Archive for the complaints Category

Vaccine Panic – Don’t Blame The Mums!

Posted in complaints, science with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by lesmonde

In recent months, vaccine panic has arguably supplanted the eternal Evolution vs Creationism debate and global warming as the cause célèbre of the sceptical community. For those not au fait with the issue: there is a growing and increasingly vocal community of self-styled “anti-vaxxers” who have decided, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, that vaccination programmes are a danger to health and long-term wellbeing, particularly of children. Opposition to vaccination ranges from mild trepidation, to the belief that mass vaccination is a systematic attempt at specicide by the “New World Order” to reduce global population. I’m not kidding.

The issue came to the fore with the publication by the now notorious (or heroic, I suppose, depending on which side of the needle you fall) Dr Andrew Wakefield of a paper in The Lancet purporting to have identified a possible connection between autism, bowel disease, and the MMR vaccination. The paper itself was unremarkable and inconclusive, but Wakefield’s subsequent interactions with the press, in which he advised caution against the MMR vaccine ignited a national health scare during which uptake dropped to as little as 61% in some parts of the UK and saw measles return to the UK as an endemic disease. Wakefield’s study has now been discredited and renounced by the majority of his co-authors, and the evidence that vaccination causes neither autism nor any other long-term health problem in anything other than negligible numbers is vast and overwhelming. Yet the controversy continues to be perpetuated.

In the last few days Wired magazine has published an excellent article by journalist Amy Wallace which tackles some of the frothing irrationality surrounding vaccination and its spurious link to autism. The article has inflicted upon Wallace a not insignificant and often unpleasant or indignant e-mail response, which she is currently tackling on her twitter. What’s interesting is that a large amount, if not all, of the negative feedback is coming from parents. Either the parents of young children, or the parents of children with autism. The protests are poignant:

“The PARENT knows their child more than anyone in the world. The PARENTS, Ms. Wallace, NOT Mr. Offit.”

“I have a Son that needs Me – not another needle.”

“Me and mine are not a herd. Human beings are capable and entitled to decide for themselves what to put in our bodies.”

These are parents who feel the need to defend themselves from the accusations of irresponsibility in their decision not to vaccinate. And the implied irresponsibility is sharp: Wallace’s article points out that, as vaccination uptake drops and herd immunity slips away from communities, children are now dying from preventable diseases. Often the accusations are explicit. As Jenny McCarthy, mother of an autistic child, crusades against vaccinations in the US, so a website has appeared, the controversial but pertinent Jenny McCarthy Body Count, which counts the number of cases of and deaths from diseases which, until the recent panic, had become little more than curiosities and links them explicitly to McCarthy’s high profile campaign. It’s little surprise that such indictments provoke fierce defence.

But the blame doesn’t lie at the feet of the parents. It doesn’t lie at the feet of Jenny McCarthy. Parents, by and large, cannot conceive of taking any action which will cause their child to come to harm. Charged by all their instincts to protect their child, the choice between “X causes immediate harm” and “X causes no immediate and direct harm”, when X is something they don’t fully understand, is a no-brainer. The consequences of ignoring the first appear direct and causal, the consequences of ignoring the second are far less cut and dried to the majority who understandably have little knowledge of epidemiology and immunology. In the light of the mountain of evidence demonstrating the safety of vaccines, this is not a rational approach, but is it really fair to point the finger at parents who act irrationally in the interests of the wellbeing of their children? I don’t think it is.

The complaints from parents, vilified by these remote and unapproachable journalists and scientists, that they “only want to do the best for their children” are deeply understandable. This motivation cannot be credibly denied. It’s the press that’s to blame for the current debacle; the press who published with neither appreciation of the facts nor care for the consequences; the press who give a voice to the charismatically irrational. The press made this the issue that it is and, where the wellbeing of children is concerned, that’s a beast that’s hard to get back into the box.

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Nullius In Verba

Posted in complaints, science on August 29, 2009 by lesmonde

For all but the happy hermetic few, enduring lifestyle advice from peers and apparent professionals is one of the ubiquitous trials of human life.  One of the most neglected questions in this kind of discourse is the simple question “how do you know?”  It’s the perplexing absence of this line of enquiry that’s responsible for some bizarre but frighteningly common phenomena.  Individuals using purple crystals to cure boils on their arse, for example, or a self-assured barstool psychologist explaining to you exactly what your dream of an expanding green stoat tells you about your future.

