Thursday, December 17, 2009

Randi-gate Part II

And the skeptical community breathes a sigh of relief... sort of.

Not surprisingly it didn't take too long after the skeptical blogosphere went pyroclastic from Randi's "AGW Denial" - which I dealt with in my last post - for Randi to follow up with a response and clarification.

Okay... whew, Randi isn't a global warming denier.

I'm actually not terribly surprised by that.  I'm glad to know that the impression was a result of having whittled down his first draft to publishable size.  Certainly his original post does seem consistent with that explanation.


There are still issues associated with the original post.

For starters, its out there in the first place, and it came from one of the most important voices in skepticism.  The deniers - the pseudoskeptics - will be happy to quote the original out of context as it serves their purposes, never including any of the important clarifications of the second part.  That can't be undone.  Hopefully I'm wrong about that.  Hopefully the pseudoskeptics aren't that intellectually bankrupt; or aren't savvy enough to take advantage of the circumstance.  (Yeah, good luck on that.)  If they mention the follow up at all, I can pretty much guarantee that it'll be presented in terms of "Look what happened when he was brow-beaten by his peer-group" - a sentiment that only undermines us all.

In his follow-up Randi doesn't retract his final points of his original post - that we have more important things to concern ourselves with.  I cry bullshit.  I accept that it's not the sole concern of skepticism.  I will accept that there is at least one issue in our domain that is of comparable concern when you consider that our real purview is science-outreach (I am thinking of Anti-Vax, BTW.) and not doing the actual science.  But there is NOTHING more important than working towards getting a grasp of this issue in all it's complexities and getting the reality of the situation conveyed effectively to as many people as possible.  On this level I am still muttering "Oh for fuck's sake, Randi!"

Yesterday I was trying hard to see the silver-lining.  Trying to use the opportunity as a chance to demonstrate to myself at least that our skeptical idols are fallible and that the movement is - to it's strength - not in lock-step.  I still think that lesson is relevant an valuable, but I have to admit that today I'm not feeling so rosy.  I don't know that anything Randi could have said would have totally satisfied me.  I still think that his original post was a colossal blunder.

It is one thing for a foul-mouthed buffoon like myself, with an audience of about three and no reputation to speak of, to run-off half-cocked about something I don't know enough about... and for the record, I generally try to avoid that or at least qualify it when I do.  But for one of our luminaries to speak up on such an important issue - with such bad timing, what with Copenhagen being at the top of the news - it's disappointingly sloppy.  If Randi were known as a loose cannon it would be something all together different.  Let's face it, when Penn Gillette - who these days is even more visible than Randi - offers up a tepid "I'm just saying 'I do not know'" defense, we grumble and shrug, but it's in character, so we let it slide (a bit) and laugh it off with an "Oh that Libertarian Ideologue, Penn!  Whadda-guy!"  But Randi is not Penn.  I just can't help myself.  I still feel disappointed.  Indeed, at least before he responded there was still a Shrodinger's chance that I wouldn't be disappointed by his follow up, but now the cat is out of the hermetically sealed quantum box.  And clearly I am not alone.

So then, what do I walk away with this time?  I don't want it to be all 'bad taste in my mouth'...

Yesterday when commisserating with fellow SN bloggers I mentioned Dr. David Brin's notion of CITOKATE.  I even tried to find an appropriate way to show-horn it into yesterday's post, but it wouldn't have fit well.  I knew a better opportunity would arise - and at least on an introductory level, this is it.

Citokate is an acronym for "Criticism is the only known antidote to error."  It's a notion that I am surprised has yet to gain traction in skepticism.  Though admittedly it does have more political ramifications than skeptical/scientific ones as it is practically an inherent part of the proper scientific process.

I don't know that citokate is provable, but it certainly rings true upon any degree of reflection and evidence suggest that it is true.

Citokate, (though not by that term) is at the core of the scientific process of discovery. The practice of peer review is itself the pure embodiment of the notion. The essential self-correcting tenets of science – where shortcomings in a theory are shored up by future discovery without a dogmatic adherence to what has been written in the books... so long as the evidence is convincing.

Pardon if a political example/metaphor fits my intent best...

The most despotic regimes of the past – from Nero, through Hitler, Stalin, Pol-Pot and Hussein – made it a central policy of their tyranny that dissent would be crushed. Presumably they believed that having cracks in their own overarching vision showed weakness and must be eliminated. To suggest an avenue for improvement was an anathema to the leadership. This cocooning of intellect was intended to vouchsafe the dictatorship from political disintegration... and it may have actually worked in the short term. But there is a critical failure in the policy – What if there really are weaknesses in the structure of the society in question? Well, political problems are more likely to compound than dissipate. Eventually the practice of "LA! LA! LA! I'm not listening to you!" allows minor issues to fester into poisonous ones, and poisonous ones to become fatal. Note that all of the examples (and admittedly specifically selected for their adherence to the needs of example) mentioned above eventually fell – all as symptoms of their own failed policy.

In some cases the Tyrant at the forefront of the regime in question would themselves never even hear the criticism – let alone ignore it. The 'yes men' of the inner circle would be accustomed to not defy their glorious leader and themselves would head off (sometimes literally) any suggestion of opposition. The leader wouldn't even get the chance to consider the value of the criticism. Any 'public' appearance would be closely controlled so that only the faithful would be in attendance – not simply for security. The media would be visciously limited – anything resembling a press conference would be peopled strictly by those 'on-side' who would ask only prepared questions. Sounds kind of hauntingly familiar doesn't it? I speak not of Randi (I shall get back to that before I am done here.), but of a recent (though not current) presidential administration - or the current Provincial leadership here at home in British Columbia.  Consider it a cautionary tale.

The benefits of listening to criticism carefully are almost self-evident. A devil's advocate policy will help fine tune decisions and discoveries both in advance and as they are put in practice, making the results more reliable and open to improvement in areas where they fail. 

Clearly Randi listened when we shouted.  He heard the plaintif cry and acted.  He asked for more learned help - significantly from Phil Plait as is evident from his post - and took a step towards ammending the perception of his position.  He is taking the right path for a skeptic of his calibre - any calibre, really.

There is much left to say on this, but this post is getting absurdly long.  I'm going to finish up by quoting Dr. Plait, who has finally spoken up on the matter.  I recommend reading his post.  He is saying much of what I have, but in more succinct fashion - and from closer to the eye of the storm.
Part of being a skeptic — and it’s a big part — is admitting when you’re wrong.
And finally, there is a really good takeaway point from this: when it comes to reality, no one and no thing is sacrosanct. If something is wrong, it gets called out. That’s what skepticism is all about. If Randi makes a mistake, he gets called on it. If scientists do, or the Pope does, or anyone, then it is up to all of us to speak up. And I think that how we do it is just as important as the content of our claims.
I'm going to try to take that to heart in the most postive of ways.  'Cause how I've been feeling is close to an intellectual equivalent of inconsolable.  I'm not alone.  Watching the Twitter responses to this over the past few days you would think that;

"There is no joy in Skepti-ville— the mighty Randi has struck out."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Randi Boner

The Skeptisphere is buzzing.

[Pharyngula] [Island of Doubt] [The skepTick]
[Greg Laden]

James Randi spoke up yesterday about global warming, and not many skeptics think good things of his position.

First let me be clear about my position on Anthroprogenic Global Warming (AGW):  I am not a climate scientist.  I DO NOT KNOW.

Now if Randi had taken that simple tack, I wouldn't be writing this.  Instead his position can largely be summed up as "There is a lot of controversy and there are more important things to worry about."

On account of that sentiment people are implying that he is senile and/or a AGW denier.  Maybe he is.  Maybe he isn't.

Now I need to rewind to my AGW position...  As I said, I do not know.  I am not a scientist and the evidence both for and against is extremely complex.  There IS a lot of controversy.  I really have no way of reliably determining for myself whether human-kind is adding to the Global Warming trends - or even if those tends truly exist.  I don't have the knowledge or know how, and neither do the vast majority of people on the planet - Randi included.

So, if we don't know, what do we do?

It's an irresponsible choice to take the "well, if I can't tell, then it doesn't matter" option.

For myself, I've made an effort over an extended period of time (read: years) to make a mental list of the voices that I trust to distill the information and percolate it down to me in various forms.  I've selected this informal list my gradually assessing who consisently speaks with sound logic and whose positions consisntly correlate with either verifiable reality or, at the least, with the past positions (prior plausibility essentially) of other people who I have gradually learned I can rely upon.

This isn't a matter of realying to an appeal to authority, it's a matter of assessing concensus of authorities.

Randi is one of these authorities, and on this matter he is not falling in line with the others.  That is why I have come to rely upon multiple authorities and not one divine proctor of all knowledge.  Randi knows his stuff when it comes to charlatans.  But – forgive the broken record – he is not a climate scientist.

