the WSJ that indicates that it’s likely he’d disagree with my last paragraph.  Then again, perhaps not; I don’t know that anyone has ever offered him a few hundred million dollars and asked him to choose between research or enforcement.  It would be an interesting data point in the argument, though.  The existing mandatory vaccination laws in the U.S. (for public school or daycare entry) do have a demonstrated reinforcement value, which is not considered above (that is, many people might otherwise vaccinate but forget or are lazy or what have you… and the existence of these laws reminds them that they need to get their vaccinations) – thanks to Jimmy for those links.

Now, that may or may not indicate that the existing laws are an effective mechanism, but I’ll grant that point – the reinforcement value alone appears to be pretty significant.  I’m not suggesting we change the status quo.  I don’t think this is necessarily compelling evidence that major changes to the existing laws (covering home schoolers, or extending mandatory vaccination requirements to adults) are going to be effective, however.  The low hanging fruit aspect means that every additional person you want to compel is going to require that much more in the way of audit and enforcement, so the existing mechanisms are not likely to scale in a linear fashion.

[editing done]

The law is a good venue for fixing a lot of societal problems.  It is generally, however, very bad at efficiently auditing any behavior… if you can find a good counterexample feel free to leave it in the comments, but on the whole government audit processes of public behavior tend to spend lots of money and not substantially alter citizen behavior… the “War on Drugs” is the poster child for this.

Don’t think the law is your only tool.  Then your only response to behaviors you don’t like is to criminalize it.  This usually doesn’t fix your problem.

Posted June 10, 2009 by padraic2112 in parenting, philosophy, politics, science

My Last Vaccination Post For A While   5 comments

It’s preventing me from getting other things done.  However, I posted a comment over at Phil’s blog that has as much to do with numbers as the topic of vaccinations, and it illustrates an interesting version of the Gambler’s Fallacy, so I’m replicating it here:

A comment read, in part:

That goes for every parent that has witnessed the change in their child immediately after a vaccine or shortly thereafter.

My response:

This actually *is* a fallacy, a post hoc ergo propter hoc. There is a simple reason why this is not relevant, take the following facts…

* children take vaccines
* autism displays its first symptoms in childhood
* children under the age of 5 make up ~7% of the population
* there are ~360 million people in the U.S.
* about 80% of children are vaccinated entirely

(editor’s note: I didn’t make those numbers up, you can find them with a couple seconds and a web browser)

This means 360 x 0.07 x .8 = 2 million children (roughly) have been vaccinated. With the vaccination schedule being what it is, then, there are somewhere around 100,000 children getting a shot every month (that last one is handwavy, it assumes a lot about frequency distributions, but that’s not really germane to my point). Autism rates are estimated at anywhere between 1 in 100 and 1 in 150 children, that means we have about 17,000 diagnosis of autism. If every single one of those autism diagnosis was given to a vaccinated child (they’re not, but again for our sake here it introduces very small error), and those 17,000 have a scatter distribution of vaccination patterns, that means not one, not dozens, not hundreds, but *thousands* of those diagnosis came within days or weeks of a vaccination.

Put those thousands of people together on a message board (and since autism is hard to deal with, a very high percentage of these family *do* bond together, like SMA sufferers or MS or cancer or any other family-impacting disease), you’ll have a few thousand people all saying to each other, “Gee… MY kid got a shot right before her symptoms started showing, too! There are thousands of us! THAT CAN’T BE A COINCIDENCE.”

But you can see, it actually *isn’t* a coincidence… it’s exactly what we would expect to happen.

This is one of those times where people don’t think about what big numbers really mean.  Here’s another example, one without a muddying emotional component: the odds of hitting “black” 20 times in a row on a standard “0” and “00” roulette wheel are really bad.  A roulette wheel has 18 blacks and 18 reds numbered 1-36, plus green 0 and 00 for a total of 38. The probability of a black is 18/38,  the probability of black 20 times in a row is

(18/38)^20 =~ 3,091,874 to one.

Holy bejeezus, you think, that’s crazy impossible!  For the record, it’s still much better than the odds of winning the California lottery.

