The opposite of stumped: 9 unanswerable anti-vax questions answered

9 Questions That Stump Every Pro-Vaccine Advocate and Their Claims found its way onto the Facebook page for the Winnipeg Skeptics when a member’s friend posted it, along with the qualification “if you can give me a good, scientifically-backed answer to each of these questions, I will vaccinate my children.”

Oh, if it only were all so easy! The article claims:

I have never encountered one pro-vaccine advocate, whether medically or scientifically qualified, who could answer even 1 let alone all 9 of these questions.

Well, here’s one non-immunologist, non-virologist, unqualified physiology & medical student who had zero problem with finding scientific answers to any of their questions. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

1. Could you please provide one double-blind, placebo-controlled study that can prove the safety and effectiveness of vaccines?

Yes, although you can’t find any modern studies of old vaccines, because it’s unethical to deviate from the standard of care. However, there are tons of modern (i.e. internet searchable) literature on the subject. Honestly, go to Google Scholar and search “double blind placebo vaccine” I’ll start you off:
Prophylactic quadrivalent human papillomavirus (types 6, 11, 16, and 18) L1 virus-like particle vaccine in young women: a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled multicentre phase II efficacy trial

2. Could you please provide scientific evidence on ANY study which can confirm the long-term safety and effectiveness of vaccines?

Yes. Seriously, it took me 30 seconds to find this. Google Scholar is your friend.

3. Could you please provide scientific evidence which can prove that disease reduction in any part of the world, at any point in history was attributable to inoculation of populations?

4. Could you please explain how the safety and mechanism of vaccines in the human body are scientifically proven if their pharmacokinetics (the study of bodily absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion of ingredients) are never examined or analyzed in any vaccine study?

You can’t study the pharmacokinetics of something which is not physically acting on the body—rather, vaccines are designed to be acted upon. I can’t answer this; not because of a conspiracy, but because this is an unanswerable question. It’s like asking, “Why haven’t they studied the mating habits of tennis shoes?”

5. Could you please provide scientific justification as to how injecting a human being with a confirmed neurotoxin is beneficial to human health and prevents disease?

Neurotoxins are a matter of dosage, just like radiation, and all interventions are a risk-benefit ratio. You accept the risk of getting a chest x-ray if you might have pneumonia because the dose is very low, and you won’t have it done repeatedly. Also, for something to be a neurotoxin and have effects on the brain, it must be able to pass the blood-brain barrier. This is very, very difficult and chemists spend their entire lives trying to design something that will get across. Just because something can be toxic doesn’t mean it is, just because something has risk doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, and just because something has theoretical potential to do harm doesn’t mean that it will do harm.

‎6. Can you provide a risk/benefit profile on how the benefits of injecting a known neurotoxin exceeds its risks to human health for the intended goal of preventing disease?

See the above study on measles vaccines saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Any risk of “injecting a known neurotoxin” (Which one? At what dose? Neurotoxic to who? Correlation or causative?) is unequivocally lower than the very real and potentially lethal risk of an outbreak in an unvaccinated community or one with a low uptake.

7. Could you please provide scientific justification on how bypassing the respiratory tract (or mucous membrane) is advantageous and how directly injecting viruses into the bloodstream enhances immune functioning and prevents future infections?

Different parts of your body have different types of antibodies associated with them. In the mucous membranes of your body, like the GI tract and the respiratory tract, white blood cells at the membrane produce IgA antibodies on exposure to a pathogen. In the blood stream, you have direct access to the memory cells which produce IgGs: the more robust antibodies that provide lifetime immunity against a particular pathogen. Those memory cells will stay in your lymph nodes, ready to produce an onslaught of deadly (to the pathogen) IgGs whenever the body recognizes it again. IgAs are incapable of this, and many respiratory pathogens are defeated after exposure by the body’s initial defences, before an specific set of antibodies can ever be manufactured.