Most of the sources that I trust acknowledge AGW – or at least GW – and thus I have generally speaking come down on the side of being an advocate of efforts to reduce the effect mankind is exerting upon the environment. Yes. I have doubts. Yes, I fight constantly with the seemingly innate desire to consume. But even if I were ultimately a denier I would have to acknowledge that doing nothing is a negligent fools bet.

If I am wrong and humanity has no effect upon the climate, then what has been lost? In the grand scheme of things, very little. Everyone’s quality of life would be reduced by what is ultimately a small amount (recall we used to call caves ‘home’) – with the greatest individual impacts falling upon the most successful capitalists (those who have the most head-room to lose).

If I am right, and we do nothing, the possible most extreme cost is the extinction of humanity and many many many other living species. That is your life, the lives of everyone you know, their pets, most of the living things they feed upon, the wild animals that they watch on Discovery channel specials and the descendants of every single one of those people and things forever and ever and ever. It’s considerably more than a metric fuck-ton.

So... if there is the least chance that we can affect or ameliorate climate change by tempering our actions we must do so. Not “should if it’s convenient” – we must.

It’s not really a matter of whether the logic of the science appears to be right or not – there are too many existing confounding factors that makes the issue too inscruitable to the average joe. “Average Joe” (or Jane) is who almost all of us are. We can only really act wisely upon the best gamble.

Randi is not applying logic to what would be the best gamble. Perhaps that’s got something to do with his advanced age or his lack of descendants, but the reasons aren’t really relevant. The fact remains that he has put his foot in it.

We shouldn’t expect that Randi is going to be imperfect. We shouldn’t expect him to uphold every one of our own individual values. He may be our collective hero and one of our greatest spokesman – but relying upon him alone for direction is nothing but an appeal to authority.

Perhaps in a way this is a good thing for skepticism. There are those in the world who will snidely point at our luminaries and accuse the rank and file of group-think. But here is a chance to show that we do not fall in line behind Randi – or by extension Dawkins or Shermer or Plait or Nickell. We do not follow anyone. We have great respect for those who have demonstrated their ability to filter the bullshit in the world with consistency, but we have no blind fealty to them.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Say What?!??!?

Language is possibly our most amazing invention. To my understanding we had invented it long before we could be called sapient. Language can be beautiful and poetic or direct and specific. How language is used in skepticism has recently come to the fore of my mind.

On the first hand, in creating documents with other skeptics I have found that my style – which is admittedly more creative than technical – is often not the best choice. My default to emotion is very hard to marry with precision.

On the second hand over at Skeptic North we have recently seen one of our regular commenters become an annoying (to speak lightly) pedant, taking us to task over the minute nuances of word choices. Care to guess how I feel about this? While grousing about this specific commenter is not my purpose in this post, his philosophical position is totally relevant. Consider his argument:

There are a number of "skeptical" blogs in the world that are increasingly lazy about language, accuracy in word definition, correct word usage, rigourous grammar, and so forth. Some blogs even practice a form of Humpty Dumptyism -- inventing portmanteaus and claiming provenance and/or other legitimacy, or inventing a new or colloquial definition claiming universality.
If one wanted to help the skeptical movement lose credibility, such dictional errancy and laziness is a very good place to start.
Language, and words, are my speciallty. As such, I have always hoped for extra careful dictional accuracy from those who place themselves in positions of authority, especially when wearing the mantle of skeptical inerrancy and bearing the logos of the skeptical movement.
I find it hard not to point out that in MS Word, cutting and pasting his comment has resulted in a plethora of red squiggly lines – oh irony. I'd hate to see how it would appear if "Language, and words, [weren't his] speciallty."

But to my real point, I do appreciate that his essential argument is not wrong. But that sure as hell doesn't make it right. Yes, muddy language can cause an unfortunate malleability of position and/or point on the part of the reader. But it is 1) not a certainty that misunderstanding is the inevitable case; 2) not always a person's primary intention to be precise; 3) does not take into account the variability of intended audience; and 4) does not allow for the spectrum of voices that represent the quilt of humanity that make up the skeptical community.

More than anything else though, scientifically precise language is tepid and uninteresting to the layman.

Skepticism's primary goal – arguably it's only goal – is outreach. While many scientists are skeptics, not all skeptics are scientists – or doctors or IT professionals or even magicians. We cannot expect that talking to borderline skeptics in the language of any of these subsets is going to be a way of communicating effectively to these people. Worse than speaking in jargon or in concepts that go above their heads (though that all contributes) speaking in language that is too careful, stripped of unearned superlatives, laden with caveats and qualifiers; we fall deep into the danger of BORING THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF PEOPLE. ...and we can't afford to do that.

A bored audience is a lost audience – almost always permanently. And that is nothing if not a goliath fail. Skepticism only grows when we engage the people who either don't realize they are skeptics (and I suspect that the big wave of new skepticism fuelled by web 2.0 that everyone has talked about for the past two years or so is reaching its saturation point – the legions of closet skeptics are more out than not by now) or we need to reach the people who are almost skeptics and capture their imaginations by speaking to truths that they ultimately find evident in ways that entertain and interest them to explore further.

I do appreciate that there is a place for precision in science. It is a requirement that on any given subject that there be very precise scientific literature out there. But, I emphasize, we skeptics though we have scientists amongst us, are not scientists. We must not pretend to be what we are not (this applies to the other major subsets of skeptics outlined above as well as all the miscellany) and we must remember that our main goal must be to open the minds of the world as a whole to critical thinking. It is our job to instil a sense of wonder in real science; but we must leave the scientific journaling to the scientific journals and the audiences that turn to them (which does include many of us) for the hardcore science and details.

That does mean we risk openings for assumption and misinterpretation, this is true and inevitable. But the audiences we win over in our outreach efforts should not be won over by the facts, they should be won over by the philosophy – the process – of skepticism. And in so doing they will eventually, if not all at once, also embrace the values of not accepting surface interpretations and the desire to dig deeper – at which point they will turn to the appropriate science literature... just like we do.

We don't need to talk down to people in the process. I don't run away from my big vocabulary, or the sometimes too florid flourish I've developed from years of writing for theatre; I don't even think that the commenter mentioned above should shy from his penchant for specificity (though aiming his pedantry at others' writing is beyond tiresome) – to censor our styles in our own presentation would be to insult our audiences. We simply need to think of how we express ourselves as a natural conversation – whatever that means to you personally, not as a skeptic, not as a scientist (real or pretend) but as a citizen of your community. Talk to them. Don't lecture them. Engage them and inspire them. Do not push them away. Do not, whatever you do, bore them.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ooooh! Oooh! Look at the Crazy!

A couple of Skeptical Friends discovered a particularly egregious blog post by my favourite homeopath - Sonya McLeod...

One friend send a response that did not get past her moderation, so a few others went on asking questions instead - and were eventually outed.

I'm reprinting the totally fucking bananas comment thread that followed, just in case she decides to delete it all.  I haven't changed a single character, except for shortening the line of dashes that got transferred in my cut and paste & a friendly redacting request which should be obvious by the series of 'X'-es...

I shant say more - sometimes the crazy just doesn't need further comment....

EDIT: Okay, it's 12 hours later and there is good reason to comment further.  Judging by my blog stat tracking I am virtually positive that Ms. McLeod has found this post.  I won't bore you with the specific forensic details that lead me to that conclusion, but I am confident to say "Hi Sonya."
As predicted she has deleted almost all of her comment thread, which really is just a cowardly exhibition of her inability to deal with reason... but I don't think that should be a surprise to anyone who has followed any of my other coverage of her postings.
And on top of it all she has added a pretty ridiculous ad hoc comment policy to that post.  See comment #5 to this post to see the details on that.
Now back to your regularly scheduled post...

20 Responses to “H1N1 Vaccine Miscarriages: Exclusive Interview with Connie Adams and More Reports Worldwide”
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1 Mandy
December 7, 2009 at 6:18 pm
I was 5 weeks pregnant when I got the H1N1 vaccine. I received the shot on a Thursday and was very sore and achy on Friday. I miscarried my baby on Sunday, just 3 days after receiving the shot. This was my first pregnancy and I thought I was doing the best thing for myself and my baby by getting the shot. My doctor didn’t warn me against waiting until I was further along nor was I aware of any warnings by the government. (Columbus, Ohio, USA)

2 littlemountainhomeopathy
December 8, 2009 at 10:03 am
As with all my posts, personal attacks, sexist remarks and homeophobic attacks (as well as homophobic lol) will be deleted.