These things, and other, far less blatantly silly beliefs, are examples of received wisdom.  Pieces of advice and knowledge passed on through word of mouth and, all too often, simply accepted as true.  One doesn’t have to travel far to find claims being made simply because the claimant thinks they sound like they make sense or, even more disturbingly, simply because they like the idea.  For an extreme example, pick up any “Dream Dictionary” from the Mind, Body and Spirit section of your local bookshop, for example.  You’ll find a book packed from cover to cover with apparent facts and bald assertions.  Conspicuous by its absence, however, is any kind of attempt to demonstrate how such knowledge has been come by.  That doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, of course.  It simply makes it useless – and it sets the precedent that we should believe something to be the case simply because it’s come from the mouth of someone who sounds like they know what they’re talking about.  It’s a handicap of human nature that we tend to lend credibility to individuals who appear to know more than ourselves and who speak with authority.  We’re suckers for charisma and we’re all laymen in most fields of knowledge.

The literature of bona-fide science, however, makes superhuman efforts (the task of referencing is not a thigh-slapping, white knuckle ride of thrills and laughter) to allow the reader to find out exactly where, when and how facts have been established.  It seeks to neutralise the charisma or authority of any claimant.  Science leaves a paper trail of dry facts and observations and the conclusions they help us reach.  It’s this commitment to accepting only claims that have been reliably demonstrated – and ignoring claims that can’t be or haven’t been (not as wrong, necessarily, simply as undemonstrated) – that accounts for the overwhelming success of science.  Space travel isn’t possible because engineers gave credence to every idea that sounded like it might make some sense, it’s possible because they concentrated on principles that have been reliably tested.

So, yes, if you’re a parachute tester or an experimental pilot, arming yourself with the question “how do you know?” is probably prudent.  But does it really matter if the claims in a dream dictionary, or the claim that 95-99% of children born today are “indigo children” (I’d really like to know what they did to come up with that “95-99%”.  Those are solid numbers, indicating something has been measured.  I suspect they just pulled it out of their arse along with the rest of their ideas), or even the claim that such a thing as “indigo children” even exist, can be verified?  Well, for all intents and purposes, it probably doesn’t.  But entertaining such utterly unverified information does strike me as little more than an enormous waste of time.  Without knowing how they came to know the things they’re telling us, the information is no more useful than if I were to make to you the unsupported assertion that hopping on your head up a flight of stairs will make your next door neighbour less likely to contract pubic lice.  It’s like the fantasy worlds and imaginary friends that children concoct in their heads and treat as if they were true, except we’re talking about adults.

Anyway, this has been something of a ramble, but I guess what I’m saying is that to get the best out of the myriad advice that’s given to us (both directly and indirectly) and to make any sort of progress as a species, we need everyone, not just the scientists, to start making liberal use of the question “how do you know?”

“But What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?”

Posted in complaints, science, Uncategorized on January 29, 2009 by lesmonde

Vomiting up inane opinions on things one knows nothing about is part of the pop-star package. It’s something we have to expect and learn to live with. Just look at that cunt Bono and his wiry, weasel-faced protege, Chris Martin offof Coldplay.
However, every so often one comes along with such a ludicrous, demonstrably flawed diatribe (usually against ‘the establishment’; whatever that is) that you have to chisel the impacted stupidity off of your eyes with a needle-gun and purify your ears with a year of silence.

At the tail end of 2008, the expiremental rock band TV On The Radio released their third album, entitled “Dear Science”. To some critical acclaim, I believe.
In an interview with Rough Trade’s Album Club Newsletter one of their number explained the title thus:

“The title comes from a letter I wrote to science that was pinned on the studio wall. I feel like: Come on guys just solve one problem just fix one disease. I swear to god I don’t need a smaller phone or a smaller mp3 player and we don’t need more defence system shit. Enough you friggin’ brainiacs. If you have brains, try to connect them to your heart, just for a second and see what happens. This record is the result of our desire to aspire to something higher than air conditioning or technology.” David Sitek, guitar/not knowing what he’s talking about/keyboard

It’s the classic, cliched, critique of “progress” trotted out every ten seconds by some self-important scrote like this Sitek character, who obviously doesn’t like to spend too much time thinking – unless that time is spent thinking he’s Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park. “Science has left human causes behind for the dollar of the arms industry or frivolous pursuits such as portable music players! Oh noes!”

I wonder if Sitek knows anyone who has died from polio? Or smallpox? Indeed, I wonder if he’s ever even seen anyone with polio or smallpox? Or had any experience of these things at all outside of history books or perhaps the tales of a grandparent? Perhaps a grandparent who lived twice as long as the average life expectancy when they were born.

Aside from sufferings that have already been eradicated, the efforts underway just now to understand conditions such as cancer and diabetes are positively Herculean. There are many, many more scientists working on these things than there are developing defense systems or miniaturising MP3 players.
I imagine Sitek’s response would be something like “So why don’t we have a cure for cancer yet, but we can build nuclear weapons, BRAINIAC! LOLOLOL”, possibly seasoned with some verbal flatulence about the Pharmaceutical industry covering up cancer cures to make money.
This idea that we could have cured cancer by now if we really wanted to is a common piece of anti-science rhetoric, chirped up by people who haven’t the first idea what they’re talking about.

