Goodbye 2011

And Hello 2012!
Today is the last day of 2011. At least according to this version of the calendar. According to the lunar calendar used by Jews and others 2011 ended about a thousand years before Christ was born. And according to the Julian calendar we may or may not be ending 2011 but we certainly will, possibly – depending on what part of Africa you currently live in, need to deal with crop planting in two weeks. Don’t even get me started on the Babylonian calendar … those wacky garden freaks. Let’s be honest, the common Gregorian calendar has as much to do with political intrigue, occasional science and a dollop of religion as it has to do with anything resembling our planet’s rotation around the sun. The fact that the originators retrofitted events to the new, and essentially arbitrary, dates just makes history more fun. Still, they did manage to finally deal with leap years and other stuff that had vexed previous calendar makers so it’s probably as good a calendar as we’re going to get.

All of this, oddly enough, brings us to the point of today’s blog. Yesterday I did my end of the year wrap up on WBIG 1280 AM with Ryan Gatenby and we ended up talking about some disturbing trends. While our current calendar is, despite all the intrigue that went into making it, scientifically correct, the same cannot be said about many of its modern adherents. Many people are falling prey to pseudoscientists, frauds and mountebanks.

I’ll start with the obvious one – since I was given the chance to endure a previously eliminated disease thanks to an idiot neighbor – people who refuse to vaccinate their children. For the record, there is a scientific term for these people, they are known as morons.

Skepdic.com has a lengthy, but great, article refuting the anti-immunization idiots point by point. I’ll share the most obvious one with you here.

do vaccines weaken the immune system?

Finally, some people think that the immune systems of children are being weakened by vaccines, making them vulnerable to illnesses later on in life. Quackwatch calls this misconception #7. For example, some think that their child’s asthma or respiratory problems may be due to “vaccine overload” on their immature immune systems.

In fact babies have an ability, right from birth, to cope with lots of different germs. The body is constantly surrounded by germs and has to react to them in different ways. The advantage of being immunized rather than catching the disease is that the vaccine uses only part of the germ, or, if the whole germ, it is either killed or toned down (“attenuated”). In this way, the challenge to the immune system is less than that from the disease, but it is enough to produce protection.

In 2002, the Immunization Safety Review Committee of the American Institute of Medicine made a detailed examination of all the evidence about the effects of multiple immunizations on a baby’s immune system. They concluded that there was no evidence to support the suggestion that multiple immunizations overwhelm the immune system. They strongly supported the continuing use of vaccines against multiple diseases….

If immunizations are delayed, a baby will remain unprotected for longer than necessary. This could be particularly dangerous for whooping cough and Hib. Very young babies, if they catch whooping cough, are likely to be much more seriously ill than older children and are more likely to need hospital care. Babies under a year old are more likely to catch Hib than older children Studies have shown that when the vaccines are given at the younger age, babies have fewer reactions such as fever, sore injection sites etc, while at the same time they are still protected.*

There have been many well-designed studies that have examined claims that vaccines cause chronic diseases such as asthma, multiple sclerosis, chronic arthritis, sudden infant death syndrome, and diabetes. The studies have not found compelling evidence for any such links.* That has not stopped some anti-vaccinationists from speculating that some children are “especially sensitive” to vaccines and that scientific control studies can’t be refined enough to validate this claim.

That last sentence pretty much defines the logic behind pseudoscience. Since they can’t prove their claims they assert that technology or knowledge hasn’t caught up with them. Or that someone is withholding something from them.

Science doesn’t work that way. I won’t bore you with links but I’ve already written about numerous instances of scientists sitting patiently through presentations hoping, praying if you will, for the presenter to have a valid point. There is absolutely no proof that any vaccine causes autism, yet parents cling to that horrid belief like it’s a life preserver in a turbulent ocean. The fact that autism existed before any vaccines were discovered means nothing to them. The fact that effect does not equal cause is lost on them. The fact that there has never been a single case proved to justify making their children susceptible to serious diseases only proves to them that science is hiding something from them.

As I noted above, these people are morons.

The fact that I suffered through freaking whooping cough when I shouldn’t have means nothing to them. Although I did get an apology. Still their kid looks like death. And, unless they get him his shots, my guess is he won’t make it to seven.

But it isn’t just the anti-immunization crowd that refutes logic. There is a growing number of people who are making Isaac Asimov’s famous quote – Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ – seem hopeful by comparison.

Ignorance, I can forgive. No one, not even the well trained staff here at the World News Center, knows everything. What I can’t forgive is willful ignorance. When the knowledge is there and has been vetted, often by centuries of research (see vaccines as example A), and people choose to not only ignore, but rabidly avoid, the truth then the world has a problem.

Quackwatch has a great article about how to tell science from pseudoscience. I’m just going to share a small part of it. I strongly suggest you read it and bookmark it in case you are confronted by an idiot.

Pseudoscience argues from alleged exceptions, errors, anomalies, strange events, and suspect claims—rather than from well-established regularities of nature.
The experience of scientists over the past 400 years is that claims and reports that describe well-understood objects behaving in strange and incomprehensible ways tend to reduce upon investigation to deliberate frauds, honest mistakes, garbled accounts, misinterpretations, outright fabrications, and stupid blunders. It is not wise to accept such reports at face value, without checking them. Pseudoscientists always take such reports as literally true, without independent verification.

