Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

Tech's Autism Post

A friend of mine just had a baby. She is currently feeling all the awe, wonder, fulfilment, happiness, nervousness, and fallibility that goes along with having your first child. I experienced the very same thing. Its an incredible wonderful set of emotions that you have with a new child.

We got to talking about many subjects including diapers, baby poop, breast milk, and of course vaccinations. If you have read my blog before you probably know I am pretty consumed with assertions that require evidence. Its why I think "ancient chinese medicine" is nonsense, and claims from companies about their products, or God. If you make a claim, you should be prepared to back it up.

Granted I fully understand two things about the human species. First, we crave answers to our questions. Why did my son die? Why did my mother get cancer? Why did that bad person do something horrible to my friend? Many poeple are inclined to beleive in god's needs or challenges, but if you are not you may be prone to pseudoscientific answers from clods who look to gain from selling nonsense either to you directly or to news outlets, or as legal fees.

Second big thing is that no one likes to be wrong. So what happens when no evidence can be found to back up a claim, or worse, conflicting evidence arises (we will see both shortly), well you move goal posts and claim victory. Or you pull out anecdotal evidence. Or you claim conspiracy theories. All of these tactics are employed by people selling nonsense from the antivaccinationists to water dowsers, to astrologists, homeopaths and so forth.

I am no expert in immunology (and neither are most of the mercury militua) but I am pretty good at reviewing information and seeing weak arguments when they are made. This is the only sort of expertise I can offer with regard to my opinions about vaccines. There is a whole field of debunkings possible and I wont do everything in one post. At the end I will provide some links to other folks who have done a great job of tearing apart the claims of the mercury militia.

So lets get started:
Claim: Mercury in Thimerisol causes autism
Evidence: We have been vaccinating more people and the rate of autism has been rising.
Debunking: Here is a study that tries to make this very claim. But that data in the study conflicts with its own conclusions. It shows the rise in autism rates, but sadly for him, and David Kirby the head of the mercury militia, thimerisol is no longer added to vaccines in the US as of late 2002. Its now 2008 and the rates continue to rise in california, and in the entire US, without even a blip in the rate when the thimerisol was removed.

This is not surprising, Canada performed the very same study in 1998 with 27,000 kids in it, same result.

If you take out the thing they claimed to be causing autism and the rates continue to rise, then it wasnt that thing.

Claim: Mercury is a toxic substance that should not be put into the body.
Evidence: Heavy metal poisoning is real.
Debunk: It sure is, but that is irrelevant. Look, sodium is an explosive metal, chlorine is a deadly gas, but that doesnt mean that salt will kill you. Thimerisol is a very good preservative. It forms ethylmercury, which does not bioaccumulate. It is easily confused with methylmercury, a different compound, that does bioaccumulate and is very poisonous.

Claim: chelating my kids makes them better.
Evidence: Kids seem to improve while getting chelation therapy.
Debunk:Chelation (kee-lay-shun), is a process of giving some chemicals to people to help remove heavy metals. This is pretty well debunked here. Basically we are at a place where the claim of the efficacy of the therapy has no evidence to support it, never mind deaths caused by it. But what about the fact that many parents think their kids got better from it? This is a form of confirmation bias. No parent of an autistic child chelates their kid and does nothing else. Most will do everything they think is possible in order to 'cure' their child. So they will use hyperbaric chambers, they will remove casein from their diet, they will try all sorts of stuff, including therapy of various forms. But if the kids get better, then they point to the 'alternative' method rather than point ot the fact the some kids just get better with therapy. Now we have good organizations, such as the CDC and NIH who are taking notes, they are grouping kids that have parents that are submitting their children to all these things, and they have groups of kids of parent who are just using therapy for the most part. Guess what....the improvement of symptoms is virtually the same in severity and in rates.

Whats worse, is that people think they have cured their kids due to administering all this nonsense and then can't understand why scientists aren't beating down their door to see what they did. Its becuase they are providing no good data!

Double blind tests are difficult to do and expensive, but anyone claiming to have a cure, must go through this process to verify this. Here is a good synopsis of what has truly been studies and what has not. It is a disconcerting to see how far away we are from a treatment. But just because there isn't a proven treatment, that doesnt mean that some unprovent treatment with no basis for working is the answer either.

Claim: the rate of autism is increasing it must be something we are doing to our population.
Evidence: The rate of autism is now 1 in 150, with some estimates even higher
Debunk: Yes its true, but that certainly doesnt mean that it is vaccines. It could be flash photography. More importantly one must understand the extent of the spectrum of disorders. On the most mild side, there are perfectly capable members of society who may be a little weird, who may not look you in the eye who are now considered to have autism that were not before. These folks are added to the statistics of people with autism.

further, there has been changes in diagnoses. There are many poeple who, 20 years ago, were diagnosed with mental retardation, or a developmental language disorder, who are now recognized as autistic. This is known as diagnostic substitution.