Here’s the thing.  If every man, woman, and child in the United States started playing roulette right now, guess what?  After 20 spins each,  we’d have roughly100 people (give or take) staring thunderstruck at the roulette wheel, amazed at their unbelievable luck.  Put all of those 100 people on the same message board, and they’d probably attach some sort of crazy significance to the day that they all won – it must be significant, how could *that* be a coincidence?   Not to burst their collective bubble, but there’s nothing amazing or unbelievable about it… it’s what we expect to happen.

[edited to add] apologies for the above, I made a reference error (as was pointed out here and here).  Currently, according to the Census Bureau, the number of people in the U.S. is ~306 million, not ~360 (http://www.census.gov/main/www/popclock.html).  Just goes to show that transpose errors happen to the “best” of us, right?  I’ll leave correcting the results above as an exercise for the reader; the end result is not significantly different.

Posted April 25, 2009 by padraic2112 in math, science

In Which I Take Jim Carrey To Task   3 comments

Jim Carrey has a commentary up over at Huffington Post that requires some deconstructive analysis.

Recently, I was amazed to hear a commentary by CNN’s Campbell Brown on the controversial vaccine issue. After a ruling by the ‘special vaccine court’ saying the Measles, Mumps, Rubella shot wasn’t found to be responsible for the plaintiffs’ autism, she and others in the media began making assertions that the judgment was in, and vaccines had been proven safe. No one would be more relieved than Jenny and I if that were true. But with all due respect to Ms. Brown, a ruling against causation in three cases out of more than 5000 hardly proves that other children won’t be adversely affected by the MMR, let alone that all vaccines are safe.

You’re misrepresenting this, Mr. Carrey.  While you’re certainly correct that court cases aren’t scientific evidence in and of themselves in any way, you’re pulling a bait and switch here; watch the commentary.  Ms. Brown clearly frames her commentary based upon claims made by scientists, not by the courts.  She does not even mention the court case in this commentary.

Not everyone gets cancer from smoking, but cigarettes do cause cancer. After 100 years and many rulings in favor of the tobacco companies, we finally figured that out.

There always was a credible, biological, *foundational theory* to explain that cigarettes are bad for you.  Breathing smoke is sort of contraindicated as a healthy lifestyle choice.  Building studies upon that makes sense.  There are no current foundational theories to explain why injecting an inert virus into your body in a neutral suspension might be in any way harmful.  Comparing the two isn’t even like comparing apples and oranges, it’s like comparing apples to the space shuttle.

The truth is that no one without a vested interest in the profitability of vaccines has studied all 36 of them in depth. There are more than 100 vaccines in development, and no tests for cumulative effect or vaccine interaction of all 36 vaccines in the current schedule have ever been done. If I’m mistaken, I challenge those who are making such grand pronouncements about vaccine safety to produce those studies.

Er, I’m afraid I have to call you out on this.  Please define what vaccinations are included in your list of 36, and define what you mean by “in depth”, in rigorous detail.  Is a 5 year epidemiological study sufficient?  10 year?  50 year?  How do we perform long term studies on something that hasn’t been around that long?  More to the point, why should we spend any time and resources investigating something that we currently have no basis for assuming *might* be dangerous, when we have millions of people dying every year from things that we *know* are dangerous?  Again, we’re not talking about cigarette smoking here… if I design a vaccine, following certain design prinicples that have been shown to produce safe, viable medicines and my designed vaccine reduces the impact of a fatal or crippling disease, how much testing would you agree is enough to call it safe?  You have a proposal: “Vaccines are dangerous”.  Establishing a falsification standard is job number one, tell me what I need to do to prove to you that they are safe, otherwise you’re just engaging in a perfect solution fallacy.

Oh, and your “vested interest in the profitiability of vaccines” is a thinly veiled ad hominem attack.  Just come out and say, “I think all medical researchers are in the pocket of Big Pharma”, why don’t you?

If we are to believe that the ruling of the ‘vaccine court’ in these cases mean that all vaccines are safe, then we must also consider the rulings of that same court in the Hannah Polling and Bailey Banks cases, which ruled vaccines were the cause of autism and therefore assume that all vaccines are unsafe. Clearly both are irresponsible assumptions, and neither option is prudent.