3 Grace
December 8, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Miscarriages happen without taking this shot, so I was wondering if you knew how many happen after taking the vaccine vs not taking it at all. Any idea where we could find that info?


4 littlemountainhomeopathy
December 8, 2009 at 12:57 pm
Hello Grace. Thanks for your comment. You bring up a good point, but it is very hard if not impossible to find the info you seek. The reason for this is that the mainstream press does not report these miscarriages even though they are happening. Also doctors are telling women that their miscarriages are not from the vaccine, even though the miscarriages coincide with taking the vaccine. The women believe the doctors and don’t report the miscarriage as a side effect of the vaccine.

5 Grace
December 8, 2009 at 2:08 pm
Thanks for the quick reply!

I’m not sure what you mean about the press though… in your article you listed some news sources that were reporting them, so they are being reported, aren’t they?

Anyhow what I’m wondering is this: You said that there were 9 reported cases in europe – is that more than we would expect given the number of miscarriages that happen anyways for unrelated reasons? Like if 10% of pregnancies end in miscarriage (I don’t know if that’s the right number) then won’t 10% of pregnant women who get the shot have a miscarriage even if the vaccine is harmless?

Thanks again!

6 littlemountainhomeopathy
December 8, 2009 at 2:17 pm
Hello Grace. Yes, a few are being reported in Europe, but even in Europe there are miscarriages from the H1N1 vaccine happening that are not being reported. In North America, the mainstream press has not reported them even though it is happening (e.g. Connie and the 7-8 who contacted her, I’m sure there are more). If we knew the true number of miscarriages then it would be possible to analyze the data, but since we don’t, it’s impossible. Doctors refuse to believe that the H1N1 vaccine is causing the miscarriage, so proper investigation isn’t even being done (e.g. autopsy). Even when investigations are done (e.g. in Europe) I believe that the conclusions are biased because if it were proven that the vaccine caused the damage then the government (taxpayers) would have to pay for those damages.

7 Jesse
December 8, 2009 at 3:02 pm

You said “If we knew the true number of miscarriages then it would be possible to analyze the data, but since we don’t, it’s impossible.”

If it’s impossible to analyze with the available data, then how do you come to the conclusion that H1N1 vaccines are causing more miscarriages than would occur without the vaccine (or, as Grace suggests, with a harmless vaccine)? If you don’t know the base rate of miscarriages, then it’s impossible to tell if the vaccine is causing them, isn’t it?

8 littlemountainhomeopathy
December 8, 2009 at 3:11 pm
Hello Jesse. This is exactly why these miscarriages aren’t being investigated. If they were investigated, we would be able to conclude something. Now we are just forced to guess. I believe that the toxic ingredients in the vaccines are causing miscarriages. We don’t know for sure, but I’m putting forth the evidence that I have in this post.

9 Jesse
December 8, 2009 at 3:18 pm
But the guess seems like a random shot in the dark. Presumably, they also drove to the clinic to get the vaccine. Does that mean that driving causes miscarriages? If you aren’t comparing the miscarriage rate to anything, then how can you make a conclusion?

10 littlemountainhomeopathy
December 8, 2009 at 3:21 pm
In Connie and Zahra’s case, you can make the conclusion based on the fact that they felt ill after the vaccine and before getting the vaccine everything was going fine in their pregnancies. The vaccines are also very toxic which I have talked about in other posts. When you inject toxins into a pregnant woman the toxins will affect the fetus negatively, sometimes resulting in miscarriage. If the baby is carried to term perhaps it will result in birth defects, I’m sure we’ll be hearing about that in a few months.

11 Jesse
December 8, 2009 at 3:26 pm
Aren’t there lots of pregnant women who have gotten the vaccine with no miscarriage, and no negative effects on the fetus at all? Couldn’t you use that fact to make the opposite argument?

I think what Grace was saying is that you have to compare the miscarriage rate in the vaccine group to the rate in the non-vaccine group before you can make the conclusion that the vaccine is relevant. That’s why controlled trials are important in medicine. Without the controls, do you think it is a bit irresponsible to make conclusions and recommendations?

12 littlemountainhomeopathy
December 8, 2009 at 3:33 pm
We have no idea what the long term effects of the H1N1 vaccine will be on a fetus. There are no long-term clinical trials that have been done on the H1N1 vaccine. Therefore we have no idea about the long term effects it will have on anybody – adult, child, or fetus. Those pregnant women who got the H1N1 vaccine may feel that they did not suffer any side effects, but we cannot say what the long-term effects will be.

The irresponsible thing is to promote this vaccine to pregnant women and children yet there have been so adequate trials performed on the effect of the H1N1 vaccine on women and children. Plus the ingredients are toxic to a fetus, they are listed in this post: Update: Swine Flu Vaccine Without Adjuvant is Unsafe

13 Jesse
December 8, 2009 at 3:34 pm
Here’s another question: if it turned out that a woman had a miscarriage shortly after a homeopathic treatment, would you say that the homeopathy likely caused it? Wouldn’t you want to make sure it wasn’t just a coincidence first? If so, then aren’t you obligated to do the same in this case?

14 littlemountainhomeopathy
December 8, 2009 at 3:36 pm
That can’t happen, because unlike vaccines and pharmaceuticals, homeopathic medicines are completely safe and non toxic.

15 Dominique
December 8, 2009 at 3:53 pm
Hi there. I don’t think you answered Jesse’s question. Lets say it did happen. Would you draw the same conclusion? Or would you first think to yourself “Maybe something else caused it?” or “Maybe it was some accident?”.

I only ask because many many scientists and doctors have said “That can’t happen, because the N1H1 vaccines are completely safe and non toxic.” You’re saying they are not, but you’re not giving us a reason to believe you over believing them.


16 Jesse
December 8, 2009 at 3:58 pm
Also, I think you misunderstood me. A certain number of women get miscarriages normally, right? Either from something they’ve done, or just because it happens once in a while. So no matter what group you look at – including women who have gone to a homeopath – a base percentage can be expected to miscarry. I’m not saying the homeopathy would have caused it, but it could happen as a coincidence. Without carefully comparing the vaccine group to a control group, there’s no way to know if these miscarriages are just a coincidence.

If you are saying that vaccines are toxic, so of course they cause miscarriages, then OK, but that’s an assertion you’re making that isn’t based at all on the cases you cited in your post. Those cases have an emotional impact, but if it turns out that they were just coincidental, then don’t you think it’s a a bit of a manipulation? Would that be dishonest?

17 Grace
December 8, 2009 at 4:01 pm
Thanks again for the response.

Sorry, I thought since you were sounding the alarm about this problem that you must have some info on the rates of miscarriages with the vaccine vs the rates without. You say that the miscarriages are ‘from’ the vaccine, but all we know is that they’re happening afterwards. Without information about how many are happening vs how many to expect, how do you know the vaccine is increasing the number of miscarriages?

8-9 women out of the millions who have been given the flu shot in the US seems well within the expected amount… If every pregnant woman were to take a homeopathic remedy you would expect some percentage of them to have a miscarriage afterwards – the same number as would have if they had taken plain water instead, right? Of course it wouldn’t be fair to blame homeopathy for those miscarriages, so I’m not sure how the situation with the flu shot is any different than that… can you clarify?

Sorry for all the questions, thank you for your patience.

18 littlemountainhomeopathy
December 8, 2009 at 7:32 pm
Hello Grace, Dominique and Jesse
The H1N1 vaccine is toxic. Toxicity harms a fetus. Here is evidence of H1N1 vaccine toxicity, taken from my past blog posts:

from “Update: Swine Flu Vaccine Without Adjuvant is Unsafe”

Neomycin is an antibiotic that can cause damage to the kidneys and/or nerves. Side effects are decreased urination, hearing loss, ringing in the ears, feeling of fullness in the ears, dizziness, numbness, skin tingling, muscle twitching, or seizures which may be signs of kidney or nerve damage. Neomycin is in pregnancy category D which means it may be harmful to an unborn baby.

Polymyxin B Sulfate is also an antibiotic. It can cause serious side effects, including kidney failure. Other side effects include irritability, weakness, drowsiness, numbness in the arms or legs, or blurred vision. The safety of Polymyxin B Sulfate has not been established for use during pregnancy.

Beta-Propiolactone is a disinfectant. The CDC labels beta-propiolactone as a potential human carcinogen. In rats, acute oral administration or intraperitoneal injection of beta-propiolactone caused muscular spasms, respiratory difficulty, convulsions, and death. Acute intravenous injection caused kidney tubule and liver damage. Subcutaneous injection of beta-propiolactone in rats and mice produced cancer at the sites of administration. Single intraperitoneal injections in suckling mice produced lymphatic tumors and liver cancer. A study in 1984 in the Journal of Neurological Sciences showed that some neurological complications in young adults was caused by antirabies vaccines containing beta-propiolactone.