Cancer is fucking complicated. It’s mind-meltingly complicated. Creating a nuclear weapon, putting a man on the moon, or whatever other piece of progress you want to compare it with for criticism simply doesn’t cut the proverbial mustard. These things are like making beans on toast compared with understanding, let alone finding some universal cure for, cancer. Here is an image demonstrating how some of the proteins involved in cancer (or believed to be involved in cancer) interact with one another. And that’s just a fraction of one part of the story. It’s a subject that involves genetics, epigenetics, biochemistry, cell biology, molecular physiology, physics, medicine and environmental biology. The possible permutations of human biology that could lead to cancer are unimaginable. No one person will ever understand the whole story.

So, I’d like to pen a response, on behalf on science, to the letter that Sitek so rebelliously pinned to his studio wall:

Dear TV On The Radio,

While you utilise the latest products of our ever expanding knowledge of electronics and information in the studio to help you fulfil your aspiration to “something higher than air conditioning or technology”; while you utilise the machines we have built to exploit the physical laws of nature to get from A to B in promoting your record; while you take advantage of the way humanity has harnessed the power of electromagnetic radiation to broadcast your art across the globe; while you can eat and drink with reasonable confidence that what you’re eating and drinking won’t kill you; while you’re not worrying about myriad diseases any children you might have may succumb to; while you can go for an operation knowing that, through safe anaesthesia, you’ll be protected from pain and that, due to understanding of infection, you’re unlikely to die from gangrene following the procedure; while living well into your eighties…

Please remember not to tarnish the good reputation of the human brain which has brought us all of these things, by making stupid statements about things you know nothing about.

Yours,

Science

(P.S. Our brains are connected to our hearts, hence the unfortunate outcome of decapitation. You twat.)

Travelling Cretins

Posted in complaints, nonsense, Uncategorized on January 22, 2009 by lesmonde

Hagfish are disgusting animals. Barely even vertebrates, these repulsive, ugly creatures make their homes in that horrible sludge that floors our oceans. There, hidden from the eyes of human beings other than those who are compelled by some sadistic scientific curiosity to look them out, hagfish lie excreting a vile, mucid slime from out of their skin. That is, of course, when they’re not squirming into the anus of some unfortunate passing marine creature and feasting on the contents of its colon.
Hagfish truly represent a valid and powerful refutation of the teleological argument for the existence of God. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, just like leek and potato made with dirty spuds, a horrid scum formed on the surface of the primordial soup wherein occured a seperate but tandem evolution to that of our own. This is where, I hypothesise, hagfish came from.

It would also be the ancestral forge of half the people that travel on buses.

I travel on buses with some regularity, and I really don’t mind this way of getting around. It can be peaceful, the Scottish countryside is undeniably beautiful, and the steady hum of the engine on the motorway is oddly therapeutic. I can think, read or just zone out. In theory, it’s actually rather wonderful. Then the hissing, clicking, beeping and crackling starts. Some brain donor, some cretinous fucktard with a Tomy ‘my first mobile phone’ has decided that the rest of the passengers would like a soundtrack to their journey. So, making use of the worst sound system ever devised by mankind, they set about delivering to all within earshot (which, on a coach, is simply “all”) music which sounds like the kind of noise a fruit machine makes when you win – but looped for two hours. I’d rather listen to my neighbour’s burglar alarm in the small hours before an important meeting.

And whose idea was it to make mobile phones capable of this in the first place? The quality is so bad that you’d be better off not listening to music at all. It’d be like designing a TV that sits at the end of an enormous pipe that you have to peer into, using a system of mirrors to see the tiny, distant screen. It’s better not to bother.
If, by some bizarre spasm of fate, I ever end up in the home of the individual who first approved this feature, I’ll break some of his crockery. I’ll knock a ramekin off his kitchen worktop with my elbow and say it was an accident. And I want you to hold me to that. I might even pluck out a pube and hide it on the bottom of his soap.

There are also individuals who travel on the bus who have absolutely no notion of self-consciousness. These people discuss their mundane or otherwise depressing lives at volumes which normal people would reserve for organising a round at a rock concert. Surely not even the person they’re talking to can be interested in what inane remark their friend made to them about Derek next door on the phone the other night before Eastenders came on the telly and they almost missed the start when the smoke alarm went off because their microwave peas were burning.
And it’s not only terminally tedious minutiae like this that’s announced to all within earshot. You hear some things that erode your faith in humanity so much and so rapidly that you sincerely wish that the bus would crash and we’d all just die in the resulting conflagration.
The following is part of a conversation I heard between two individuals, a pregnant woman and the father-to-be, on the way home from the hospital, clearly after a consultation regarding the pregnancy:

Man: But ah’m no goin’ tae be there aw the time, so it’s no really up to me what the bairn’s called.
Woman: Aye, I know but I really wish we could live together.
Man (with sincerity): Ye know I’d just end up batterin’ ye if we lived together.
Woman (sincere and resigned): Aye, I know, Kev, I know.

