Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dogma, again

The more I surf these here intertubes, the more I realize how irrational we are. Our ability to cling to ideas that deserve to be flogged, ridiculed and trashed is astonishing. Dogma leads us to more stupidity.

The Omnibus Autism Vaccine ruling clearly stated that no scientific evidence was presented that demonstrates a causal link between vaccinations, specifically MMR, and autism. None. Yet anti-vax nutters are getting a forum in the Huffington Post, claiming that there is a link, and either it hasn't yet been proved, or the courts have proved it so there. Of course, scientific fact is not something a court can create, but never mind that - it's inconvenient and doesn't fit the mindset of those convinced of their argument. It also doesn't fit the court rulings they claim are evidence of a link - they are applying dogma to distort, lie and twist the facts to promote their dangerous viewpoint.

I'm assuming a few things about people who agree with anti-vax arguments.

1. They have no understanding of relative risk. Vaccines do, in rare instances, cause severe and lasting harm. The high fever following the old pertussis vaccine brain damaged more than a few kids. Fewer than pertussis, but how awful for those parents. Compensation varies by country. If your child is injured by a vaccine, you should be compensated. It is really sad. But if your child is injured by an illness, there is no compensation. And those odds are much, much higher, especially if your child is not vaccinated and is exposed to other unvaccinated children regularly. The odds of brain damage from measels is about 1 in 1000, from what I've read. From measles vaccine, about 1 in 1 million or less, again, according to what I've read. That means the vaccine is 1000 times less likely to injure your child than the illness. If measles was rare and hard to catch, then it might not make sense to risk that injury, but it is neither rare nor difficult to catch - just look at what's happening in England thanks to imbeciles pushing the gullible to refuse to protect their children.

2. They don't know how vaccines work. Vaccines trigger an immune response in the host that mimics the response the disease causes. Your immune system remembers the trigger, and can quickly attack the disease if exposed. This doesn't mean vaccination guarantees you won't get sick. But your system will likely respond much more quickly, and you won't get as sick. Look up cowpox and smallpox, that's how vaccination started. To state that small babies shouldn't receive a vaccine until their immune systems are more robust is to ignore that a disease won't wait, and that it's better to stimulate with a very well tested vaccination than with a potentially highly lethal illness.

3. They have no clue how prevalent and damaging the illnesses are. Diptheria killed so many. Polio killed and crippled thousands, if not millions. Tetanus - OUCH. Whooping cough is a horrible illness, my neighbour's vaccinated kids had it, and were sick for a month with a mild case - it can last much longer and result in brain damage due to lack of oxygen in the unvaccinated. It's milder in adults, because our airways are bigger.

4. They don't care about other people's children, who legitimately cannot be vaccinated. My friend's daughter is allergic to eggs. Many vaccines are grown in eggs. She cannot give her daughter these vaccines, as for her a side effect would be likely death - not a risk any doctor would advise a parent to take! Other kids may be immunocompromised. Do you want your kid infecting the kid with leukemia and killing them? It's also possible, of course, that those listening to the anti-vax charlatans are unaware of the risk their unvaccinated sprogs pose others, in which case shame on them for not doing the research on an issue impacting their children's health.

5. Following up on 4...they don't do the research on an issue of vital importance to their children's health!

I've proposed a new mandatory course in high school. It will help keep teh stoopid down. I think. It is a course that teaches, with many examples, the difference between a scientific hypothesis and a scientific theory. It teaches relative risk, and how to assess it. It also teaches the difference between causation and correlation. For those who have trouble with these concepts, it teaches regression towards the mean and perception bias. Which I possess. I hate reading stuff by religious right wingers, or ID proponents, or anti vaccine dingbats. It makes me mad. So I don't read it. But avoiding information you are likely to disagree with results in bias.

This post is hereby awarded an EPIC FAIL for silly. Sorry.

Friday, February 20, 2009

ding dong the strike is gone

It's Friday afternoon, and glancing out the window shows my favourite winter precipitation - snow. I'm looking forward to reading on the bus on the way home, far preferable to driving in crappy traffic. Thanks, oh Ottawa bus drivers, for not being on strike anymore.

I'm reading Ever Since Darwin, a collection of Stephen Jay Gould essays. He's beaten up a bit for his NOMA ideas, stating that religion and science do not overlap. I think his rational was that religion is the department of the unknowable, and science is concerned with what's knowable, ergo no overlap. Too bad the fundies think religion is everything, so nothing's outside its irrational reach.

Ergo is a great word. So is ergot. A rye disease, ergot is, that made many mad. It's also used to make LSD. We had a stray cat, briefly, named ergot. It did not eat rye. We also had 2 cats that loved catnip. Is getting cats stoned bad? I'd have unambiguously said no before learning of the links between schizophrenia and marijuana. I realize correlation is not causation, but it's worth knowing that there is a link and letting your kids know, so they can decide whether a toke is worth it. Poor Michael Phelps. He won 8 gold medals - let him party in peace!

