Oprah gets called out for her quackery

Here is a really good article from NEWSWEEK calling out Oprah Winfrey and her parade of pseudoscientific guests for promoting quackery. The article doesn’t go too deeply into the science of things, so I just want to make a few comments.

The first one is brief. Regarding the woman who adopted the strategy of “The Secret” (I can hardly type that without gagging) and rid herself of breast cancer: There is such a thing as spontaneous remission. It is rare (estimates range from 1 in 60,000 to 1 in 100,000), but it is medically documented and happens often enough considering cancer rates. For more on spontaneous remission, read this.

Now, a more lengthy comment on vaccinations and the anti-vaccination movement. There are no discernible links between autism and vaccinations. Nearly 20 scientific, reproducible studies have been conducted throughout the world to date, and the indisputable conclusion is that there is no association between autism and vaccines. Study after study after study, including the U.S. Autism Omnibus proceedings, prove that there is no link between vaccines and autism.

The major battle cry of anti-vaccinationists was that thimerosal (the preservative used to prolong the shelf life of vaccines) was the cause of autism. In 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigated thimerosal in vaccines and found no evidence that it causes any harm. However, they ordered the removal of thimerosal from childhood vaccines as a precautionary measure (in essence to placate the hysterical). Ten years after thimerosal was removed from vaccines, autism rates have continued to rise.

One “study” and the “doctor” who conducted it, Dr. Wakefield, connected the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine with autism. Despite not one scientist being able to replicate the results of this study for years, the anti-vaccinationists have clung to it as all the proof they needed.

Except that Dr. Wakefield’s findings have now been shown to be completely bogus:

“…there has emerged potential explanations of how Wakefield was able to obtain the results he did. This evidence, combined with unprecedented access to medical records, a mass of confidential documents and cooperation from parents during an investigation by this newspaper, has shown the selective reporting and changes to findings that allowed a link between MMR and autism to be asserted.”

One study—a fabricated study—has caused people to hysterically decry vaccinations, many refusing to have their children vaccinated. The result? No more herd immunity, for one. Herd immunity occurs when enough of the population is vaccinated that protection is afforded to the unprotected (and in some cases especially susceptible, perhaps because of illness or poor immune systems). The mechanism is simple—infection can’t easily pass from person to person when the majority of the population is protected. The chain is broken. Now in the UK vaccination rates have sunk so low that herd immunity is not maintained. And in North America, we’re getting close to that.

The result is that children will die needlessly of measles, mumps, and rubella. We think of these diseases as antiquated, but that’s only because in the past immunizations and herd immunity has protected children from them. Now that some parents are listening to the anti-vaccinationist wackos and refusing to vaccinate their children, these diseases are on the rise. And they can be deadly.

It is true that autism rates have been rising, but the cause of this rise is a controversial subject. Either true autism rates are rising, or increased surveillance and a wider definition of “autism” has made it appear as though the rates are rising. The second hypothesis is more strongly supported by available evidence. Simply, it is that more cases are being diagnosed, not that more cases are occurring.

So Jenny McCarthy, the head cheerleader of the anti-vaccination movement (who has recently recruited her boyfriend Jim Carrey to the battle), and all of the other credulous folks who believe the propaganda and pseudoscience, are actually endangering your children by not having theirs vaccinated.

One wonders why they aren’t concerned with the real causes of autism, focusing their energy, time, and money on scientific research that may one day provide an answer.

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Anti-intellectualism

A couple of weeks ago, referencing some alleged “pork-barrel spending” in the U.S. omnibus spending bill, John McCain wrote this on Twitter:

“$650,000 for beaver management in North Carolina and Mississippi – how does one manage a beaver?”

It sounds funny—beaver management—tee-hee. Clearly McCain thought that by ridiculing it to the general public, they would also view it as ridiculous pork-barrel spending and therefore view McCain as the gatekeeper of rational spending.