8. Could you please provide scientific justification on how a vaccine would prevent viruses from mutating?

Viruses mutate as they replicate, but fortunately, by definition, viruses require the machinery of living organisms to do so. To do this, viruses must enter the cells and hijack their function to produce more viruses. If the body is prepared to identify the pathogen, it can respond immediately to the pathogen in a matter of hours instead of days. Given that viruses can replicate at phenomenal rates, the faster the body responds, the less replication will happen, the less likely a beneficial (to the virus) mutation will occur. Furthermore, even if a mutation does happen, if individuals around the infected patient are all immunized, the mutation will not be carried on. The nice thing about adaptive (post-exposure) immunity is that it identifies a bunch of different parts of the pathogen as foreign, so even if little bits of it change, one antibody might be useless but all of the others will still work!

9. Could you please provide scientific justification as to how a vaccination can target a virus in an infected individual who does not have the exact viral configuration or strain the vaccine was developed for?

Although I sort of just addressed this, it’s a matter of phylogeny. If you look at human beings (obviously far more complicated than viruses, but work with me) almost all of our diversity and mutation is contained in a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of our DNA. This is because we all come from a common ancestor and we have been building off of that base DNA ever since, so we have more in common than not. Viruses work the same way. Each type of virus has certain defining characteristics, defining proteins that make it work. For retroviruses, this is something like reverse transcriptase, which allows the HIV to copy itself into our DNA and hide. So, if the vaccine causes you to develop an antibody against a particular protein, say one on the surface of a influenza virus, it’s going to make antibodies against little chunks of it, and the odds of a related virus having mutated all of those little chunks beyond the wiggle-room there is in these sorts of processes is pretty low.

Think of pathogens like fugitives and antibodies like really zoomed in “wanted” photos that the body has put up in the Post Office. The fugitive tries to hide by dying their hair, so maybe that photo of their hair is useless. And maybe they’ve changed their shirt, so throw out that photo too. But that hand is still a hand, and that mouth looks like the right mouth even though it’s got a moustache now. The fugitive is spotted—the white blood cells are primed to look for that mouth and that hand—and the pathogen is “arrested”.

That’s not to say that an imperfect match is going to lead to the best result. If you can put all those little snapshots together and get the whole thing, you’re even better off, just like a perfect match is going to trigger a wide variety of antibodies to be produced and the response will be more robust, but immunization with a closely related virus is going to provide some protection.

So no, Random Internet Website that hasn’t even bothered to try and learn about the immune system (I cannot reiterate enough that I am not an immunology expert and all of this information is freely available via appropriate internet search): none of these are stumpable questions. If someone is confused by your questions, it’s because they don’t make sense or because they are so unbelievably broad as to be useless.

Asking questions is good, and should be encouraged! You should know these things before you vaccinate your kids! However, critical thinking can teach you to ask better questions. For example: What sort of evidence is there for the 25 year safety and efficacy of the Canadian childhood MMR vaccine in a healthy Canadian population? This a specific, quantifiable, discrete question to which discrete answers can be obtained. These are the sort of questions that scientists ask—and the ones that drive the clinical trials you’re asking for.
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THIS is why we need women in skepticism!

This is cross-posted from Subspecies.
There is a lot of post-Elevatorgate buzz about women in skepticism, including the announcement of a conference to specifically deal with women in secularism, more specifically the lack thereof. A lot of people who think that this is a non-issue have said that women (and other minorities in skepticism) will join the movement when they want to, that women simply aren’t interested in hearing about it. (And if you don’t think people actually believe this, please read the comments on the “Women in Secularism” announcement.) Since secularism is about self-improvement and education, I’m going to call Bullshit! on that. Yes, part of the problem is an environment in secularism that is intimidating to women, a lack of prominence for female skeptics, and so on. But the inverse of that is the amount of woo that is promoted to women.