Back to NOMA. I think he was trying to find a way forwards, to let religious people focus on their needs so that science could progress, and particularly so science education could progress, without diverting time and resources into fighting idiocy. Or IDiocy, if you're talking intelligent design crap. But as religious followers have failed to embrace NOMA, it's not really a useful concept. Unless you're a religious scientist, in which case it makes compartmentalization easier.

All religions seem to have some loopy ideas, like ritualistic pseudo cannibalism, or eternal life, or reincarnation as another life form. Eternal life's a pretty good marketing ploy, though - follow us and you'll never die! Hard to beat that spiel. Think for yourself and, um, you'll, um, have self respect! Or not. I wish religion was a force for good. I think most people are good, including most religious people, but I don't see anything that convinces me that religion promotes goodness.

Here's my idea to reduce deficits. Stop giving religious organizations tax exempt status. If they have a charitable foundation, that can qualify, but they should otherwise be treated as businesses. Why should Scientology not pay tax on the sale of their de-thetanizing machines or whatever they're called? Or the Vatican on their incredible wealth? If the primary objective of a religion is charitable, then this shouldn't be an issue at all. But I suspect a lot of the income supports activities that shouldn't qualify as tax-exempt. And that includes the mainstream religions as well as the truly wingnut ones, like Scientology.

Vonnegut poked fun so well. The Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped is still my favourite mock faith. I must read Slapstick again. And also Catch-22. I realize that's Heller and not Vonnegut, but they both wrote brilliant satire. I wonder what Swift would have thought of fundamentalism? I bet it would have been fun to read.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

the bat is dead

Just an update to my "bats" post.

Hugh has informed me, sadly, that the bat has died. Despite his best efforts at feeding it grubs.

It's now in the garage, not the liquor cabinet, where it will remain until the ground thaws and it can be buried.

I hope it's the last one I ever see in the house.


It's 200 years since Darwin's birth. Lincoln's too, although as far as I know there isn't such a thing as Lincolnism. There really isn't such a thing as Darwinism either, but it's used as shorthand for evolution through natural selection.

I've read a fair bit about Darwin, evolution, natural selection and the impact of that theory on biology. It's really cool. I get quite excited reading about it, but I also think it's fun to lie on my back and look at trees. Both these activities have the advantage of being cheap and harmless.

Darwin's theory still manages to upset and confuse people. It doesn't help that most journalists don't have the scientific background to discern nonsense from science, and feel that fair = average. As in, if there are 2 sides, then the middle of them must be right. It's an obvious untruth, but it seems an enduring one.

Ben Stein, in his idiot movie Expelled, claimed evolution didn't explain thermodynamics or the origin of the universe or gravity or abiogenis. D'uh. It's a theory on how life came to be so diverse. Not on why apples fall to the ground. Or the tendency towards entropy in a closed system. Or physics. Religion doesn't start my car. Or explain why it sometimes doesn't start. But that isn't a valid argument against it - it never was a substitute for a good mechanic.

What's the opposite of an ism? Is the opposite of Catholicism atheism? Or agnosticism? Or my favourite term - apathism? I had a friend who was an apathist - she didn't care if there was a god. I thought that was really funny. I still do. I also still think farts are funny. Maybe the opposite of dogmatism is rationalism, or simply reason.

Darwinism is an abused term, often used to try to make it like the religious isms, but Darwin was a human who had a unique opportunity to study nature, and developed a brilliant theory as a result. He didn't found a religion. He was a strict materialist. I'm not smart enough to define that well. I think it means he saw everything as a product of natural forces, not divine creation, and all aspects of life as well. So the mind is a function of the brain, not a separate entity created by yahweh. Wallace - who wrote to Darwin about his theory of natural selection and spurred the publication of On the Origin of Species - thought humans were an exception to the theory. So everything evolved, but we were an act of special creation. Much research went into trying to prove we weren't really similar to other primates. It failed. It supported our common ancestry. Not sure what wearing sock monkey hats supports, other than badly made accessories.

I'll keep on reading about science, because it's fascinating. But I'll try not to be an ism.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I have a terrible problem.

I no longer understand English.

On occasion, I look at comments posted after articles or blog posts, and I'm finding a lot of them really hard to follow. Some acronyms I know, like LOL. Even ROTFLMAO. Some I can figure out, like WTF and IMO or AFAIK. But others - and I don't know what they stand for so I can't repeat them - leave me lost. Bewildered. Confused.

I assume there's a site somewhere that lists them all. I suppose I should look for it. But, although I am not old, my memory she is like Swiss cheese, and I fear most of them will land in a hole.

The blog posts I can follow best are usually by subject matter experts (SMEs, which sounds very Peter Pan to me - SMEE! The crocodile! Smee!) who are attempting to correct a blatently false assertion. For example, that vaccines cause more harm than they prevent. Or that the earth is 6,000 to 10,000 years old. Or that intelligent design is a science.