Not only did McCain not pause for a moment to think about what beaver management could be, he didn’t bother to look it up or even inquire about it before belittling it.

This newspaper article from North Carolina explains what beaver management is, and why it’s so important. Turns out, it’s a pretty big deal:

“State and federal wildlife officials claim to have saved nearly $5 million last year in potential flood damage to farms, timber lands, roadways and other infrastructure through its Beaver Management Assistance Program—the same one McCain was making fun of in Washington.”

And this web site has even more details about the damage that beavers, if left to run rampant, can cause. It seems they can cause safety hazards, impeding the structural integrity of roads, railways, and waterways; tree damage (costing $3 to $5 million annually); agricultural damage; and disease (the Centers for Disease Control have recorded 41 outbreaks of parasites that beavers carry).

This kind of uniformed mockery happens all the time, often for the sake of proselytizing. Like when Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele ridiculed the removal of fish passage barriers, also deemed ‘wasteful spending’ in the bill. Again, he not only didn’t take a moment to understand what fish passage barriers might be and why it could be beneficial to remove them, but he didn’t even bother to look it up or inquire about it. It turns out that if fish are prevented from getting where they need to go, then fish populations will decrease. Removing barriers will allow fish to get where they need to go, and therefore propagate and continue to play their part in the food chain and the ecosystem. Oh yeah, and the removal of such barriers creates jobs and more fish, which will…you know…stimulate the economy. Huh. Imagine that.

This reminds me of Sarah Palin mocking fruit fly research during the election campaign, as if scientists were studying what fruit flies like to do in their spare time. She didn’t know what she was talking about, and she didn’t bother to learn about what she was talking about before deriding it. Had she looked it up, she may have discovered that scientific research on fruit flies has led to discoveries in autism and birth defects. One study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine found that a specific protein is required for the connectivity and functionality of nerves, which is a valuable medical breakthrough. They discovered this in fruit flies.

The most recent (and to me the most hilarious) example of mocking what you don’t understand is Bobby Jindal being flummoxed over why the government would want to ‘wastefully’ spend money on volcano monitoring! Although it hardly requires an explanation, here’s a quick one anyway: The money is for a geological survey, which includes volcano monitoring so that geologists can learn about volcanoes and provide warnings of impending eruptions.

I don’t mean to pick on the Republicans (it’s just fun) because this post is really about ignorance and the anti-intellectualism sentiment that seems to be building in society.

It’s okay to not know things; we don’t know something until we know it! There are millions and millions of things I don’t know, but I won’t speak about a topic about which I am uninformed and dupe people into thinking I know what I’m talking about. I’m not intellectually dishonest.

If people don’t have knowledge about a specific topic, then they should not criticize or ridicule it. This is especially true for people who have a platform and/or hold a position of power. People listen to you! Lots of people hear what you say and believe it. After listening to Sarah Palin’s stupid and insensitive trashing of scientific research that could well benefit her developmentally challenged child, people probably repeated her ignorance, thereby misinforming many others.

A more recent example of this is the anti-vaccination crusade, with Jenny McCarthy as its main cheerleader. She and others like her are convincing people of a completely unscientific and false premise—that the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. It has been disproven time and time again via robust scientific studies, and recently it was revealed that the “scientist” responsible for kicking off the whole conspiracy theory via his “research” was a complete fraud. But people don’t know this. They only hear McCarthy spewing bullshit on Oprah and Ellen, and they conclude that because Jenny McCarthy said it, it must be true. And so more and more parents are refusing to have their kids vaccinated, and we’re already seeing the results of it. Another thing people don’t seem to have knowledge about is the concept of herd immunity. Essentially, the MMR vaccine works for 95% of the population. If the majority of the population (the “herd”) is immunized, then it provides protection to those who are not receptive to the vaccine. So parents are refusing to have their kids vaccinated, and their kids are getting sick. But they’re surviving, so no big deal right? Except that they are passing on their sickness to those who are not receptive to the vaccine—the weak, the elderly, the young, that little girl battling cancer in your son’s class—and they are getting sick and dying. That’s what happens without herd immunity. Jenny McCarthy’s (and others’) ignorance is killing people.