Manitoba women use the health care system more than men, averaging 5.4 physician visits annually (4.4 for men), and 85% of women see a physician at least annually (79% for men.) Even healthy women of reproductive age receive birth control from their physician, have annual Pap tests, get mammograms, have prenatal consultations, and use health care services before, during and after childbirth. Women who are sick visit their physicians more frequently than men with similar illnesses. Women are more likely to be injured due to domestic violence (1 in 5 Manitoban women have been victimized by their partner in the last five years). Women are more likely to be proactive with their health, seeking screening and taking preventative measures more often than men. Now here’s the scary bit: almost 1 in 5 women in Manitoba consulted a CAM practitioner in 2003 (the most recent data). Only 1 in 10 men did the same! These statistics are in reality even worse, as the analysis excluded chiropractic, which partially covered by the province and therefore “not alternative.” Women are more preoccupied with their health, more concerned with prevention, and therefore more likely to be taken in by quacks.

Here’s a figure from the report I’m getting my data from:

The higher the household income, the more likely the women would seek CAM (here denoted CAHC for "health care"). Men did not seek more care as it became financially feasible.

In other words, as women were able to afford it, likely due to both increased income and increased private insurance coverage with the better paying jobs, more women were using CAM. I certainly would be interested to see if the discrepancy is access in lower income brackets, or a lack of awareness.

Well, maybe, you helpfully offer, chronically ill women are more likely to use CAM, and the wealth changes represent their ability to try unproven treatments for their disease! Nay nay….

The majority of women using CAM are healthy!

So what now? We have a bunch of healthy, wealthy women who are out there spending money on homeopathy and reiki and healing meditation and detox regimens and spiritual communicators. Why is it our problem if women want to waste their money on unproven crap? Well, because it’s not right, and it’s not fair. We don’t teach girls to ask questions, we tell them to trust authority, we tell them that their problems aren’t important, we tell them that they’re not an important part of the skeptical community, and then we proceed to laugh at them for finding a sympathetic ear and falling prey to placebo effects!

Worst of all, thanks to “integrative” “medicine,” woo is pervading our hospitals. While walking through the Women’s Health Centre, I saw a poster for upcoming health workshops being hosted at the Centre that made me do a double take. Yes, sponsored by Alberta Health Services, you can take a $40, 2-hour workshop in Reiki (“massage for your soul!”), a $190, 12-hour class in Feng Shui, or a $48, 3-hour workshop entitled, I kid you not, “Talking to Your Angels and Learning How to Listen,” run by Sandy Day, who claims to be a Reiki Master, Shaman, and Intuitive Healer. This is not some backwoods hand-waving Natural Healing Centre Of Happiness and Puppy Dog Kisses, this is at the biggest teaching hospital in the city, the centre for the high-risk pregnancies, for breast cancer: the medical hub! Or, on Wednesday, September 17th from 7-9 pm, the classroom for “Energy Medicine – The Internal World.” Oh but don’t worry, in tiny text:

Women’s Health Resources does not support, endorse or recommend any method, treatment, product, remedial center, program or person. We do, however, endeavour to inform because we believe in the right to have access to available information in order to make informed individual choices.

Now, call me skeptical, but I’m pretty sure if I wander over to the Urology clinic, I somehow doubt that I will see the same advertisements promising healing touch lessons for prostate problems.

For more than one reason, really. (zpeckler@flikr)

If we don’t teach our girls to question, and if we don’t ask our women to think, stuff like this is only going to get worse. No amount of half-assed disclaimery is going to change the fact that misinforming anyone is the opposite of giving them an informed individual choice. Talking about the dangerous of being teleported to Neptune by devious extraterrestrial cows does not come into discussions of which car you’d like to buy. Yes, you should be aware of the pros and cons of every car, and yes you should be free to make that choice, but having some random loon come in off the street to convince people that our Bovine Neptunian Overlords only abduct people who drive Chevies is pretty much the opposite of informed consent, particularly if the random loon also happens to sell Toyotas. Why is the Women’s Health Centre not bringing in drug companies to give presentations on why everyone should be taking Lipitor? Perhaps because there is a major conflict of interest when you are essentially charging people to sit through a sales pitch? And this is actually a bad example, because at least Lipitor actually has demonstrable, independently reproducible benefits!