From “Swine flu vaccine ingredients are not safe for pregnant women and children”

Doctors, pharmacists, and the mainstream press assure us that thimerosal is not harmful but one recent study begs to differ. A study done by UBC professor Dr. Chris Shaw published in the June 2009 edition of Toxicological and Environmental Chemistry found that thimerosal is toxic to the cells of an unborn fetus. Pregnant women are told not to eat tuna because it contains high levels of mercury, yet it is perfectly acceptable to inject mercury directly into a pregnant woman?! The US and Canadian governments assure us that thimerosal is not harmful, yet they have systematically removed thimerosal from every single childhood vaccine except for the (swine) flu vaccine. Russia, Denmark, Austria, Japan, Great Britain, and all the Scandinavian countries have banned thimerosal from being used in any of their vaccines.

19 littlemountainhomeopathy
December 8, 2009 at 9:48 pm
It has just come to my attention that Grace is actually XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX; “she” is a man. XXXXXXXXXX and Jesse are both members of a group called the “skeptics society.” The skeptics have a political agenda: they are anti-environmental and oppose all restrictions on business, especially biotechnology. They are avid supporters of Big Pharma. They are also men, and I believe that they have are addressing me and belittling this blog post in a sexist manner. Instead of listening to what me and these women have to say, they belittle our experiences and tell us that we are wrong. Well I have one thing to tell you: our experience is more real and true than any of your sexism and put-downs.
To read more about the political agenda behind the skeptics society go to:

Monday, December 7, 2009

Coping with Copenhagen

Climate change has been for some time one of skepticism's biggest internal controversies. Many notable skeptics have fallen on the side of the deniers. Michael Shermer, Penn Gillette and (I think - though I don't believe he ever clearly stated his position, I ammerely going with the impression I got reading between the lines of early SGU episodes.) Perry DeAngelis. Shermer has publically changed his position; Gillette offered an agruably tepid mea culpa at TAM7 - backing away from previous statements; and who knows what Perry's position would be today if he were alive. (If someone who actually knew Perry wishes to disabuse me of this notion, I am happy to make note for the record.) We seem to be coming to a consensus amongst ourselves that is in line witht he consensus that has come into focus in the scientific community (no real surprise there). I am baffled at how it could have taken us so long to come around. This is about all that makes this a specifically skeptical, much less, asshole-skeptical post. I wanted to make a point of talking about this important subject today, even though I have another post ready in the wings.

Today is the first day of the Copenhagen Conference. Anyone with interest in climate change has been looking ahead to this day with excitement and apprehension. Some argue that this is our last chance for change - that is definitely the extreme end of the hype, but that doesn't mean it isn't the truth. I simply do not know.

I expect that as early as when the conference is over and I can't imagine it will take more than a year from now there will be a trumpet of "we did not do enough - Copenhagen was a failure" sentiments.

Personally I think we must do something. We can't afford not to do something, but I also doubt that mankind will do anything until things get dire. Some people believe that by the time it is dire we will have passed a tipping point and that all will be doomed. I only hope that that will be wrong. No doubt the earth will carry on without us, and I am absolutely in the camp of thinking that implying otherwise, as many do, is extreme arrogance. I think it would be preferable if we can manage to save our species.

We don't seem to be hard wired to pay attention to anything short of an immediate and extreme undeniable threat. If the 'end' is not extreme, we collectively just won't heed it. If it is to take catastrophe for us to wake up it may be best if it happens sooner than later. I for one am not scared of the inevitability of oil 'drying up.' Indeed I don't think it can happen (realistically) soon enough. We are a clever bunch o' monkeys (yeah, yeah - see my next post) and I have no doubt that we will find ways of adjusting how civilization carries on without oil that don't impact terribly on our quality of life. Certainly the specifics will change, and in the process there will be upheaval, but in the long run we will be fine. But the sooner catastrophe strikes, the better the lesson will be learned.

At the same time I feel conflicting desires - I'm only human - hoping that we can find ways, perhaps through the fruits of Copenhagen, to ameliorate the extremity of the shift. It is going to be an interesting journey, and assuming a typical lifetime I may get to see a good chunk of the worst I suspect.

We aren't particularly good at weighing cost/benefit as people. Our tendency towards mis-using the practically instinctual heuristics we have evolved coupled with a built-in desire for what is best for us RIGHT NOW over what is best for us overall is a recipe for disaster. It may be better that we prepare our coping mechanisms to gird against the inevitability rather than fight against it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

With Great Power... are you prepared for the implications?

It's fair to say that we've seen our first official shit-storm over at Skeptic North.  I am speaking of the same issue I was writing about in my last post.
Ontario is about to follow BCs lead and give prescription rights to Naturopaths.
The idea of naturopaths prescribing is wrong on so many levels that have been covered by many other people: It flies in the face of what they claim to be their core practice; they are not sufficiently trained; the spectrum of their practice includes as much hokum as reality (I am being generous on that front.); and the arguments they are leveraging to get those rights generally speaking don't hold up.

But let's just cast that all aside, just for a minute shall we?

What if we were to simply give in?  What if we threw our hands up and said "yeah sure, you can have prescriptive rights... but this one is on you when it goes bad."

Before I go further, let me be clear:  What I am proposing here would be a lousy tactic for those of us in favour of reason to submit to employing.  It is lazy, but it may be all we have left when the dust settles.  The only version of this that results in good things comes from wearing so many pairs of rose coloured glasses as to block out the light of reason.  The reality is that for this tactic to have a positive social effect, someone - and really that means "some-many" will get hurt, probably die, first.

But lets look down that road, shall we?

Some NDs are crying out that this is a necessary step towards better regulation of Naturopathy (which is, if you ask me, putting the cart before the horse, but let's take the argument at face value).

Okay - great.  So how is this going to work then?  Are Naturopaths going to have an oversight committee that enforces standards?  That de-licenses all those sham-NDs who practice the treatments that fall into the 'bogus' territory of the ND's tool-kit?  That penalizes those who are found to be using herbal remedies that have not been rigorously tested and manufactured with a strict care for consistency?
Is there going to be a tracking system put in place so that when a patient goes to an ND first, and then when the treatment they recieve fails to work and they go to Emergency, un-healed, possibly hurt, maybe even die in the hospital as a result of Naturopathic negligence that the culpability flow-chart includes the Naturopath?  Make no mistake - currently a lot of people who meet their button-maker as a result of failures in Naturopathy end up doing so on the statistical report-card of the medical establishment.
Will all naturopathic remedies need to be prescribed so that people who oversee drug conflicts (pharmacists) are kept in the loop?

It may be a bit cynically Polly-Anna-ish of me, but I think in the long-game this may actually be regulated in a defacto manner by the inurance companies.  They aren't dummies.  Their particular gambling game is all about weighing the odds and pricing their services at a level that (god forbid) makes them money.  In order to do that competitively they need to factor reality into the equation.  Treating placebos as medicine will only put them out of business.  With an inevitably higher incident of malpractice, the insurers will have to charge NDs higher premiums.  This cost will get passed on to the user.  In the end, who do you want to give your money to?  The doctor whose practices work and is (relatively) cheap?  Or the quack who has to financially soak you, just to stay in business?

Either way, NDs will eventually be pushed into a position of better practices.  Eventually we may be able to call them doctors with out the qualifier.  It happened to osteopaths, it seems to maybe happening to Chiropractors.  (If so it is happening at a glacial pace.)  If you want legitimacy, you gotta wear the yoke that comes with it!

This is a slow road to follow, and it will be marked by tragedy along the way.  It is not the best solution.  The world would be a far better place if we could bring the Grendel down at the start of it's rampage.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Really? That's the best you've got?

Do you recall the Saturday Night Live sketch where Michael Dukakis is debating the future Bush 41 and he comments to himself "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy"?

Welcome to the sissyphian world of skepticism.

The ridiculously inept arguments of the 'other' side are head-smacking in their quality.

Today fellow Skeptic North blogger Scott was published in the National Post.  It was an article he had written for SN that was re-posted in the newspaper.

Now, I'm not so naive as to think that naturopaths would lie down and take this criticism, but I clearly over estimated their ability to fight back cogently.

The Roberts Centre of Integrative Medicine wrote this response - which conveniently includes the response of the OAND (Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors); allowing me to kill two birds with one stone. 
While it is reasonably literate - no classic web-fails like using 'then' when they mean 'than' - it doesn't even manage to put up a realistic fight.  It is a 'nyah nyah' away from being childish.  If they weren't so painfully - dangerously - wrong, it would feel like kicking a puppy to point out how fundamentally stupid their response is.