Well, no.  Again… the issue of whether or not the court is a viable source of authoritative information on this issue is your strawman here, not mine (edited to add: Phil Plait’s commentary on this bit).  In spite of that, however, it’s certainly possible for one court case to reach a bad conclusion and another court case to reach a good one.  If you’re going to critique one judgment, you need to critique it directly, not lump it into a class and throw the baby out with the bathwater.  For all we know, “Hannah Polling” and “Bailey Banks” could have been decided entirely on procedural grounds.  Pony up some evidence, here, good man.  (edited to add)  Here’s why the two are not equivalent.

In this growing crisis, we cannot afford to blindly trumpet the agenda of the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) or vaccine makers. Now more than ever, we must resist the urge to close this book before it’s been written. The anecdotal evidence of millions of parents who’ve seen their totally normal kids regress into sickness and mental isolation after a trip to the pediatrician’s office must be seriously considered. The legitimate concern they and many in the scientific community have that environmental toxins, including those found in vaccines, may be causing autism and other disorders (Aspergers, ADD, ADHD), cannot be dissuaded by a show of sympathy and a friendly invitation to look for the ‘real’ cause of autism anywhere but within the lucrative vaccine program.

Ah, so many examples of horribleness here!  We’ve got an implied categorical syllogism (lumping the CDC together with vaccine makers, vaccine makers are obviously for profit greedy capitalists).  We have an appeal to emotion (think of the children!), we have a post hoc ergo propter hoc (the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”), petitio principii (how do we know their concerns are “legitimate”?).  “Hey, Jim… how long has it been since you stopped beating your wife?”

With vaccines being the fastest growing division of the pharmaceutical industry, isn’t it possible that profits may play a part in the decision-making? That the vaccine program is becoming more of a profit engine than a means of prevention?

Certainly, profits may play a part in decision-making.  This is not an unreasonable question.  However, please provide me some credible evidence that profit-driven motives of companies can bypass the FDA, the CDC, and the medical research community in a systemic manner.  I am not looking for one or two or three cases of malfeasance here; you are asserting a massive, pervasive conspiracy across several different organizations.  Where’s the whistleblowers?  If the NSA cannot keep a wiretapping program secret, why should I assume that several companies can somehow manage to implement such a wide-reaching conspiracy without dozens of leaks?  Moreover, you’ve got a false dichotomy here… if the vaccine program *has* become more of a profit engine than a means of prevention, how is that evidence that it’s not also a means of prevention?  If I can make money by making you healthier, is that somehow less valid than making you healthier out of the goodness of my heart?

In a world left reeling from the catastrophic effects of greed, mismanagement and corporate insensitivity, is it so absurd for us to wonder why American children are being given twice as many vaccines on average, compared to the top 30 first world countries?

Whoo!  Hasty generalization!  The financial industry blew up because of greed, ergo all industries must blow up because of greed.  Mr. Carrey, in case you haven’t been reading the news, the finanical industry blew up because the lack of regulatory oversight enabled companies to incorrectly and fradulently mis-attribute risk to financial products.  If you’re going to draw a reference to the Economic End Times, you need to show how the CDC, FDA, etc. are negligent in a manner similar to the SEC and Fed… not compare Pfizer to AIG.  Oh, and we may be getting twice as many vaccines on average than other countries, but there are an entire slew of completely non-conspiracy-related, non-evil, non-monetizing explanations why this might be the case (some countries might not recommend Gardasil because they have a lower teen sex rate and it’s not a good use of money, for example).

Paul Offit, the vaccine advocate and profiteer, who helped invent a Rotavirus vaccine is said to have paved the way for his own multi-million dollar windfall while serving on the very council that eventually voted his Rotavirus vaccine onto our children’s schedule.

Paul Offit has a pretty impressive track record as a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases.  I suspect that you may be irritated at Dr. Offit (note, Jim, you should call him by his title in public discourse) for campaigning against the anti-vaccination movement.  It stands to reason that anyone working a lifetime in infectious disease research may have invented a vaccine or two, and thus probably has profited somewhat from it.  While this of course have resulted in a conflict of interest, that doesn’t mean outright that anything unethical or untoward has occurred.  Conflicts of interest are everywhere in public policy debates, if they are disclosed properly they are evidence of a *lack* of conspiracy, not the other way around.  [edited to add] Liz Ditz explains how the timeline doesn’t quite match Mr. Carrey’s characterization of Dr. Offit.