So yes, we do need more women in skepticism. We need women standing up for themselves, saying that they are tired of all this bullshit being thrown at them. Without female allies telling Oprah to go stuff herself and Dr. Oz to take his reiki elsewhere, the skepticism movement will never succeed at exposing fraud in CAM. Women’s voices don’t just deserve to be heard in skepticism, they need to be heard, for the sake of everyone’s health.

Integrative and allopathic medicine: a skeptical medical student’s rant

This article is cross-posted from Subspecies, where Flora is a co-author. 

It’s no mystery that I am not a fan of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine), and not because I’m a Big Pharma Shill or been brainwashed by exhaustive campaigns by evil corporations. It’s not that I hate herbs, hate Chinese people, and hate things that are different that I don’t understand. The majority of the time I spent in a research laboratory (5 years, including time as a summer student), I spent it doing research into nutrition and functional foods. I worked with people studying the biochemical effects of exercise on health. I understand the role of preventative medicine and lifestyle interventions more than most people and I strongly advocate them. As part of, you know, medicine.

The term “allopathic medicine” was coined by Samuel Hahnemann, who contrasted it with, unsurprisingly for those of you who recognize the name, homeopathic medicine. It’s a derivative term from the Greek word allos meaning other, implying that the treatment opposes the disease, in contrast to homeos (“like”) cures. That homeopathy continues to persist 168 years after Samuel Hahnemann is a farce – that it is presented to medical students without any iota of explanation or critical thought is a tragedy. Observe:

From the AFMC (Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada) Primer on Population Health, required reading for my class, with the offending phrases bolded by me:

Contemporary Western medicine is increasingly being challenged to consider how to respond to perspectives and treatments other than those of conventional allopathic medicine. One response has been to propose ‘integrative medicine’ as a collaboration between biomedical approaches and other healing traditions, including herbal remedies, manual interventions such as massage therapy or chiropractic, and mind-body practices such as hypnosis. Similarly, the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine trains naturopathic doctors who employ natural therapies as well as using the more standard medical diagnostics of allopathic medicine.

Integrative medicine is about changing the focus in medicine to one of healing rather than disease. This involves an understanding of the influences of mind, spirit, and community as well as of the body…
…Whereas allopathy implies opposing the symptoms of disease, homoepathy implies working with the disease by stimulating the body to produce its natural defensive (e.g., immune) responses.For a time during the mid-nineteenth century, homeopathy (treating like with like) was a serious rival to the allopathic approach, but the development of the germ theory gave allopathy a scientific foundation for many of its remedies. However, by the mid twentieth century disillusionment began when, despite advances in ‘the conquest of infectious disease’ hospitals remained full and waiting lists stayed long. This may have reflected a rising demand for care induced by the perception of its success, but the very success of allopathic medicine (along with improved social conditions) enabled people to live long enough to suffer degenerative diseases for which the allopathic approach is less effective. Moreover, the allopathic approach has some undesired consequences including the rapid increases in costs and the large numbers of people with iatrogenic disorders.2 While allopathic remedies are often highly effective, practitioners are also aware that the best cure may be for the patient to simply restore balance in their life and get adequate sleep, exercise, and good nutrition.

Did you spot all the devious false equivalences and straw men drawn there? Did you notice the bait and switch set up with massage therapy being touted as alternative? Integrative medicine is not a collaboration between biomedical approaches and “other healing traditions” – it’s the infusion of pseudoscience into science. There is no need to worry about traditions when designing a treatment program. You figure out what works best, and you use it. We don’t continue to give people radium for high blood pressure simply because some people in the past thought it was a nifty neat-o idea! Notice also the mention of naturopaths as if they were an equivalent but separate kind of doctor, as if drinking powdered deer horn tea had the same level of efficacy as prescribing a statin.