Claim: People who don't have vaccines don't get autism
Evidence: ?
Debunk: The amish vaccinate. The amish get autism, albeit at a lower rate. If they are getting vaccinated and have a lower rate of autism, can we now say that its not the vaccinations? Again, maybe its flash photography or fluorescent lights? Can I start a new theory?

Claim: Kids get autism when they receive their 18 month MMR shot
Evidence: Kids spike to a fever, then get autistic symptoms.
Debunk: In the past diagnosis was not possible before age 3 or 4, then diagnosis became possible at 18 months. Some claim to be able to detect it as early as 6 months now. So once again, while the shot may cause some immunological response, its more likely the autism was there first.

There are a ton of other causation questions that make no sense from the mercury militia. As the data comes in that its not mercury they move the goal posts and focus on something else, or they change their definition of autism. Im not going to go into every iota of it here. There just isnt space. These reasons were enough for me.

There are some good blogs about autism. Here are some:
Katharien Seidel at Neurodiversity
Science Based Medicine
Autism street

Each of them will provide good clearheaded articles on autism and links to many more sites. I hope this was helpful. I hope it has alleviated some fears for my friend. I shared all those fears also when I had my daughter, believe me! We all want answers to this puzzle. Its likely there is a genetic factors plus some environmental one. Do you have autism in your family? If not I wouldnt worry about this too much.

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Is NPR a proprieter of Woo?

It was a real doozy today on NPR. First, they profile a young woman being an 'intellectual rebel' by her quest to fall for every bit of conspiracy theory there is about Global warming. And yeah, I think its great that she is challenging those around her, yeah I think teachers (and news!) should understand the concepts well enough to be able to defend against this sort of stuff and I also think if she thinks something contrarian she should question those around her. Skepticism is great, denialism....not so good.

What makes me sad is that apparently she is only willing to go as far as her preconceived notions rather than where the data actually leads her. Janet Stemwedel takes her apart pretty well here. I wrote her an email inviting her to answer my questions. We'll see if it goes anywhere.

This may be incredibly cynical of me, but this looks like a ploy to raise money for college for her. Not that this is a bad thing....

75% of all contributions will be depositied in an irrevocable trust specifically for Kristen Byrnes... Kristen Byrnes Science Foundation may use no more than 25% of contributed funds

Well at least she doesn't plan on buying drugs and beer with it. Hey, if she can get some people to give her money for being snarky, I'm all for it. It sure pays better than anything I am getting from google ads.

Anyway, shortly after this NPR descended into a dire chasm of woo. They had a short piece on the utter nonsense of Zero Balancing. Get this, the practitioner thought acupuncture was too clinical. The entire episode was so filled with every cliche and metaphor that we hear from woo meisters it was ridiculous.

Fritz and Aminah

Zero Balancing (ZB) is a hands-on bodywork system designed to align your energy body with your physical structure. Simple yet powerful, it focuses on your whole person, even when addressing specific needs. Considered at the leading edge of body/mind therapies, ZB moves beyond Western scientific approaches to body structure by incorporating Eastern concepts of energy and healing What this does is enable a practitioner to work simultaneously with your structural and energy bodies to bring balance.

What energy? Mechanical? Electrical? Acoustic? electromagnetic? What wavelength? How do you know anything about any energy if you have no way to measure it. What structure? Muscular system? Ligaments? Skeletal? The building foundation? Here is how it is performed.

How Is ZB Performed?

Zero Balancing process generally takes between 30 and 40 minutes and is performed with you fully clothed. Sessions begin with you in a seated position, moving from there to a comfortable reclining position on your back. Using touch, the ZB practitioner evaluates your energy fields and energy flow in these two positions and balances the structures as needed. He or she may focus on body, mind, spirit, or all three, depending on where the fields are disturbed or the energy is blocked. Throughout the Zero Balancing session, attention is given to the skeleton in particular because it contains the deepest and strongest currents.

Let me get this straight. You take a patient, you seat them comfortably and then let them relax lying down. You play some nice music. You talk to them and touch them here and there? Sounds like study I recently read about at Oracs and at Science Based Medicine. In other words, ZB is yet another word for PLACEBO.

It was so disappointing to hear a really lame representation of a skeptics side. I don't have the transcript (yet), but the commentator Susan Barnett (that is part two, this was in part 3 of her flab to fit series) said something like this.