Misinformation can be so hard to correct. Oprah prefers to have pseudoscientists and quacks on her show as opposed to real scientists and medical professionals.

As Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Here’s another example: People who don’t understand evolution. They will argue against evolution by saying, “If humans evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?” It sounds like a legitimate question if this is how you think evolution works. It’s not. First of all, humans did not evolve from monkeys. We are closely related to modern apes, which aren’t monkeys. But we didn’t evolve from apes either! Humans and apes share a common ancestor with gorillas and chimpanzees. Evolution is not a line, but a tree with many, many branches. Humans and apes branched off from a common ancestor approximately 7 million years ago. They branched. Into two. Separate branches. Both evolved over time. Separately.

This is a very irksome example of the old truism that “a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.” People are (intentionally in some cases) using misinformation to muddy the waters in order to convert people to their ideology. This is the very definition of intellectual dishonesty.

I don’t resent or belittle people who don’t understand evolution—only those who spew ignorance in the name of their uniformed ideologies. I have no problem with this statement: “I don’t understand evolution so I can’t speak about it.” There, simple as that. I don’t understand calculus, so I can’t speak about that. That doesn’t make me less than someone who does know about calculus, it just makes me unqualified to teach calculus.

For some reason there has been a populist backlash against knowledge and intelligence, often termed “elitism” in the modern political realm (by which they mean “intellectual elitism”). I don’t know when it became more enticing to have the leader of your country be a guy you’d “most like to have a beer with” versus a guy who is really intelligent and makes a fervent effort to understand things. I don’t know of this trend has been reversed, or even stalled, because I still see evidence of anti-intellectualism everywhere I look.

People don’t like a “smarty pants.” Why?

Why isn’t knowledge a good thing? I love learning new things. I am passionate about it, I get excited about it, and I love to share new knowledge (often to the chagrin of my friends who have to endure my explanation over sushi of why cats are attracted to the one person in the room who doesn’t like, or is allergic to, cats).

I don’t resent people who have more knowledge than I do. I don’t hate my friend who has two Masters degrees. I don’t hate my friend who has knowledge of film and television production. I don’t hate my friends who can relieve and/or heal your aches and pains. I don’t hate my friends who can write and perform music, or paint, or sculpt. I don’t hate my friends who understand geology. I don’t hate my friends who are good at math, or basketball, or building things. I don’t hate my friends who understand finance. Why would I?

Why would anyone resent someone for having knowledge they don’t have? You’re considered pretentious or elitist if you espouse knowledge. Why is it pretentious to have knowledge? Everyone has knowledge that other people don’t have. The person who knows about the stock market probably can’t fix a car. The person who can cook an amazing meal without using a recipe probably can’t explain how the brain works. The person who understands politics probably can’t design or construct a building. The person who performs cancer research probably can’t give you a decent haircut.

There is all kinds of knowledge, and it is all important; it should not be hidden, resented, or taken for granted. Why don’t we all start rejoicing in knowledge and put an end to anti-intellectualism? At the same time, let’s stop ridiculing lack of knowledge because, as I said, you don’t know something until you know it. If you don’t know something, look it up in a reliable source. There—now you know it.

Let’s do, however, ridicule those who speak about something from a position of ignorance. It’s one thing to not know something and be honest about your lack of knowledge, but it is quite another to speak about something from a position of authority when you have specious knowledge of it. You could cost people their lives.

Let us proudly proclaim both our knowledge and our ignorance! Saying “I don’t know about that so I can’t speak about it” is much more respectable than propagating dangerous lies, falsehoods, and misinformation. Facts, truth, knowledge, critical thought—these should be the foundations of society.