The idea that “allopathic” medicine is focused on disease rather than healing is a ridiculous notion that I am ashamed to see presented by the people who are overseeing the curricula of this country’s medical schools. In my first week here, the concepts of the spectrum from health to disease, the need for population-based intervention, and the need to treat patients as individuals and not diseases has already come up. We’ve also already talked about treatment – but what is the point of talking about treatment if you don’t understand the disease? I mean, it’s all well and good that Mrs. Johnson comes in vomiting blood all over, but I’m pretty sure that thinking hard about being healthy and taking a nap isn’t going to prevent her form going into hemorrhagic shock! Only once you understand the disease can  you design a treatment. If you think her vomiting blood is from possession by an evil forest spirit, you’re going to proceed quite a bit differently than if you realize that Mrs. Johnson has a ruptured blood vessel in her stomach. The whole purpose of medicine is to achieve wellness! No amount of pre-scientific thinking or feel-good nonsense is going to save Mrs. Johnson’s life!

And of course, the criticisms that because “allopathic” medicine works so well, now people are living long enough to deal with issues that it can’t treat. So, when Mr. Wong comes into your clinic, presenting with symptoms of Alzheimer’s, clearly the only answer is to abandon the system that works really well at everything else, and try some random stuff that has no evidence to support it. This is the same sort of tactic that creationists use in the “God of the gaps” arguments. We don’t know, so God did it. We don’t know, so let’s use reiki. The absence of evidence for something does not mean you get to fill in the blanks with your chosen brand of unsupported beliefs. If there is a gap in our knowledge about what to do with an Alzheimer’s patient, we should research into causes (and subsequently treatments) of Alzheimer’s disease. Plausible, mechanism-based treatments. They don’t need to be drugs; there’s been psychological-behavioural research being done into mental training exercises (most of which has come up short in translating to increased everyday functionality.) Maybe we need to do more to prevent head trauma injures like concussions during sports activities. Maybe we should look at how alcohol and drug abuse can lead to dementia later in life. All of these are well within the realm of medicine, and require no magical thinking. They are testable hypotheses and should be pursued. Until we have an answer, you don’t get to fill the gaps with the nonsense du jour.

Did you also notice that homeopathy is given a one-off vaguely plausible sounding mechanism without any sort of definition as to what it might be? They make it sound like homeopathy is like vaccination, dealing with it not only credulously but dishonestly. How many students are going to read that claim, assume it correct, and go on to think that is is a perfectly legitimate form of medicine?

It’s unsurprising that they also bring up iatrogenic diseases, which can be literally translated to mean “healer-caused” diseases. These diseases range from anemia due to excessive blood draws in the hospital, to hospital-aquired (nosocomial) infections, to potentially lethal drug side effects. They are a major issue in medicine, especially when they are preventable, as in nosocomial infections (which can be prevented by proper cleanliness techniques) or worse, when someone screws up. There are failsafes in place for mistakes, and are why hospitals have adopted a team approach, but they inevitably will happen. However, this is not an argument for throwing the whole system, which we’ve already established works quite well. This is an argument for making the system better, for preventing the mistakes, for increasing communication within a team, for finding more failsafe systems, for being pro-active. The system isn’t broken, it’s just not perfect. You shouldn’t replace something that works but has side effects with something that doesn’t work but has none, especially since the lack of side effects are due to the fact that it doesn’t work. 

This is, of course, also assuming that “traditional” medicine has no side effects, which the anti-vaccine crowd has shown us that it can have. Eschewing modern medicine kills people. If people forsake their family physician for a naturopath, they will cannot be given prescriptions if they need them. If Mr. Sullivan is an overweight, 58-year old pencil pusher with genetic high cholesterol and an impending heart attack, then advocating a healthy diet and more exercise is important. But given his genetic preponderance and his previously sedentary lifestyle, no amount of oatmeal will help. In addition to lifestyle counselling, he desperately needs pharmaceutical intervention, possibly stenting to keep his heart’s blood vessels open, and an intensive monitoring of his blood lipids. If he dies of that heart attack, and the naturopath did not refer him to a physician when first line defences fail, that naturopath is responsible for his death. Just as letting someone get hit by a bus because you don’t want to rumple their suit jacket makes your failure to act lethal, so does dependence on pre-scientific thinking while avoiding science-based medicine cause people to die. Naturopathy, at its core, is based on true principles (that we get drugs from the natural world, there’s a science based on it called pharmacognosy), but in practice is little more than hand-waving, placebo-effecting ridiculousness. On the Canadian Association for Naturopathic Doctors, the website linked to by the AFMC’s primer, they recommend for colds & flus:

To aid the elimination of toxins through the skin induce perspiration by taking long hot baths, using an infra-red sauna or steam room. Increasing perspiration through the skin is one of the safest and most effective ways of eliminating toxins.

You know, unless you get dehydrated and die.  I hear that making people who have a fever sweat even more is really sound medical advice. To get rid of toxins. Right.

So no, Association for the Faculties of Medicine of Canada, I don’t think that we should consider integrative medicine and the “treatment of mind, body and spirit” in our practice. A doctor is not a shaman, nor should they attempt to be. I think physicians should be compassionate, caring, understanding, attentive, and open with their patients. They should be concerned for their patient’s autonomy, their mental health, and their feelings. They should strive to give them the best care, based on the best evidence available.

TL;DNR: I don’t think that there is any room, when people’s lives are at stake, for bullshit.

Awesome robotics and unfortunate acronyms

Cross-posted from Subspecies

Cyberdyne (yes, like from Terminator)’s robotic exoskeleton, designed to help increase mobility in the elderly and assist people with heavy lifting in their workplaces, is being used to help a paralyzed Japanese man tour historic sites in France. It’s not quite as exciting as the headline makes it out to be – his carrier will be wearing the robo-suit, not him. Still, it’s fantastic that they’re finding diverse applications for this really cool technology. Reading muscle impulses isn’t far off from actually helping those whose nerve impulses in the brain don’t reach their intended targets. It looks like such technology will be possible in my lifetime, which is fantastic!

Still, I do wish they didn’t call it the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL). Seriously? Have these people never seen 2001:A Space Odyssey?

You've clearly never taken a marketing class, Dave.

Via: Discovery News

Prayer in Manitoba’s Public Schools: Here to learn, except when you’re not

Cross-posted from Subspecies

The Free Press (why do I read the paper?) is reporting that numerous schools in Manitoba still have students recite the Lord’s Prayer. This makes me especially sad as many of the schools listed are ones that myself or my brother have attended. I have no recollection of this, to be honest, with the exception of at J.A. Cuddy in Sanford. That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t always been the case, but I’m sincerely confused because I attended Oak Bluff for a few years, and don’t ever remember doing it. Perhaps it blended so seamlessly into my expectations that I never thought it notable enough to remember.

In any case, everyone knows the entertainment in news stories comes from the comments. There are plenty of people spewing venom at this devious, atheist lawyer who is asking the schools to respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There are a few main themes for this objection:

Kids today are worse than they used to be! This is because they took prayer out of schools! Umm, I’m pretty sure the point of this article is that prayer is still in schools even though it’s not supposed to be. Most likely, you have a nostalgia bias, and remember things better than they were, and any real decline in good behaviour at school is due to other factors.
This country was built on Christian values! WTF, really? First of all, the argument from tradition is one of the worst fallacies. Second of all, this country has committed numerous atrocities based on those same Christian values. Xenophobia, racism and superiority lead to residential schools, Japanese internment camps, anti-Semitism, lack of women’s rights, etc. If those are the sort of values you think we should value and that Christianity promotes, you freaking suck, and Christianity sucks harder.
If you don’t like it, you should go to a country that doesn’t believe in God. Um no, first of all, a country cannot believe in God, only its people can. Furthermore, this particular country enforces the freedom of religious belief, INCLUDING atheism, agnosticism, and all other religions. There are very specific rules for how religion can enter public schools, and it is not allowed to be on school time. If you would prefer a country that does enforce such things, as pointed out by another commenter, I hear Iran is really nice for religious fundamentalism this type of year.
The Lord’s Prayer says nice things that all children should hear, regardless of their religion. First of all, no it doesn’t say anything that is worth saying. Talking about heaven on earth and being forgiven are explicitly Christian sentiments which are not universal. As for the bits about not doing or suffering from evil, isn’t that a given? Why do we need to teach our children, using religious doctrine, not to do evil? Do we need them to pray to an invisible man when someone has done wrong to them, or should we be encouraging them to actually do something about it?
“Who is Chris Tait? Who is he to dictate to others that they can’t pray in school? So schools are [sic] suppose to drop the Lord’s Prayer because some atheist lawyer says so?” No, schools are not supposed to use the Lord’s Prayer because our CHARTER says so. It is the law, the lawyer is reminding them of it!
“Heaven forbid, no pun intended, that the kids of today start their day being thankful, by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Let’s not have them learn about empathy either. However, if a dissident from an obscure tribe wanted part of their ritual ackowledged or believes read that would be ok, right.” Honestly, I don’t read any part of being thankful in there. I hear praise to God, which is quite different than, golly gee whiz, I’m sure thankful I am a Canadian kid who has rights and laws protecting me like freedom of speech and education! Furthermore, the law is quite clear, it doesn’t matter who you are, you are not allowed to promote religion in school. True, we do teach kids about Native history (grade 6, I think) but I also distinctly remember learning about the Reformation during European History in grade 7. It’s okay to learn about such things for the purposes of knowledge. Just because we made bannock in grade 5 doesn’t mean that the school division is promoting being a Voyageur! There is a difference between knowledge and promotion.
If we don’t allow God in our schools, where will he be when things go wrong? We do not need God to deal with our problems. We deal with problems. If someone is about to be raped, are you going to stand there and let God intervene, or are you going to call the cops?
A Christian agenda teaches love and forgiveness! No, a Christian agenda is a Christian agenda, and as such you cannot teach it in public schools. What is so difficult about this? Can someone seriously argue with me that you cannot teach someone what love is without talking about God? That it is impossible to forgive someone for a wrong without them pleading their case before a man in the sky first? Seriously?
Why don’t people deal with more important issues? This is irrelevant! While it may be true that there are serious issues that require attention, that doesn’t negate the fact that the law is being broken. Should we ignore drunk drivers because there’s a serial rapist? Should all the police in the city work in the North End, because it has some major crime issues, and ignore the rest? Just because X is not as popular as Y doesn’t mean it deserves to be ignored. A similar issue is happening in research. A lot of women get breast cancer, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need money for Parkinson’s Disease or Huntington’s.
This is an atheist deception! What? How? What? Saying atheists are deceiving you, and then listing a bunch of bad things that happen (including in schools that have 100% compliance with the prayer!) is not an argument, it’s a non sequitir.
Children in schools have to hear pro-choice, pro-homosexuality and pro-evoution lectures! This is infringing on our religious freedoms just as much!! No, the charter guarantees that everyone will be treated equally and fairly. Imposing your religious beliefs on everyone is very different than being provided with information that disagrees with your bigoted religious beliefs. The Charter does not protect your right to be an asshole.

Sorry, WFP commenters. If fallacies and false equivalences are all you’ve got for me, I remain unconvinced. Kids go to school to learn information and to learn how to think critically. They spend all day saying, here kids, figure this out! Then they say, okay, now shut off your minds, and talk out loud to a man in the sky. It’s not learning, it’s brainwashing. Don’t get me wrong, if it’s your kid, that’s your own choice, but if you want to brainwash for Jesus, there are plenty of schools that are more than willing to oblige you.

Biology and medicine: scapegoats of our time?