"Highly Biased" - Well it IS an opinion piece, so I'm not sure what they are complaining about.  Perhaps they are taking umbrage with the use of facts to express a position of science - a tactic that they are all but incapable of utilizing?  To say nothing of the fact that their response is... yes - highly biased.  And in their case devoid of actual science to back it up.

They go one to make claims about "botanical and nutritional medicines... being placed on prescription-only schedules" specifically "higher dosages of Vitamin D" and utterly fail to provide a single reference (let alone link) to any of their evidence.  But while we're at it, why did they ask to prescribe anti-biotics, anti-virals, and anti-inflammatories and Suzane Somer's bioidentical hormones?
I particularly love this sly ad hominem attack:
Becoming an ND requires eight years of education and training, including a university pre-med degree and a four-year naturopathic program. This compares to the five years in total required to become a pharmacist.
Wahh wahh!  You wasted your time and money on a sub-par education.  That doesn't make your magic work, Slytherin.  A person could devote their life to studying yogic-flying (and some do) and they'd still need a trampoline to make it work.  There is a reason we would prefer to be represented in court by a Harvard graduate, than by Uncle Ted, who got his degree from a matchbook.  If they wanted to prescribe real medicine, perhaps they should have taken the short-cut and studied to be pharmacists!

They go right back to hypocritic (not to be confused with hippocratic - at all) ad hominem attacks that do little to advance their argument; accusing him of fearmongering and misleading the public.  If they themselves had not been so direly misled, then I wouldn't even have to address the well-poisoning cartoon they add to the article.  Hover your mouse over it and what will it say?  "Conflict of interest."  Need I point out how many NDs sell the very products they prescribe?  And to add to that, they aren't even thinking straight.  If NDs are given the power of pharmaceutical prescription - which they are simultaneously fighting for and making the specious argument that "conventional medicine [has a] high reliance on pharmaceuticals" - the pharmacists, including the very one they are attacking, will be filling the NDs prescriptions.  The argument is ludicrous.

Here's another post that has cropped up.  I wish I had time to deal with it, but there is only so much time I have for inanity.

Asshole Skepticism - Definition 2.0

Way back, four months ago, when I started down the road of publically exploring the ideas I had around asshole skepticism, one of my earliest posts took a swipe at outlining what exactly it is I am working towards.

Much or most of what I talked about in that post still applies, but as far as a simple definition, it fails.

Tonight I was on my way home from Pub Quiz night (we were kicking asses and taking names until the last four questions) and thinking about content for a new post idea I had.  It has been a while since I last addressed the mandate, so I was thinking about an aspect of that, when out of the blue... I don't recall precisely where (did I mention the pub?)  I found myself all but blurting out what strikes me as the core of asshole skepticism.  It's not that anything else I have said is wrong, but somehow I just don't think I've ever before managed to put my finger on my precise intent.

So I am hereby casting my other post aside - though it shall follow soon - and taking this opportunity to state my intention in as specific terms as I have thus far identified. 


Asshole skepticism is the effort to state and in so doing spread the essence, sub-components and outcomes of the process of skepticism in the most forceful manner possible without a net loss of outreach.

Uh, yeah.  There it is.

So shall I state that again in slightly less condensed, but possibly easier to follow terms?

"Asshole skepticism is the effort to state and in so doing spread..."

I think that that is fairly straight forward, but:  The intent of asshole skepticism is to spread the gospel of skepticism... perhaps I shouldn't use the word 'gospel', but it make me laugh - and laughter is a good medium for outreach.

"...the essence, sub-components and out comes of the process of skepticism..."

Pretty much trying to encompass everything skeptical in that.  "The Essence" being just about anything that any skeptic has zeroed in on as their own personal definition of what skepticism is - there are many versions and I haven't got a definitive one of my own yet.  The "sub-components" being virtually any of our tools and concepts of process - be they Occam's Razor, logical fallacies, the failures of perception and memory or the scientific method.  (Feel free to add to that list as necessary.)  The "Out comes" being any of the conclusions of skepticism be they obvious to most - I.E. The Sasquatch is a figment of true believers' desire; or in the realm of PSAs - I.E. For Pete's sake quit listening to Jenny McCarthy and go get vaccinated.

"...In the most forceful manner possible without a net loss of outreach."

That may be the most tricky part to follow. 

I believe that we should be stating our beliefs, understandings, and goals as stridently as possible - with the caveat that there is a point at which we start alienating people.  But I fimly believe that far too many of our numbers severely overstate the fragility of the situation.  We can and should promote our goals in the strongest manner we can, under the understanding that we will lose some people and in the spirit of triage must afford to lose some in order to help the greatest number.

Were I to invoke logic, however, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many out weigh the needs of the few.
                                                                                 - Mr. Spock.
Yeah.  Had to go there.  Geek on.

It is true.  Many skeptics take too much pain in trying to not offend anyone and miss the point that in so doing we are letting many people slip through the cracks in a weakly stated message.  It's a tenuous position.  We can't slip into a place where we are failing to present the truth.  We must always promote/direct people towards accurate information and towards a state of being able to identify reality as we best understand it as a race.  And that is a narrow tightrope to walk.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Weekend of Woo-xploitation