Pseudoscience appeals to false authority, to emotion, sentiment, or distrust of established fact.
A high-school dropout is accepted as an expert on archaeology, though he has never made any study of it! A psychoanalyst is accepted as an expert on all of human history, not to mention physics, astronomy, and mythology, even though his claims are inconsistent with everything known in all four fields. A movie star swears it’s true, so it must be. A physicist says a “psychic” couldn’t possibly have fooled him with simple magic tricks, although the physicist knows nothing about magic and sleight of hand. Emotional appeals are common. (“If it makes you feel good, it must be true.” “In your heart you know it’s right.”) Pseudoscientists are fond of imaginary conspiracies. (“There’s plenty of evidence for flying saucers, but the government keeps it secret.”) And they argue from irrelevancies: When confronted by inconvenient facts, they simply reply, “Scientists don’t know everything!”

Pseudoscience makes extraordinary claims and advances fantastic theories that contradict what is known about nature.
They not only provide no evidence that their claims are true. They also ignore all findings that contradict their conclusions. (“Flying saucers have to come from somewhere—so the earth is hollow, and they come from inside.” “This electric spark I’m making with this electrical apparatus is actually not a spark at all, but rather a supernatural manifestation of psycho-spiritual energy.” “Every human is surrounded by an impalpable aura of electromagnetic energy, the auric egg of the ancient Hindu seers, which mirrors the human’s every mood and condition.”)

Pseudoscientists invent their own vocabulary in which many terms lack precise or unambiguous definitions, and some have no definition at all.
Listeners are often forced to interpret the statements according to their own preconceptions. What, for for example, is “biocosmic energy?” Or a “psychotronic amplification system?” Pseudoscientists often attempt to imitate the jargon of scientific and technical fields by spouting gibberish that sounds scientific and technical. Quack “healers” would be lost without the term “energy,” but their use of the term has nothing whatsoever to do with the concept of energy used by physicists.

Pseudoscience appeals to the truth-criteria of scientific methodology while simultaneously denying their validity.
Thus, a procedurally invalid experiment which seems to show that astrology works is advanced as “proof” that astrology is correct, while thousands of procedurally sound experiments that show it does not work are ignored. The fact that someone got away with simple magic tricks in one scientific lab is “proof” that he is a psychic superman, while the fact that he was caught cheating in several other labs is ignored.

Pseudoscience claims that the phenomena it studies are “jealous.”
The phenomena appear only under certain vaguely specified but vital conditions (such as when no doubters or skeptics are present; when no experts are present; when nobody is watching; when the “vibes” are right; or only once in human history.) Science holds that genuine phenomena must be capable of study by anyone with the proper equipment and that all procedurally valid studies must give consistent results. No genuine phenomenon is “jealous” in this way. There is no way to construct a TV set or a radio that will function only when no skeptics are present! A man who claims to be a concert-class violinist, but does not appear to have ever owned a violin and who refuses to play when anyone is around who might hear him, is most likely lying about his ability to play the violin.

Pseudoscientific “explanations” tend to be by scenario.
That is, we are told a story, but nothing else; we have no description of any possible physical process. For instance, Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979) claimed that another planet passing near the earth caused the earth’s spin axis to flip upside down. This is all he said. He gave no mechanisms. But the mechanism is all-important, because the laws of physics rule out the process as impossible. That is, the approach of another planet cannot cause a planet’s spin axis to flip. If Velikovsky had discovered some way that a planet could flip another’s spin axis, he would presumably have described the mechanism by which it can happen. The bald statement itself, without the underlying mechanism, conveys no information at all. Velikovsky said that Venus was once a comet, and this comet was spewed out of a volcano on Jupiter. Since planets do not resemble comets (which are rock/ice snowball-like debris with connection whatsoever to volcanoes) and since Jupiter is not known to have volcanoes anyway (or even a solid surface!), no actual physical process could underlie Velikovsky’s assertions. He gave us words, related to one another within a sentence, but the relationships were alien to the universe we actually live in, and he gave no explanation for how these could exist. He provided stories, not genuine theories.

Pseudoscientists often appeal to the ancient human habit of magical thinking.
Magic, sorcery, witchcraft—these are based on spurious similarity, false analogy, false cause-and-effect connections, etc. That is, inexplicable influences and connections between things are assumed from the beginning—not found by investigation. (If you step on a crack in the sidewalk without saying a magic word, your mother will crack a bone in her body; eating heart-shaped leaves is good for heart ailments; shining red light on the body increases blood production; rams are aggressive so someone born in the sign of the ram is aggressive; fish are “brain food” because the meat of the fish resembles brain tissue, etc.)

Things get even more confusing when celebrities, often with the best of intentions, spout complete bull …. stuff. Simon Cowell was the latest, with his B-12 cocktail crap, but he is far from alone. And because he’s famous people assume he knows what the heck he’s talking about. They are just as wrong as he is but that doesn’t slow the process down in the slightest.

What kills me when celebrities spew this crud is that they have the resources to know better. A simple phone call can get them in touch with the CDC, who would be thrilled to have someone famous actually spread the truth about science, and many other agencies. There is no excuse for their stupidity other than laziness.

The belief in stupid, and un-provable, phenomena has gotten so bad that Wikipedia, not always the first bastion of truth and logic, has gathered up all the pseudoscience related topics and stuffed them on one page. There are almost a hundred of those suckers to weed through.

Of course it doesn’t help matters that Twitter, which requires you to limit your thoughts to 140 characters or less (including spaces), may be too complex for many. That is the only explanation for a list of pre-written Tweets.

On the other hand, you can have a lot of fun with idiots. Tell them that the world is being polluted, daily, by massive spills of Dihydrogen Monoxide.

Dihydrogen Monoxide (H2O) is also known as water.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OH9A6tn_P6g&w=560&h=315]

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!

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