With many states like Minnesota now reporting the number at 1 in 80 children affected with autism, can we afford to trust those who serve two masters or their logic that tells us “one size fits all” when it comes to vaccines?

If you give a large group of people a schedule, most will follow it.  If you give a large group of people a tenuous list of recommendations, lots of things won’t get done.  It’s human nature.  Defending a vaccination schedule is defending a consise set of instructions on the grounds that it’s most likely to produce consistent results.  By the way, what does Minnesota’s autism rate have to do with the second half of this sentence?

Can we afford to ignore vaccines as a possible cause of these rising numbers when they are one of the fastest growing elements in our children’s environment?

Er, that was the entire point of the study that is so widely quoted as refuting your entire premise.  The rate of vaccination has no correlation with the rate of autism diagnosis.  That means that the answer to your question is, “Yes.”

With all the doubt that’s left hanging on this topic, how can anyone in the media or medical profession, boldly demand that all parents march out and give their kids 36 of these shots, six at a time in dosage levels equal to that given a 200 pound man? This is a bias of the most dangerous kind.

The doubt seems to be in the mind of the beholder.  Oh, and I give my daughter maybe eight 8oz doses of milk a day; quite a bit more than almost any 200 lb man.  She seems to be doing just fine.  The size of dosage is only related to the risk equation if you can show that there is a risk to begin with, and the risk is compounded by magnitude.  Neither has been shown to be the case.

I’ve also heard it said that no evidence of a link between vaccines and autism has ever been found. That statement is only true for the CDC, the AAP and the vaccine makers who’ve been ignoring mountains of scientific information and testimony… But if you care to look, it’s really quite impressive. For a sample of vaccine injury evidence go to www.generationrescue.org/lincolnmemorial.html.

I don’t “care to look”.  I care to have it presented to me in a method that addresses a rational, composed, logical structure that supports an overall argument.  Address the counter-arguments, provide reasonable evidence for your claims, and go an entire editorial without relying on multiple fallacies and perhaps I’ll assume you might have something of consequence to say. [edited to add] – Commenter Dan, who may have more patience than I do, has blogged about the “vaccine injury evidence” here.

We have never argued that people shouldn’t be immunized for the most serious threats including measles and polio, but surely there’s a limit as to how many viruses and toxins can be introduced into the body of a small child.

Surely there isn’t.  Maybe there is.  Perhaps there isn’t.  Again, you have a hypothesis.  Where is your evidence?

Veterinarians found out years ago that in many cases they were over-immunizing our pets, a syndrome they call Vaccinosis. It overwhelmed the immune system of the animals, causing myriad physical and neurological disorders. Sound familiar? If you can over-immunize a dog, is it so far out to assume that you can over-immunize a child? These forward thinking vets also decided to remove thimerosal from animal vaccines in 1992, and yet this substance, which is 49% mercury, is still in human vaccines. Don’t our children deserve as much consideration as our pets?

There’s no reference to “vaccinoisis” in Wikipedia, and the first six pages of references I find to the term in Google Scholar all point to homeopathy literature.  I found one article that seems to be referenced quite heavily by people using the term “vaccinoisis”, “Vaccination and Autoimmunity—‘vaccinosis: A Dangerous Liason” by Shoenfeld and Aron-Maor, published in volume 14, issue 1 of the Journal of Immunology.  From the abstract:

So far only one controlled study of an experimental animal model has been published, in which the possible causal relation between vaccines and autoimmune findings has been examined: in healthy puppies immunized with a variety of commonly given vaccines, a variety of autoantibodies have been documented but no frank autoimmune illness was recorded. The findings could also represent a polyclonal activation (adjuvant reaction). The mechanism (or mechanisms) of autoimmune reactions following immunization has not yet been elucidated. One of the possibilities is molecular mimicry; when a structural similarity exists between some viral antigen (or other component of the vaccine) and a self-antigen. This similarity may be the trigger to the autoimmune reaction. Other possible mechanisms are discussed.