It was a big weekend of woo at the movie theatres this past week. I had been looking forward to getting out to see both 2012 and The Men Who Stare at Goats so I could do reviews for Skeptic North, but life interfered. My mom was in hospital for some scheduled surgery which understandably took a well deserved chunk out of my weekend.
So I wrote a totally irrelevant article when I had the chance. And then late Sunday the clouds parted and I suddenly found myself sitting in the theatre watching The Men Who Stare at Goats and thinking that I might even get to go see 2012 before the weekend was truly over... and I did!
And now, a few days of pondering and one epic behind the scenes Skeptic North chat later I'm ready to do some review and comparison... even if it's a few days behind the curve.  It's also not on Skeptic North - the 'irrelevant post' fulfills my quota over there for now, and I'm feeling like I'm neglecting this blog.  Besides, doing a review here lets me use bad words and worry less about form.
There is a clear connection between these two films in that they are both of skeptical interest. Both also start stronger than they end, but that is about as far as the similarities go.
In MWSG the skeptics are right. (IMO – there is some disagreement – see below.) In 2012 the skeptics are wrong.
In MWSG the film never quite fails utterly. 2012 has squandered all its stock by the halfway point.
MWSG knows it's place in absurdity. 2012 pretends to, but is sadly misguided.
MWSG is saved by nothing less than a bravura performance by its star. 2012 has several stars ostensibly at the helm and only one even comes close... but still fails...
Okay, one at a time. I'll start with the good, 'cause the bad is more fun. Be Warned: Thar be Spoilers Beyond this Point.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is ultimately a pretty good film. It inevitably reminded me of Three Kings. Not only is Clooney going back to the Middle East for the third time (Syriana
– which he won an Oscar for, I might add) but he is doing so in a film that is quirky and had me wondering where the fuck it was going from one second to the next.
Clooney is awesome in this film. His character, Lyn Cassady is a cap-full of whack and Clooney commits to it with all the devotion that Cassady devotes to his belief in his own psychic powers.
Oh yeah... I forgot – the plot: Ewan MacGregor is Bob Wilton, a journalist who ends up in Iraq following Cassady on a mission. Cassady is a former member of the New Earth Army – a group of US soldiers recruited and trained in psychic warfare by Bill Django. Half the movie is Bob and Lyn's haphazard adventure; the other half is Lyn's back story.
MacGregor is worthy of his role, and manages to admirably not play the meta-joke of an extended conversation with Clooney wherein Lyn tries to explain to Bob what a "Jedi" is. I was giggling feverishly throughout that, and I wouldn't have if for a moment I had got the feeling that they were winking at me.
MacGregor isn't the only stunt casting in the film. Jeff Bridges plays The Dude... er no – he plays Django. Django is absolutely not The Dude, but comparisons are inevitable simply because its Bridges playing the flake.
Add in Kevin Spacey and they have a nice trio of Best Supporting bookends.
And it's all very loosely based on the book by the same name by Jon Ronson. I haven't read the book, but very seems to be the key word. Though to my understanding a straight adaptation of the book would hardly make a movie of any sort except perhaps a documentary – which is a separate discussion really. The film starts off by announcing loud and clear that "More of this is true than what you might imagine." Which despite what it is literally saying, is clearly implying that a significant part of what follows is complete fabricated bullshit.
Such delightful bullshit it is. I spent roughly the first three quarters of the film not knowing where it was going next, and loving every moment of it. I can pretty much pinpoint the moment that the fun of having no idea where the film is going ended with a bang... literally. Cassady and Wilton's fourth or fifth ride comes to an end when they hit an IED. I was not expecting that at all. I even blurted out "Whoa..." in the theatre. It was the last time the film surprised me. As my cousin stated last night when we were discussing the film, the film didn't know where it was going. I think that's fair. Perhaps more precisely, it didn't know how to wrap itself up. The film, like the car that hits the IED comes to a screeching halt. The pace in the home stretch lags, and the film tries too hard to serve both the Hollywood ending master, while not giving up its skeptical cred.
There is some argument out there that the film fails to maintain its skeptical position. One of my Skeptic North collaborators stands firm that the film sides on the position that Cassady does in fact have psychic powers. I cede that the interpretation is there to be made and is indeed the easiest choice a viewer can make. But I think the film is smarter than that.
Specifically, Cassady practices 'cloud bursting' successfully. Well, he does attempt cloud bursting and eventually the cloud breaks up... but anyone with skeptical acumen will recognize that if you stare at a cloud long enough it is going to break up. It is going to break up if you aren't staring at it too. All one has to do is wait – you'll get the 'confirmation' eventually. In the film we don't have the luxury of time. We must move on, so through the magic of editing the cloud breaks up fairly quickly. Wilton doesn't call him on his bullshit, but I'm going to play the artist card and lay down on the notion that it's far more interesting a film if we are forced to make our own conclusions and interpret his response ourselves.
Cassady successfully stares at a goat. I should clarify. He stares at a goat 'til it dies. Ultimately this is the same argument as the cloud bursting – it's merely less likely that the goat will die in any given moment. But further than this, the titular incident happens in a flash back – which though never explicitly said, is clearly the interpretation of what Cassady has told Wilton. Who knows what really happened. Even if the goat did die there are a barnyard full of possible explanations that are far more likely than Cassady's intense stare. I didn't for a moment interpret this as the gospel truth in the eyes of the storyteller.
When Cassady reveals that he has been the recipient of the 'death touch' – which has yet to have any effect on him – Wilton's response is un mistakable incredulity, and from this point onwards there is precisely zero representation of successful psychic practice (barring the bookend, which I shall deal with separately below). Indeed, when the travellers reach their destination – a military base where Cassady's former New Earth Army cohorts are involved in odd, but decidedly un-psychic or even paranormal pursuits – some nutty but very real-world ideas are all that is left of their former outfit.
Spacey's character by all appearances seems to be a charlatan (unlike the others who are true believers) and nothing he does ever falls outside the realm of sleight of hand, mentalism and/or the standard grab-bag of faux psychic tricks like cold reading employed by Sylvia Browne. Should it be a surprise that his pragmatic manipulation rises to the top of the heap and he become the new leader of the New Earth Army remnant? It all leads me to the conclusion that the film – though not outright saying so – ultimately takes the skeptical stance.
The film is bookended by two attempts at displacing one's molecules and running through a wall. In the first case Brigadier General Hopgood finds himself on his ass on the failure-side of the wall, stunned. At the end of the film Wilton keeps right on going through the wall and into the film's final credit sequence. This is the one point in the film that I feel cannot be cleanly explained by a skeptical position on the part of the director Grant Heslov. I'm not going to make the argument that it was a strong artistic choice, but I do think it is a defensible choice. Several other artist friends of mine and I believe that the audience at least wants to have the illusion of structural flourish in their art. And I do believe that this is an illusion, not actual cleverness. Bookending is a simple trick, but it is tried and true, and even when executed poorly it can go a long way towards creating a false sense of structural completeness. To that end I am led to declare that Wilton walking through the wall is, once the decision to use these scenes as the bookends, the best option. It gives a patina of 'feel good' to the movie, where MacGregor landing on his ass would simply be playing the same note over again from the beginning. Take it a step further and you can call it a metaphor. A metaphor for what? I do not have a solid answer for yet. That could be my failing, but I suspect it's the film's. But simply because I don't understand the metaphor doesn't mean it isn't a metaphor. And if it is a metaphor we can assume it doesn't really happen. Even in the world of the movie. I'm going to loft that Wilton – who embarks on his adventure in the first place in order to prove his value after losing his wife to another man – is moving on "into the next room" in his life. Yeah, it's a crappy metaphor, but I prefer it to "Wilton discovers he has psychic abilities" which seems to be at the core of the complaints of many skeptics. Shermer doesn't specifically say this, but his review is typical of the "whaa whaa, Hollywood is stomping on the truth" attitude that pervades most of the reviews I have been witness to. For Christ sakes guys, it's a movie. If it isn't a documentary – which this isn't – you can't fairly read it literally.
In the evening I decided, what the hell and headed out to the theatre again for a somewhat bifurcated skeptical double feature.
2012, to not put too fine a point on it, is a piece of shit.
I'm going to refrain from touching any of the science. Others have gone there already, and even so, this film is a skeptical washout. The film is SO scientifically illiterate that to even approach it with the pretense that you expected more if it is to reveal that you came into the theatre looking for it to fail. It fails so egregiously on the science front that it makes Roland Emmerich's last disaster-porn flick The Day After Tomorrow look like an episode of Cosmos. At least The Day After Tomorrow had internal logic and while stupid; was stupid fun. I recall fondly sitting in the exact same theatre and crying out "Run or the ice-age will catch you!" 2012 quit offering anything engaging enough after the first half hour to be inspired to such mockery.
Have you seen the preview? You know, this one:

There. Have you seen it now? You just saved $12. That was the best part of the film – the mad-dash out of Los Angeles. If you must, go and watch a few other previews – watch the ocean pour over the Himalayas and wipe out a venerable Monk and his mountain temple; see the USS. John F Kennedy wipe out the Capitol; watch the Vatican disintegrate on top of a bunch of faith-foolish creationists. Whatever you do, do not bemoan that you'll be missing the actual plot. The world ends. That is the plot. No more context is really necessary. Okay, to be fair, there is a 21st century Noah effort, but by the time the film meanders there, it has already been thirty minutes too long and there's still far too much left.
Perhaps if the film treated the audience with a bit more respect for its intelligence, it might have earned more of its 2 and a half-hour running time. But instead we are expected to buy-in as time after time characters make illogical choices (Obstruction ahead, valley on the left, mountain on the right – which direction do you fly your plane? Answer: NOT towards the mountain. Yes, in a video game there would probably be a power-up hidden between the obstruction and the hillside – but this is (ahem) real life.); we are asked to enjoy the same basic 'action' set-up three separate times – if you watched the trailer, you've seen it – taking off in a plane while the ground disintegrates around you; and in the best of those three iterations – sadly also the first – we are presented with the ludicrous situation (watch the trailer again – it's right there) that once the plane takes off, somehow it is below the ground/city and has to dive the ensuing debris. Seriously. How the fuck does that happen? To give credit where credit is due, in the third iteration they do come up with a plausible reason for having to put the plane in a steep climb to narrowly avoid hitting the city it is below – but the same explanation is demonstrably absent in the first version. ARGH!!!
Let me rant on randomly for a bit...
You are flying across the Pacific with the intention of re-fuelling in Hawaii. It has already be clearly established that damned near everything anywhere near a coastline has sink beneath the waves, and you were just in Yellowstone Park when it turned into a super volcano... do you think maybe just maaaaaybe the infamously vulcanistic islands might not be a good plan?
So they AREN'T a good plan it turns out and now you haven't got enough fuel to make it to the mainland. The cargo plane you are in is filled with a metric fuck-tonne of cars. Does the concept of unloading weight occur to anyone? Of course not. Even if you accept that a car is necessary for the ensuing crash-landing escape, that only required one fucking car! Narratively it strikes me that any half-decent film-maker could find a reason to not unload one last car – say... the car aficionado in the group (and there was one) tearfully begs to preserve one single high-performance masterpiece – still a weak reason, but at least it has a dash of sense to it.
When the plane is finally going down (the aforementioned crash landing) rather than crash into the ocean, the dues ex machine raises its head (just an example of lazy lazy lazy plotting) and the Earth's crust has shifted by over 1000 miles – conveniently allowing them to crash land an easy drive from their final destination... what are the chances?
Okay, I'm going to stop there. The film is almost entirely crap. Emmerich seems to think that he's accomplishing something artistically valuable by upping the ante on older efforts. Rather than destroying the White House like in Independence Day, he destroys a plethora of landmarks in Washington, Las Vegas and the Vatican as well as other places with less visibility. Not content to drown New York like in The Day After Tomorrow he dumps California into the Pacific.
Allow me to stretch to find a point of light in this disastrous (by any definition) miasma... I'll watch Chiwetel Ejiofor in just about anything (though I won't watch him in this again) and I have to applaud Thandie Newton for having the cajones to step inside a movie-land Oval Office again after her totally fucking awful portrayal of Condoleeza Rice in W.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Asshole Skeptic Honour Roll #3 - Orac

I admit I'm a teeny bit reticent to add skeptical celebrities to the Asshole Skeptic Honour Roll.  I'd generally prefer to give unknown skeptics the thumbs up.