Skeptics don't believe in ZB because you can't see the energy they are talking about. ZB enthusiast say that you may not be able to see the energy, but you can see its effects, like gravity.

How utterly idiotic! Its NPR's responsibility to see through this nonsense and report the actual arguments, not strawmen. ZB is placebo. That analogy is false because we can measure gravity. What measurement, besides placebo effects, can you see from this ZB stuff? Anecdotal cures? Repeat customers? Just like every other brand of woo. It was a real shame to listen to this. You know that Woo Medicine is going to be the next bingo game I make.

The part that really got to me is that I do listen to WAMC a lot (its our local NPR outlet). They have some really great programming. Its too bad they have to deal out this sort of crap. It sure wasn't the first time.

However, at the end of the day, WAMC redeemed themselves. I'll quote it here:
Stephen E. Gottlieb

April 15, 2008: Manslaughter?

Are our public officials, the ones we put in office, responsible for what they do?

The usual rule for you and me is that we are responsible to act reasonably and if we don't, we are responsible for the damage we cause. We call the failure to act reasonably negligence. It's the rule for everything from car accidents to corporate misbehavior.

When behavior gets particularly bad and results in death, we call it manslaughter. Here is a definition used in the District of Columbia, though it is typical of most jurisdictions:

The essential elements of involuntary manslaughter, each of which the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, are: 1. That the defendant caused the death of the decedent; 2. That the conduct which caused the death was a gross deviation from a reasonable standard of care; and 3. That the conduct which caused the death created an extreme risk of death or serious bodily injury."

Let's examine a few facts:

George Tenet told the president there was no connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq until he was pressured to change his story. He told the Congress that the CIA never did an NIE, a National Intelligence Estimate, on Iraq, before we invaded. In fact no one wanted one because it would have aired the doubts, criticisms and contradictions that had surfaced.

The Administration accepted the word of a captive about the Iraqi-al Qaeda connection even though the man he said had met with Iraqis had actually been in the hands of the FBI in Florida at the time.

Before the invasion, the State Department was trying to figure out what would be necessary to secure the peace. The rest of the Administration was uninterested. In fact, the President wouldn't meet with the Secretary of State unless the National Security Advisor arranged the meeting. The top staff of the Army told the Administration before the invasion that it was not providing the force needed to secure the peace.

Everyone except the Administration knew that invading Iraq was far worse than a can of worms. But some in the Administration decided that no information could be relied on, so no reliable information was necessary.

So the Administration set in motion the deaths of more than 4,000 Americans, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, tied our military down, crumpled our reserves, crippled the officer corps, neglected to take care of the veterans and mortgaged our future to the Chinese.

So was the carelessness of the Administration or anyone in it negligence? Manslaughter? You decide.

Steve Gottlieb is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He is also a member of the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union and served in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

And I couldn't agree more. I would have added that this is what happens when you choose to make decisions that are not based on data and evidence. In fact its worse. It's making decisions and executing actions contrary to available data.

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Tech has been busy

Well, I just finished a little project I have been working on for everyone. It kind of an experiment. After seeing Skeptico's bingo boards for psychics and ID debunking, I found myself really liking the idea of people playing bingo during presentations or movies or shows relating to this sort of nonsense.

The big drawback of his bingo games was that there wasn't a good set of descriptive texts that described why each box was ridiculous or woo. In his psychic one, he did explain it out, but it wasn't convenient format. Further it was not easily distributable. There was no good way to hand out bingo cards to a bunch of people, with the descriptive text. They were great blog entries, but I was hoping for something slightly more useful.

So, I made a program to do it. If this works out (i.e. people use it) I will make more bingo games for other areas where the level of discourse truly needs to advance further. I posted it at my new site. Please feel free to browse around, but you should know, only Creationist ID bingo is there (well there is a sample animals one there too for the kiddies). As time goes on, I'll put up more bingo games (I could use help, they are very time consuming to make, even with resources available like TalkOrigins).

Get Bingo Game

You can go to the products page and download the bingo game, but also go to the topical bingo page to download the game files. Later I will introduce more bingo games. So far, everything is free, but I would appreciate token donations, any significant money that is generated will go to charity.

The software allows you to print out booklets with randomized cards on the front page. Or, you can just print out randomized cards. This way you can distribute them before dumb movies, or any presentation that a creationist may give. At least let them know, and the others around you (especially the blind followers) know that this has already been argued and debunked ad nauseum, by yelling out, good and loud "BINGO!" when you win.

Anyway, I hope you have fun with this. I hope someone uses it. I hope it helps to advance the discussion forward, even to a small degree. But I guess we will see.

Note: You need the .net framework to run the software. If you have vista you should be OK.

Tell me your bingo story in the comments.

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