Archive for March, 2009
Posted by mattusmaximus on March 31, 2009
When it comes to woo & pseudoscientific nonsense, there are times when it is just an annoyance. And then there are times when such ignorance can literally kill. Such is the case with the anti-vaccination movement (AVM).
The anti-vaxxers have found a celebrity spokesperson in Jenny McCarthy, former Playboy playmate and squeeze of actor Jim Carrey. Jenny’s son, Evan, was diagnosed with autism and she has since blamed his being vaccinated as the cause of his autism. Never mind that there is no evidence whatsoever that vaccines cause autism or the other horrible things espoused by the AVM, Jenny continues her anti-vax crusade, appearing on talk shows and in other venues spouting her nonsense.
**Aside: Keep a watchful eye out for an organization which McCarthy promotes – Generation Rescue – because this group is essentially a front for the AVM and other dangerous medical woo-woo.
Well, this is really bad, because the ignorance that Jenny McCarthy and the AVM spreads can be lethal. As an illustration of this fact, there is a new website online called Jenny McCarthy Body Count.
While this site does not blame her directly for the deaths accounted for there, it does state (and I think correctly) that her actions as the public face of the AVM has contributed to the hysteria against vaccinations and hence the spread of diseases which would otherwise be kept in check.
As the website states on its front page…
In June 2007 Jenny McCarthy began promoting anti-vaccination rhetoric. Because of her celebrity status she has appeared on several television shows and has published multiple books advising parents not to vaccinate their children. This has led to a dramatic increase in the number of vaccine preventable illnesses as well as an increase in the number of vaccine preventable deaths.
Jenny McCarthy has a body count attached to her name. This website will publish the total number of vaccine preventable illnesses and vaccine preventable deaths that have happened since June 2007 when she began publicly speaking out against vaccines.
Is Jenny McCarthy directly responsible for every vaccine preventable illness and every vaccine preventable death listed here? No. However, as the unofficial spokesperson for the United States anti-vaccination movement she may be indirectly responsible for at least some of these illnesses and deaths and even one vaccine preventable illness or vaccine preventable death is too many.
Since June of 2007 and as of this writing, the website documents the following numbers – verified through the Centers for Disease Control…
Number of Preventable Cases: 720
Number of Preventable Deaths: 142
Fortunately, not everyone in Hollywood is as ignorant & dangerous as Jenny McCarthy in their promotion of woo – there are those who are willing to take her and her AVM ilk head on and call them out on their deadly nonsense. I’m speaking specifically of actress Amanda Peet, who in an article last year publicly took the AVM to task…
Peet’s analytical urges are comical when she’s talking about kids’ gear, but not when she’s discussing a subject she feels is among today’s most pressing public-health issues: infant vaccinations. “As soon as I was pregnant, the neuroses kicked in,” says Peet, 36, who is married to screenwriter David Benioff. She began calling her older sister’s husband, a Philadelphia pediatrician, “every five minutes” with all kinds of questions, especially about shots. “I asked him, ‘Why are all of these necessary? Why are some people staggering them?’?” Eventually her brother-in-law arranged a series of phone calls between Peet and his own mentor, Paul Offit, M.D., who is chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, and a board member of Every Child by Two, a pro-vaccine organization cofounded in 1991 by former first lady Rosalynn Carter.
“Once we had spoken, I was shocked at the amount of misinformation floating around, particularly in Hollywood,” says Peet, who quickly boned up on the hot-button controversies surrounding the topic, including the unproven link between certain vaccines and autism; the safety of preservatives like mercury-based thimerosal; and the fear that the relatively high number of shots kids receive today can overwhelm young immune systems. Her conclusion? Well, not only is Frankie up-to-date on her vaccines (with no staggering), but her mom will soon appear in public-service announcements for Every Child by Two. “I buy 99 percent organic food for Frankie, and I don’t like to give her medicine or put sunscreen on her,” says Peet. “But now that I’ve done my research, vaccines do not concern me.” What does concern her is the growing number of unvaccinated children who are benefiting from the “shield” created by the inoculated—we are protected from viruses only if everyone, or most everyone, is immunized: “Frankly, I feel that parents who don’t vaccinate their children are parasites.”
Incidentally, here are two great websites out there on this whole vaccination issue – one is called Stop Jenny McCarthy, and it has more info about the AVM & autism specifically, and the other is Every Child by Two, a pro-vaccination group which Amanda Peet supports and promotes. If you are at all interested in getting more informed about the AVM and how to tackle its bogus & dangerous woo, I suggest you check them out.