I'm glad my kids are vaccinated. For me, it was an easy choice. The odds of my children being damaged by a vaccine are about 1 in a 1000 - and I mean damaged in a longer term way than a sore arm and 2 days of excess phlegm. The odds of them catching and being damaged by an illness that they are being vaccinated against are about 1 in 100, and that assumes most kids get vaccinated and there is herd immunity. If vaccination rates fall, then those odds rise.

Do people not know that mumps used to be the leading cause of male infertility? Or that rubella causes horrific birth defects if a pregnant woman has it? Or that measles was a common cause of brain damage? Ditto whooping cough? Polio is just an awful disease. My grandmother had a deformed foot caused by polio. It embarrassed her, but happily wasn't debilitating. And she had a great sense of humour. Can you vaccinate against the humourless? I don't think it's caused by a virus, so I guess not.

While I'm ranting on the topic of vaccine stupidity, how hard is it to understand that influenza and a cold are NOT the same? And that a dead flu virus can't cause a rhinovirus infection?

It's hard to assess the volumes of information washing over us daily. That's why we have experts - they are taught how to assess information quality, and are paid to keep their expertise up to date and apply it. I'd rather listen to a doctor on the merits and risks of vaccination than a homeopath.

I read a comment on homepathy that made me giggle. For those of you who don't know, homeopathy goes on the premise that a solution that's diluted to the point that you can't detect any trace of the original substance still has a memory of that substance. But all water has been in contact with excrement. Does that mean we drink memories of poop?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Elephants, wasabi and algebra

I've been helping my 12 year old with algebra. So far so good, although algebra is a lot easier than integral calculus.

I've discovered a few things while tutoring my scholastically challenged middle child.

1. Repetition really helps
2. Silly examples reduce tension
3. I get a sense of accomplishment out of his success

The poor kid was incredibly frustrated - he's used to math being easy for him, and this wasn't. It wasn't easy, it wasn't intuitive, and he wasn't getting the right answers. Also, the concept of transforming each side by doing an opposite function is hard to grasp.

My example.


I don't think this actually worked, except to stem the flow of tears of frustration. And honestly, if you're frustrated to the point of tears, you aren't learning.

He got through the questions. And the quiz. And got the 3rd highest mark in the class. Which gave him something quite rare in his educational history - a sense of pride in his accomplishment. As his mother and wasabi inspired tutor, I share his pride.

Isn't that one of the deadly sins? Yet in this instance it's inspiring my son to work harder - and this is a kid who almost failed grade 6. It turns out if you do none of your assignments, don't hand in tests and fail quizes, they can actually fail you. He pulled his act together in time to hit grade 7, and is doing marginally better. Summer school is a distinct possibility. But not for algebra!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Much ado about nothing

I've been reading far too many blogs, chiefly on the topic of atheism.

I'm not a great thinker. I do know when something bugs me, when I agree and when I disagree. And I was having trouble finding arguments from atheists dealing with religion that resonated. Just saying so and so did a bad thing in the name of religion so religion is bad doesn't cut it. Neither do examples like the failure of abstinence-only sex education to prevent STDs, pregnancy or premarital sex. People can do dumb things in the name of religion, but does that make religion wrong?

I don't mean wrong in the sense of factually wrong, I mean in the sense of morally wrong. Is religion morally wrong?

This is not a silly question, so it isn't really on-topic for this blog. How can I make this silly? Well, I tried with the title.

Much ado about nothing is how I see the whole religious fussing about atheism, defining it in ways that show they don't understand it's not a belief system, it's nothing. I don't believe that giant pink fuzzy slippers will terrorize the universe. I hope nobody does. But that doesn't define anything about me any more than not believing there's an invisible entity who controls everything but does nothing does. It doesn't make me bad. It doesn't make me amoral or immoral. It just means that my sense of right and wrong don't come from a set of religious rules.

I agree with Christopher Hitchens on this. Actually, I love his writing and am inclined to agree with much, although not all, of his writings. I strongly suspect that "don't kill" wasn't a revelation after Moses announced it - it was already a cultural norm. A lot of right and wrong come from the golden rule, which in turn likely comes from our ability to empathize.

Please don't ask me if empathy is a genetic trait. I think so, and I think that its absence in people we call sociopaths is incurable, but I doubt it's as simple as finding the empathy gene. How would it help us survive? Far more knowledgeable and capable writers have already discussed group survival as compatible with evolutionary theory.

To sum up: atheism isn't anti-anything, it's just an absence of belief in deities. So fussing about atheism is much ado about nothing, literally.

And thanks to the many bloggers I've read who have really funny comments about some religious silliness, like abstinence only education. I've had far too much fun reading your blogs! For a list, go to, he has the top 30 and a few are truly brilliant.