Earlier they’d been discussing names:

Man: How about Rhiannon?
Woman: That’s a paki name, Kev.

I wanted to drive my thumbs into my eyes until I pierced my brain and collapsed into a fatal seizure. It shouldn’t be legal to put someone in a position like this just because you won’t limit the volume of your moronic conversation. If that child gets abducted in a few years, I’ll be imploring the police not to rush too much – maybe wait and see how it turns out for the kid.

I don’t know how busdrivers do it. Driving us fetid, greasy human beings around all day and night should be enough without also having to endure these kinds of horrible cretins. My misanthropy gland has been working so hard after just an hour and a half on the bus that I’d gladly boil infants in oil and not even bother eating them afterwards, so the drivers must be as saintly as a thousand Mother Teresas squeezed into a tennis ball. How much do they get paid? Is it a lot? It can’t be enough, however much it is.

I’m going to start a charity. These men and women deserve to live like kings.

Magic Eggs

Posted in complaints, science, Uncategorized on December 17, 2008 by lesmonde

Forgive me for leaping, like a startled springbok, towards fantastical assumptions but I had imagined that the purpose of The Metro was to deliver news. That is to say, that somewhere between its crisp, warm, fingertip muddying early hours to its time tiling the floor and windows of whatever papier mache and pipe cleaner vehicle us proles are riding home to our nests, I expect it to at least attempt to communicate information. I don’t expect much, either, I fully appreciate that it’s meant to be read at half-past-don’t-even-speak-to-me by bleary eyed ne’er-do-wells like me, but I’d like an attempt. A shot. A go. It’s not much to ask. Is it?

Yesterday morning, in “Microcosm” (which is The Metro’s column for science news), there was a festive little piece explaining that the head-cramp, rainbow-yawn and bum-sick which becomes endemic in the UK around “office party” season can be cured by simply gubbing an egg! How easy! Tell me more…

This is, they explain, because “chickens’ eggs” contain “a substance” which combats the toxic effects of acetaldehyde (the metabolite of ethanol that’s held to be responsible for making you feel like you have a pregnant hippo wallowing in the gloopy remnants of your brain).

What is this mysterious substance that makes chicken eggs a magic bullet in the war against beer disease? Boringly, it’s the ubiquitous amino acid cysteine, which is found in most foods that we’d consider, in balanced-diet-speak, “protein”. Cysteine is also considered a non-essential amino acid, which means our body can manufacture it all on its own.
So, where are The Metro getting their information? Well, they tail their story with an optimistic “…a study in the Journal of Inflammation Research found”.
And here is the study.
Seems decent enough for what it is, which isn’t a demonstration of eggs curing a hangover. They fed a potentially fatal dose of acetaldehyde to a bunch of rats, some of which had previously been fed heroic amounts of cysteine (the equivalent of an 80kg man eating 20g of pure cysteine) and found that the rats that weren’t full of cysteine were much more likely to die. So does this mean it’s plausible that an egg will help cure your hangover? Yes. But before we rush to sell an idea to the marketing people at Warninks, let’s be careful what we mean by “plausible” here. This is pub conversation plausible, not breaking news plausible.
Now, talking of breaking news, far be it from me to be an etymological pedant but, this study, deemed worthy of inclusion in a science news column from yesterday, was published in 1974. Thirty four years ago. Is this what passes for mainstream science journalism? I quickly turned to their entertainment pages for an exclusive on the death of Jimi Hendrix, but was denied. Their journalistic bloodhounds have yet to hit the scent of that trail, it seems.
Surely, if it was just a space filler they were looking for they might have found an interesting contemporary story. There are lots of scientists after all, doing lots of science, and some of it is about space, explosions or ferocious animals (unfortunately, not so much of it is about all three).

But, no, it seems there is a more sinister motive. The Metro, I suspect, are in the pockets of some sinister egg baron. Not 24 hours previously, they’d published another “magic eggs cure hangover” story. This time quoting a Dr Andrew Irving in saying that a breakfast of eggs will provide sufficient protein to overcome the hypoglycaemia (rather frighteningly described as “a reduction in blood levels” – enough to put anyone off the pop) of a hangover. Hypoglycaemia is low blood sugar. Eating protein will only combat this in very specific dietary situations, none of which are commonly experienced by your average western adult.

Perhaps I’m over-reacting. I don’t know. It is only The Metro after all, and it was 8am and my patience for bullshit was enfeebled by the unwelcome legacy of the beer I’d had the night before. If only I’d had time to boil an egg…