Posted in medical woo | Tagged: Amanda Peet, Andrew Wakefield, anti-vaccination, anti-vax, anti-vaxxers, autism, Big Pharma, cons, conspiracy, conspiracy theories, Every Child by Two, health, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, measles outbreak, medicine, mercury, mercury militia, mmr, public health, skeptic, skepticism, thimerisol, vaccination, vaccine denial, vaccines | 6 Comments »
Posted by mattusmaximus on March 28, 2009
Well, it seems that the entire Texas Board of Education ordeal is over… for now. In general, I’m pleased with the results: the anti-science fundamentalist creationists didn’t get what they really wanted, but then neither did we on the pro-science side. All in all, I’m willing to call this one a win, mostly because the highly damaging “strengths and weaknesses” language was struck out of the standards!
For a much more detailed account of how the final day of voting (and what a day it was!) for the Texas BoEd on the science standards went, take a look at the live blog of Friday’s meeting over at chron.Commons Blog. It’s a lot to read, but here’s the upshot at the end of the blog post…
What is the bottom line? Did we win or lose? Neither. We got rid of the worst language, but a great deal of qualifying language remains. I am not going to claim either victory or defeat. I realize that Casey Luskin of Discovery Institute will declare complete, unqualified victory, but it is not that for them. Neither is it for us. The standards adopted were generally good, but there are several that are flawed, fortunately most in minor ways that textbook authors and publishers can deal with. I think we can work around the few flawed standards. But the point is that there shouldn’t be ANY flawed standards. The science standards as submitted by the science writing teams were excellent and flaw-free. All the flaws were added by politically unscrupulous SBOE members with an extreme right-wing religious agenda to support Creationism. …
… The policy (science standards) that resulted are not the best they could be. They are acceptable but could have been pseudoscience- and Creationism influence-free. However, I can also say the standards could be much worse. The votes were so close, and several members switched their votes back and forth several times, sometimes voting with the antiscience radical right wing members and sometimes with the pro-science members, that anything could have happened. I suppose I should be grateful the results are not worse.
I, for one, am very grateful that we won the votes we did, especially regarding the biggie – “strengths & weaknesses”. Of course there is room for improvement, especially regarding the big bang & cosmology, but this is a much better situation than it could have been. Given the recent history of how wacky things have been in Texas, I call this progress…
Stuttering, two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of progress, but progress none the less.
Posted in creationism, education, politics | Tagged: academic freedom, biology, board of education, Christianity, creationism, democracy, Discovery Institute, evolution, fundamentalist, ID, intelligent design, politics, pseudoscience, publishing, religion, science, scientific creationism, Texas, Texas Board of Education, Texas Citizens for Science, Texas Freedom Network, textbook selection, textbooks, theocracy, Wedge document | 3 Comments »
Posted by mattusmaximus on March 26, 2009
Hooray! It looks as if the creationists on the Texas Board of Education have been defeated in their efforts to insert “strengths and weaknesses” language into the Texas state science standards! Read more at my recent post: The Textbook Saga in Texas Continues.
This means that Texas textbooks – and, by extension, science texts nationwide – will not be watering down good science in the name of pushing pseudoscientific flim-flam as espoused by the fundamentalist creationist whackjobs on the Texas BoEd.
The vote was extremely close: it was a 7-7 tie with one board member, who fortunately opposes the creationists, being absent. The Dallas Morning News elaborates…
A last-ditch effort by social conservatives to require that Texas teachers cover the “weaknesses” in the theory of evolution in science classes was rejected by the State Board of Education Thursday in a split vote.
Board members deadlocked 7-7 on a motion to restore a long-time curriculum rule that “strengths and weaknesses” of all scientific theories – notably Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – be taught in science classes and covered in textbooks for those subjects.
Voting for the requirement were the seven Republican board members aligned with social conservative groups. Against the proposal were three other Republicans and four Democrats.
The tie vote upheld a tentative decision by the board in January to delete the strengths-and-weaknesses rule in the new curriculum standards for science classes that will be in force for the next decade.
I don’t think we on the pro-science side are completely out of the woods just yet, as I wouldn’t put it past the creationists to try some kind of last-minute shenanigans. But for now we can celebrate this big win!
If you’re interested in staying informed on these and similar topics, I strongly urge you to get connected with the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).