But Orac kinda put this one out of the park as far as I'm concerned.

Bill Maher is taking LOT of flak these days for his anti-vax position.  I fully embrace the pro-vax agenda... if you haven't grokked that yet.  But Maher is someone who I really want to respect.  It actually annoys the living shit out of me that he is failing me (all of us - I'm simply taking this personally) on the alt-med front.  I believe there is a good person in there... and I really want to believe that he might start seeing the light of reality... but so far the reality of that is painfully non-present.  Maher has done a lot of good.  I respect that he lost Politically Incorrect over speaking up about 9/11 politically (not to be confused with skeptically) before the dust of 9/11 had settled.  I think that Religulous was a good effort if a bit flaccid in it's impact.  He has a lot to offer... but damn if he ain't fucking it all up with his anti-vax/pro-alt-med stance.

Anyhow... Orac has nailed Maher on this front.  Hard.  And he has regularly demonstrated a particularly non-scientist-like propensity for speaking with the vehemence that such topics usually are absent of.

Hear me scientists?!? (And doctors - which is more accurately what Orac is.)

It seems to fall to me and other laymen to speak forcefully, and that lacks a certain level of authority - so where the hell are the rest of you?

To be fair - there are others than Orac who speak out forcefully, but they are rare.  There are far more scientists than there are people who know what they are talking about who are willing to speak out. 
So come on, scientists - be like Orac and stand up.  Quit leaving it to people like me - I'm a fucking film maker with a big mouth.  Should I really be anything beyond an authority on how to disseminate our position?  Gah!

Go read Respectful (though not very, thank FSM) Insolence.

Oh and, apologies to Orac for implicitly calling him an asshole.

Grammar Girl - 80% Skeptic?

I may be wrong about  one.  But I just listened to this rather old podcast by Mignon Fogarty, AKA Grammar Girl.

She definitely has an established history of good critical research on grammar related topics - and that may well be portable to skeptical topics.

But seriously - check out that podcast episode.  She is very close to talking like a skeptic.

Anyhow... real posts coming soon.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What Kind of Bullshit Doctor Are You!?!

Last week a couple of fellow Skeptic North bloggers, sent me this and shouted "You're it!"

I'm going to cut to the chase here.  The writer of this particular pamphlet by all appearances is grade 'A' crack.  You could stuff a chunk of her in a pipe and get whacked out of your fucking mind.

It may be a bit unfair to go after her too hard as I think it's not terribly unreasonable to jump to the conclusion that she is genuinely deranged.  I say this in all honesty.  I am not trying to unfairly disparage her.  However, her 'fact sheet' redefines the word 'fact' and in the course serves to propagate information that contributes to the egregious public endangerment that the on-going anti-vaccination campaign is delighting in during these days of extreme sensitivity in the height of the first wave of the H1N1 pandemic and concurrent vaccination drive.

If you print out that PDF, close your eyes and drop your finger down on the page, you are more than likely to hit something that is demonstrably not a fact.  I am not exaggerating.  It is a morass of tired anti-vaxx argument, standard conspiracy theory paranoid clap and incredibly bad science.  There is SO much wrong with it that I'm just not going to bother trying.

Instead, lets look a bit closer at the author.

Her website - Personocratia - practically speaks for itself.  "Ghis" sees herself as a courageous spirit, fighting the oppressive powers that keep the world under their thumb.  She follows her own narcissistic philosophy she calls Personocracy.

It is the reign of Personocratia, of conscious sovereign individuals who know they are the supreme authority and who only obey their conscience. They create a society in their image and likeness – Personocracy.
I'm no psychologist, but it doesn't take much to see through to the obnoxious levels of hip-deep bran-flake bull-shit narcisissm at the core of it.  "Ghis" has determined herself to be a sovereign being, and apparently that absolves her from paying income tax.  Her self-righteous machinations to avoid paying are childish. 
She has informed the Governor General via her lawyer that her birth name Ghislaine Lanctot "will no longer be used as evidence of [her] identity." (Translated from French.) and she goes on to pull an "Artist formerly known as 'Prince'" and signs her letter with the symbol for infinity.
If there were a symbol for "rolling my eyes 'til I get vertigo and vomit" I would insert it here.
She takes issue with the fact that on her summons the phrase "every one" is used in reference to her obligation to appear in court.  She cites the Canadian Criminal Code Definitions:

"every one", "person" and "owner", and similar expressions, include Her Majesty and an organization;

"organization" means:
     (a) a public body, body corporate, society, company, firm, partnership, trade union or municipality, or
     (b) an association of persons that
          (i) is created for a common purpose,
          (ii) has an operational structure, and
          (iii) holds itself out to the public as an association of persons
The laughable implication seems to be that as a sovereign being, she is not included in this definition. I might add that no where in our constitution does it say that sovereign beings have any rights what so ever.  Does she really want to go down this road?

The argument by her lawyer also includes the defence that while ignorance of the law does not absolve one of the law...
...this celebrated principle of common law is not applicable to the Income Tax Law, since nobody can fully understand it, including judges, lawyers, civil servants, bookkeepers, ministers…. Some people may have a partial knowledge on specific articles, but nobody in Canada has full knowledge of this law...
Yeah.  Tell that to Wesley Snipes.

The judge wasn't buying any of it.  Ghislaine Lanctot has spent time in prison on this offence.  She was also fined for it - $1000 for each of seven counts.
This isn't the first time she has been in trouble with the law.  Once upon a time Ghislaine Lanctot was a doctor.  "I sought unlimited health."  Danger Will Robinson!  She sketches out her journey from Phlebologist to "Idessic Being in Training" as she came to "understand the real inner workings of the health industry."  She eventually wrote a book called “The Medical Mafia.”

That brought the full power of the medical establishment down upon me. It retaliated by bringing me to trial. To no one’s surprise, I was convicted and my licence was revoked for life!
Poor poor set-upon crazy lady.  Thank FSM she won't be MY doctor.

If you happen to like a good crack substitute you can check out more on her site. Or, if you are really up for some fun you can write her and see what crazy shit she sends back.

I did.

I tossed her the equivalent of a slow, fat pitch right across the plate asking faux-credulous questions about some of the items on her Vaccinations 101 Fuct Sheet (typo-intentional).

1) You say that vaccinations are like giving a child a small rape to prepare them for a bigger rape. This sounds terrifying to me and I must admit I simply do not understand. Perhaps you can elaborate? How is a rape like a vaccination? I'm also really uncertain about the idea of a small rape and a bigger rape. I thought rape was kind of an absolute thing. You are either raped or you are not raped - there are no partial measures. But I digress - please clarify this for me, I find it very disturbing and scary.

2) "The efficiency of vaccines has never been proven scientifically." I'm not really certain what you mean here. Do you mean that if I were to have a needle stuck in my arm I wouldn't know whether it was going to hurt, help or do nothing to me? Or are you saying that we don't have any proof that vaccines have ever accomplished anything? I heard that small pox was eliminated with vaccines? Isn't that good? Isn't it proof?

3) "We do not die of a disease... the fear of microbes and illness knocks people out and vaccines finish them off." Now this sounds to me like you are saying that vaccines are being used deliberately as a poison or something to actively kill people. Is that really what is going on, or am I misunderstanding you? If it is what is going on, I'm not sure I understand the purpose of it. Why would the medical establishment want to kill so many people? And why wait for them to get sick from fear? What if they don't get scared? This is confusing for me, perhaps I haven't spent enough time learning about health as it relates to my spirit.

4) You start a list of "three" ingredients that are in vaccines, but I only see two in your list - though each of those two has many things, but I see your point - you are categorizing the ingredients, right? In any case I am still curious what the third ingredient is in the witches' brew. Is it possible... can you send me a link or links to your resources for what is in vaccines? I want to understand this as much as I can on my own.
She did write back. Seemingly excited by my interest, but failing to answer a single thing. Not a word. She did send me some links though.

Warning: The crazy only gets deeper out here in the middle.

First she sent me a quadruple-shot of Wayne Madsen interviews. The man has never met a conspiracy he didn’t want to hate-fuck.

Swine flu virus began life in lab.
Swine flu - Born in USA.
Kids used to test flu vaccine!
How did the H1N1 virus get into the United States?

I did send her back an email asking why she would put faith in someone who is such a nut case that he is a card carrying “Birther.” I suspect that that was when she decided to quit sending me stuff. I have heard nothing since.

But before I sent that she sent me this article on how Baxter Pharmaceutical filed for patent on H1N1 Vaccine two years before first H1N1 case was reported.