Cross-posted from Subspecies

You know, the blogosphere is all a-twitter (see what I did there?) with the story about asking Miss America contestants whether they think evolution should be taught in schools. I won’t go into it, since my feelings can basically be summed up here. Frankly, I’m not shocked in the slightest. However, it did get me thinking. Why, why, why does good science, especially that in the fields of biology and medicine, get turned into the enemy by the general public? And more importantly, why those specific fields? Sure, you could say that the opposition to the majority of biology comes from evolutionary theory, and its conflict with Biblical (or Qu’ranic or… Toraic?) literalism.

Not pictured: evidence

I would argue that there is something deeper than that. After all, Big Pharma conspiracies abound. If someone suffers at hands of a nurse, doctor or pharmacist who was not on the ball that day, we discuss the failure of the entire medical system, not that single individual. We say MEDICINE failed them. When a terminally ill friend or family member receives no cure, develops cancer after stem cell treatment, or dies on the organ transplant list, people don’t discuss the nuances of translating basic research to clinical settings, or perhaps the misguided research of a dogmatic investigator. People say SCIENCE failed them. When the best efforts are made to save someone’s life and we fail them, people actively question the basis of “conventional” medicine, regardless of their knowledge, rather than attempting to educate themselves on it. When biology challenges long-held superstition, the expert becomes the unreliable witness, not the untrained observer. They don’t even doubt the competence of the individual they’ve dealt with – they challenge the very core of the science. One could argue that well, in these cases lives are at stake. People become emotional and are looking for a monolith to assign blame to.

You have failed us all, science!

No dice. Engineering is equally responsible for the lives of millions. Personally, I’m not particularly knowledgable in physics and engineering. I understand the core concepts, but all the formulas make my brain hurt. I acknowledge that it’s not a strong point for me, and so, like most Western individuals, I defer my opinion to the scientific consensus at this time in those areas. I don’t know precisely how the combustion engine in my car works, but I don’t need to as long as we have people we pay to know about it. I trust (with a reasonable amount of skepticism) that the people who build and design automobiles know pretty much what they’re talking about. So do most people who have equivalent levels of ambivalence to the topic. And yet, when someone’s car abandons them at the side of the road in the middle of a blizzard, we don’t blame ENGINEERING for endangering their life. We might blame the driver for abusing the vehicle, or the mechanic for giving it poor maintenance, or maybe the car’s manufacturer for producing a lemon, but never do you see people questioning the effectiveness of the combustion engine! No one seriously advocates going back to using horses for transportation because we have a rich cultural tradition of using them!

My horse is significantly prettier than my car, though. p<0.001

Similarly, when bridges with motor traffic on them collapsed in Minneapolis and Montreal, no one attacked the idea that concrete could be used to make bridges. No one asked who paid off Big Eng to design shoddy bridges to line their pocket books. No one questioned Western Bridge Design and suggested we return to traditional wooden bridges, which have been safely used in China for millennia. And yet, both of these situations are ones where people distinctly neglected proper construction and maintenance to make a profit. The majority of engineers are not in the public sector – both of the bridge collapses I mentioned happened in part because the engineering firms who were overseeing the projects cheaped out. And yet, no one talks about Big Eng just being out there to make a profit. They (reasonably) blamed the people who were responsible for the poor construction and shoddy maintenance.

This distinction, to me, seems totally arbitrary. When a promising new pharmaceutical has unexpected side effects leading to a recall (thalidomide leaps to mind, but there are better recent examples, like the narcotic painkiller Darvocet), the wolves leap at the throats of the pharmaceutical company who made it, the doctors who prescribed it based on trials demonstrating efficacy and safety, and anyone who defends the biology, pharmacology, biochemistry and physiology that supported the drug before the side effects were known. The response is, rather than “How can we modify this potentially useful medicine to make it safe?” is “MEDICINE HATES BABIES!” as if that were the very foundation of the science.

Maybe it’s because I’m so immersed in biology and medicine that I see the way it is prone to systematic denialism. Tell me, people from other professions, do you get this level of crazy conspiracy theory about your work? Am I wrong?