Posted in creationism, education, politics | Tagged: academic freedom, biology, board of education, Christianity, creationism, democracy, evolution, fundamentalist, ID, intelligent design, politics, pseudoscience, publishing, religion, science, scientific creationism, Texas, Texas Board of Education, Texas Citizens for Science, Texas Freedom Network, textbook selection, textbooks, theocracy, Wedge document | 1 Comment »
Posted by mattusmaximus on March 24, 2009
I saw this over at Wheat-dogg’s world, and I simply had to share it
Posted in humor, media woo | Tagged: AIG, billions, cartoon, dollars, executive bonus pay, federal bailout, humor, innumeracy, journalism, math, mathematics, media, millions, money, numbers, powers of ten, reporting, television, TV, xkcd, xkcd.com | 1 Comment »
Posted by mattusmaximus on March 23, 2009
This week is a very important one for science education in the United States because the Texas State Board of Education is finalizing textbook selection. The importance of paying attention to textbook selection in Texas cannot be overstated, especially since creationists in Texas are attempting to influence science textbooks. It’s also a big deal because the state of Texas has a disproportionate influence on textbook availability across the country – since Texas is such a large market for textbooks, publishers will tend to cater the manner in which subject matter is presented to the whims of the Texas Board of Education.
So, when the Texas BoEd is stacked with (mostly) creationists, who know they have the power to influence how science texts around the country treat topics such as evolution, climate change, and stem-cell research, it is worth paying attention to how they plan to pick textbooks. That’s because even though Texas may be far away, these anti-scientific religious fundamentalists in the Texas government could have a very real, and negative, effect on the quality of science education in your school.
Fortunately, there are those who favor good science education over complete nonsense in Texas, and they are doing their best to monitor and correct the situation. For example, there’s the Texas Freedom Network, the Texas Citizens for Science and the National Center for Science Education. The NCSE writes in a recent update on the Texas situation…
With evolution sure to be a hotly debated topic at the next meeting of the Texas state board of education, with a bill just introduced in the Texas legislature aimed at restoring the contentious “strengths and weaknesses” language to the standards, and with a different bill aimed at exempting the Institute for Creation Research’s graduate school from the regulations governing degree-granting institutions in Texas, there’s no shortage of news from the Lone Star state. NCSE, of course, continues not only to report on the antics of creationism in Texas but also to help concerned Texans to combat them: Texans wishing to express their concerns about the standards to the Texas state board of education, which is expected to have its final vote on the standards at its meeting in Austin on March 25-27, 2009, will find contact information and talking points in the Taking Action section of NCSE’s website and on the Texas Freedom Network’s website.
To give you some idea of the stupidity that the good citizens of Texas (and indirectly the rest of us) have to deal with from these creationist nuts, check out some of this revealing – and embarrassing – information which recently became public about Don McLeroy, the chair of the Texas BoEd and staunch creationist…
With Texans still reeling from the detailed profiles of the chair of the Texas state board of education, avowed creationist Don McLeroy, published in the Austin American-Statesman (March 8, 2009) and the Texas Observer (February 20, 2009), Texas Citizens for Science (March 14, 2009) recently disclosed that McLeroy endorsed a bizarre creationist screed entitled Sowing Atheism: The National Academy of Sciences’ Sinister Scheme to Teach Our Children They’re Descended from Reptiles — aimed, of course, at Evolution, Creationism, and Science, issued by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine in February 2008 to general acclaim. McLeroy, however, praises Sowing Atheism for showing “how the NAS attempts to seduce the unwitting reader by providing scanty empirical evidence but presented with great intellectual bullying — both secular and religious.”
Okay, so once again we see the creationist conspiracy theory claim made: scientists are nothing but a bunch of godless heathens who want to destroy religion (specifically Christianity) and thus spread immorality, atheism, communism, and presumably all manner of evil in the world while leading to the destruction of all that is good. Thus, anyone who wants to teach kids evolution in school must be on the side of EEEVIIIILLLLLLLL!!!!
The NCSE goes on to outline more lunacy from Don McLeroy…
On its blog (March 18, 2009), the Texas Freedom Network summarized the themes of the book — “Scientists are ‘atheists.’ Parents who want to teach their children about evolution are ‘monsters.’ Pastors who support sound science are ‘morons’” — and pointedly asked, “Is that the sort of message Chairman Don McLeroy and his cohorts on the State Board of Education have in mind for Texas science classrooms if they succeed in their campaign to shoehorn ‘weaknesses’ of evolution back into the science curriculum standards?” Mavis Knight, a member of the Texas state board of education who supports the integrity of science education, wryly commented to the Dallas Observer (March 18, 2009), “So much for neutrality in the chairman’s position.” Looking forward to the board’s impending vote on the standards, she added, “I am confident several of us will hold firm, but it’s the swing votes you have to concern yourself with — and I don’t know how much pressure is being put on the swing voters. … It definitely won’t be boring.”
So, the leader of the creationist whackjobs on the Texas BoEd isn’t content to say that just scientists are evil in their desire to teach good, sound science – he has to go on and state that all religious people who are pro-science (such as those supporting the Clergy Letter Project) are doing so as well.