Even though the data regarding the relation between vaccination and autoimmune disease is conflicting, it seems that some autoimmune phenomena are clearly related to immunization (e.g. Guillain–Barre syndrome).

The issue of the risk of vaccination remains a philosophical one, since to date the advantages of this policy have not been refuted (editors note: emphasis mine), while the risk for autoimmune disease has not been irrevocably proved. We discuss the pros and cons of this issue (although the temporal relationship (i.e. always 2–3 months following immunization) is impressive).

You seem to place an awfully large chunk of weight in a concept that has merited precisely one controlled study.  Why?  (let’s discount the fact that the actual study doesn’t conclude what you think it does).

In all likelihood the truth about vaccines is that they are both good and bad. While ingredients like aluminum, mercury, ether, formaldehyde and anti-freeze may help preserve and enhance vaccines, they can be toxic as well.

Actually, in all likelihood the truth about vaccines is that their goodness so vastly overwhelms any potential badness that any reasonably coherent risk analysis would lead you to recommend the sudden and immediate deployment of them in as broad a population as is practical.  While ingredients like aluminum, mercury, ether, formaldehyde and anti-freeze may be toxic, they certainly ought to be present in levels greater than what the body has naturally before we jump off the deep end of fear, and of course actually be part of the vaccine to begin with.  Metal toxicity is a vanishingly tiny danger.  If any of these ingredients had any sort of measurable incidence, there would be a huge number of associated cases.

[edited to add] A more thorough analysis of the science (I concentrated on the fallacies) in Mr. Carrey’s editorial over here at Orac’s place and over here at Autism News.

Posted April 23, 2009 by padraic2112 in parenting, rants, science

Backing Up Is Not Enough   Leave a comment

A story of data tapes and what it took to restore them.  Nancy Evans is a hero, and the people at LOIRP are maniacs.  I love them.  [edited to add]: An archaeologist’s take.

But there was a problem. Although the original high-resolution images were saved on 2-inch-wide tape, those pictures weren’t seen by the public. The images that scrolled across television screens and appeared on the front pages of newspapers were snapshots of the originals using standard 35-millimeter film. The images were grainy and washed-out, like a poorly tuned television set.

The full collection of Lunar Orbiter data amounted to 2,500 tapes. Assembled on pallets, they constituted an imposing monolith 10 feet wide, 20 feet long and 6 feet high. The mountain of tapes was just part of Evans’ new burden. There was no point, she realized, in preserving the tapes unless she also had an FR-900 Ampex tape drive to read them. But only a few dozen of the machines had been made for the military. The $330,000 tape drives were electronic behemoths, each 7 feet tall and weighing nearly a ton.

Wingo, Cowing and Zin worked into the night with student volunteers, cannibalizing the tape drives to get one machine working. “We felt a sense of urgency,” said Greg Schmidt, deputy director of NASA’s Lunar Science Institute at Ames.  They had managed to get $100,000 from NASA for their project, and decided they would focus their efforts on the Earthrise picture. The drives kept breaking down. Rebuilding the demodulator that converted the electronic signals into images proved particularly difficult. When they couldn’t find parts at warehouses, they dug through rusted rocket shells at Ames’ junkyard to perform what Zin called a “wrecking yard rebuild.”

The project has so far cost $250,000, far less than the $6-million estimate by NASA. Having succeeded once, the team released its second image this weekend — the Copernicus crater. The team eventually hopes to retrieve all 2,000 images from the five missions. The images will be of more than historical interest. In April, NASA is scheduled to launch the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to again map the moon. This time it will be looking for a site to erect a permanent human base. By comparing the new images with the old ones, scientists will be able to study changes in the lunar surface. That information could be invaluable to colonists.

In the interests of fairness, when you look at how much effort was put into this project on a volunteer basis, the project has easily cost a whole heapin’ load more than $250,000.  Most of that has been on the shoulders of some pretty stubborn individuals who wouldn’t let this die:

[edited to add] A blog with photos of the project, not nearly as nice as the one above, I’ll grant you:


Posted April 8, 2009 by padraic2112 in astronomy, science, tech

WANT   Leave a comment

Full size image here, courtesy of NASA.

Posted March 31, 2009 by padraic2112 in astronomy, science