I’m going out on a limb here. I’m going to assume Baxter DID.  (Note: Not quite see update below.) Because its not as if H1N1 is a new viral type. It is a new strain of the type. The main components are the same, and thus the essentials could be set in place and patented long in advance of any outbreak. Now, granted, I’m not a doctor. I am kind of talking out my ass here, and as I am writing this too late at night to call up a doctor friend (and too tired to do effective research on my own) I’m going to have to confirm this one in the morning. (Again see update below.) But I’ll get some clarification on that and update this probably within the day. In any case, assuming my layman’s (I’m a fucking layman for Christ-sake and I came up with a plausible and rational explanation – GaaaahHHH!) account of how this might have happened is correct, it calls into question what kind of crappy doctor was she in the first place? I think the answer is clear: not a very good one – or perhaps one with an unfortunate mental health issue as I previously alluded. 

UPDATE: (10 hours later.)  Thanks to Dr. Rob Tarzwell for his assists on this.  My information was wrong, but ultimately the same essential argument remains valid - but I'll get to that.
For starters, here is the patent application.  (The same document they link to in the Ahrcanum post.) It is NOT a patent on the vaccine.  It is a patent on a process for making vaccines.  And H1N1 is merely one of the possible flu types that it can be used to create vaccines for.  The particularly galling thing about this is that it takes only the most rudimentary level of understanding to glean this from the patent application.  To be clear - I can figure that out.  Perverting this into "Baxter had a patent on an H1N1 vaccine before the epidemic is either complete ingnoramity; and utter failure to bother reading the document; or the willful assumption that the people who are being told the bad information aren't going to bother reading the document themselves.  That in itself is pretty obscene.
On top of that, my original point about H1N1 merely being one type of flu - a variant that has been around much longer than we've been making  vaccines of any sort - and thus getting a head start on the process of preparing a vaccine for it is hardly any indication of a conspiracy.  We know this form of virus is out there, we can therefore be as prepared as possible to fight a new strain of it well in advance.  Two years - if that were even a relevant argument anymore - is nothing.  ...Fuckers.
[Update ends.]

The last link she sent was from a website whose sub-title just cracks me up; “the more Catholic the better.”

Its subtitled, an hour long and, considering the rest of the information “Dr” Lanctot sent me, I expect its complete bullshit, though I was really only getting to the real garbage when I gave up watching. If anyone beats my mark of 20 minutes and 18 seconds, let me know!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty pseudo-scientist!

NOTE: At the specific request of the party used as my primary example, there have been edits made to this post.  The person in question is not named Binky McSmudgypigeon, nor are they a balloon-animal therapist, nor are they underfire from the College of Clown Surgeons.  The form of the circumstances remain the same, and perhaps at some point the details will be brought to light.  Ultimately this only goes to serve my point - the attacks upon Mr. McSmudgypigeon have necessitated this change.  You can make your own conclusions about the actions of the College of Clown Surgeons on this matter - I think it will be clear where I stand from the context of the post.


You know what really burns my ass?

Its when some petty S.O.B. decides for whatever reason that they are justified in leveraging legal weight against reality.

This happens all the time.  Take the Dover trial for example.  Or the plight of Simon Singh.  Or the many travailles of Steven Barrett.  Science says one thing, and that thing - that fact - when publicized in whatever manner, upsets someone who turns to the legal system in hopes of hampering the propogation of fact in their own favour.  Its damned near pathological.

In many cases the litigants are simply of the mistaken belief that they are correct.  In some cases you have to know that the person or people launching the proceedings know damned well that they are full of shit, such as in the case of Yuri Geller.  But in virtually ALL of the above cases the litigants knew/know damned well that the scientific evidence is decidedly not on their side.

Fortunately both scientific evidence and legal evidence have the same concepts at their core.  Unfortunately both are corruptible by emotion and ambition.  Legal evidence more so than science, but all else being equal a legal proceeding will default to falling in line with scientific fact.  And what a relief that is.

But that in itself is not enough.  That only counts when a trial becomes a reality, and often an actual trial is not the intention of the complainant.  Often all they seek to do is to shut down the defendant.  Relying on the liklihood that the defendant cannot afford to pay for their defence and at the very least hoping that an injunction will in the interim prevent the on-going publication of the truths that the litigant finds inconvenient.  But fighting science with the law in this manner is cowardly and deserves to backfire in the worst of ways.

Case in point: Local BAT (Balloon Animal Therapist) Binky Mc Smudgypigeon has spent much of the past two years dealing with nuisances from the College of Clown Surgeons.  In short, Binky, not unlike Simon Singh, pointed out in his professional blog that significant portions of what Seltzer-o-paths do is (my words, not his) bullshit.  And that is pretty much where the science lays.  But, as you can imagine, the pseudo-scientists seltzer-o-paths weren't too happy about this.  Bad enough that someone was speaking out and calling their practices into question - doubly damning when the person in question appears on the surface to be from your own CAM bretheren.  But Binky is an oddity being a skeptical/science-based balloon animal therapist - which essentially amounts to not claiming that his therapy can do anything that isn't firmly supported empirically.

The College of Clown Surgeons has spent a lot of effort trying to shut Binky up.  But he is a man of integrity and has discretely refused, meanwhile behind the scenes various people including doctors, ethicists, commentators and other folks I am not at liberty to reveal have stood up behind him and assured him that in this particular bar-brawl we've got his back.  Did I say 'we'?  Yeah - you can be damned sure I'm not playing Gandhi in this particular fracas.

So - does this mean war?  Well, no... not precisely.

But while the College of Clown Surgeons has seemingly decided to make an example of Binky, with what is ultimately a frivolous inquiry and implied threat, it is transparently the basest of manipulations.  Quite frankly it's fucking shameful.  They should be embarassed for themselves, not only for what is essentially a cheap, punk-ass maneuver, but for also not anticipating that there is an international legion of science advocates waiting in the wings ready to shine the bright light of scientific evidence upon them and make their petty machinations look foolish by any measure.  Furthermore, they will look like knobs over this matter without the critical thinking community having to resort to hiding like crying children behind the skirt of the legal-system.

Barristers?!?  We don't need no stinking barristers!!!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mixed Feelings About My Letter to the Editor in the Vancouver Sun

I suppose I should feel happy that my opinion has been acknowledged.

The Vancouver Sun published a letter of mine yesterday.

I'd like to thank The Sun for its refreshingly rational, science-based coverage of efforts to bring H1N1-prevention measures to the public. There is much confusion afoot about how best to protect ourselves and you appear to have made an effort to follow facts supporting what is most likely to be efficacious and what the realistic drawbacks are.

A popular weekly paper in Vancouver has taken to promoting practices that are demonstrably dangerous to public health, including homeopathy and vaccination denial. It's good to see that someone in the business of spreading the news is doing so responsibly.
No big secret if you've been reading along here, the "popular weekly paper" I am refering to is the Georgia Straight.  I spent a fair bit of time devoted to slagging it's poor policies over a month ago.  And guess what?  This particular letter... was sent to the Sun back then.

In my mind, putting off publishing this letter until now kind of mis-represents the opinion I was expressing.  First off, despite my reference to the Straight's homeopathy articles, it is referring to a circumstance whose immediacy is stale, and no longer in quickly available public evidence.  (Though for the record, here's the original article.)   It is also worth noting that the Straight later published an article with considerably better science. 

But of more concern is the second issue; that in the interim, the Sun could themselves have published any number of complete bullshit articles.  A cursory glance at relevant headlines... looks as though their record is probably reasonably good.  So I'm probably not inadvertently giving my implicit approval of a heap of bad information.  But the point is, I could have been.

I thought there was a policy of checking sources - calling me up at the phone number they requied me to include - just to make sure I am who I claim, and that I do stand behind the opinion voiced in my letter?  If they had, they would have received my consent - or, at worst, a request to update my opinion to reflect the changes of circumstance; specifically the on-set of flu-season; over a dozen H1N1 deaths in B.C.; and, FSM-forbid, the on-going representation of fact by the Sun.  But instead they sullied it with a fractional mis-representation, reducing the chances of me giving them a vote of support in the future.

This is really a matter of principle more than any real grievance.  I'm annoyed with it at the moment, and wanted to point out the minor misrepresentation somewhere for the record.  I'll cool off in the next day or two.


On a side note: Through October I made a point of devoting most of my skeptical writing to the first month of Skeptic North.  But now that's behind us.  I'll be shifting my attention back in favour of this blog - without ignoring Skeptic North - for the next while.  Eventually I'll zero in on the appropriate balance between the two.

I already have singled out the next well deserved target of my ire.  That'll probably fall directly under my fire by the weekend.  I'm looking forward to not tempering my tongue again.