The thing which is so revealing about this kind of mentality is its exclusivity – from their point of view, these fundamentalist whackjobs view anyone who doesn’t agree with them 100% as the enemy. Creationists have, for many years, attempted to get away with claiming the mantle of morality for themselves, but their efforts are particularly ineffective when many religious people come out against their anti-science. Personally, I’m an atheist, but I more than welcome any allies to the pro-science cause, religious or not. And I must admit that it gives me a certain degree of pleasure to see the Don McLeroy’s of the world squirm & froth when confronted by other religious folk who call them to task for their pseudoscientific ravings.
If you care about good science education in our public schools, I encourage you to get involved. When enough of us stand up for science, we all win!
Posted in creationism, education, politics | Tagged: academic freedom, biology, board of education, Christianity, creationism, democracy, Don McLeroy, evolution, fundamentalist, ID, intelligent design, politics, pseudoscience, publishing, religion, science, scientific creationism, Texas, Texas Board of Education, Texas Citizens for Science, Texas Freedom Network, textbook selection, textbooks, theocracy, Wedge document | 8 Comments »
Posted by mattusmaximus on March 21, 2009
Wow, just when you think that creationists couldn’t get any more crazy with their arguments and tactics, they surprise you. According to this article, there is a bill that has been introduced in the Texas House which would allow the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research to actually grant science degrees! And guess what they want these degrees to be in? Could it be actual science based upon evolution? Nope, the ICR wants to be given the right to grant science degrees based upon creationist pseudoscientific nonsense. You can’t make this stuff up.
According to the article…
If House Bill 2800 is enacted, it will make ICR exempt from state regulations thereby allowing them to grant science degrees. As put by NCSE, the bill will “exempt institutions such as the Institute for Creation Research’s graduate school from Texas’s regulations governing degree-granting institutions.”
In other words, the creationist nutjobs at ICR are attempting to get special privileges which would allow them to get the benefit of granting science degrees without actually meeting the requirements of science. I guess their strategy is that if you can’t win the game, just try to change the rules.
But there’s more…
According to ICR’s Web site, they “[equip] believers with evidence of the Bible’s accuracy and authority through scientific research, educational programs, and media presentations, all conducted within a thoroughly biblical framework.” To that end, it seems, they take discoveries and force them into current biblical understandings of… things.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at statements like these. These creationist nutjobs literally believe that evidence in nature should be ignored if it contradicts their view of the Bible! Wow, talk about being disconnected from reality.
The bad news is that this bill (House Bill 2800) has actually been introduced in the Texas House. The good news is that it has only one sponsor, Rep. Leo Berman, so far, not to mention the fact that the situation is providing a lot of entertainment for skeptics & science allies.
In closing, I really like how Dr. Phil Plait – the “Bad Astronomer” and President of the James Randi Educational Foundation – put it…
Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: biology, Christianity, college, creationism, evolution, fundamentalist, higher education, ICR, ID, Institute for Creation Research, intelligent design, Leo Berman, NCSE, politics, pseudoscience, religion, science, science degree, scientific creationism, Texas, theocracy, university | 1 Comment »
Posted by mattusmaximus on March 20, 2009
A recent article by Ben Radford provides an excellent skeptical analysis of a doomsday pseudoscience being popularized in the new movie “Knowing”, which stars Nicolas Cage as a professor who decodes a string of numbers that supposedly predicted past disasters and also predicts an upcoming apocalypse.
In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the trailer for the movie which pretty clearly lays out the plot and the pseudoscience behind it…
The skeptic shown briefly in the trailer (the guy who tells Cage’s character to “just step back a moment”) hits it dead on – given enough random data, pretty much anyone can find pretty much any pattern for which they are looking. As Ben Radford goes on to elaborate in the article…
Though the plot is fictional, this scenario has occurred many times in the real world. In 1997 Michael Drosnin published a best-selling book titled “The Bible Code,” in which he claimed that the Bible contained a code (hidden in numbers and letters) accurately predicting past world events. Drosnin’s work was later refuted, with critics demonstrating that the “meanings” he found were simply the result of selectively choosing data sets from a vast sea of random letters.
Similar “hidden codes” were found in other books such as “Moby Dick” and “War and Peace,” demonstrating that any sizeable text can produce such codes if you look long enough.
In psychology, the tendency for the human mind to find coincidences, patterns, and connections in random data is called apophenia.
The main problem with the pseudoscientists & conspiracy theorists who cater to this style of doomsday thinking is common among the woo crowd… they count the hits & ignore the misses, and in order to count the “hits” as true hits, they have to massage and arrange the data!
So, while I find Nicolas Cage to be a good actor and enjoy a good disaster flick, I anticipate an unfortunate amount of woo-related activity due to this movie, the recent economic downturn, and prophecies of impending world doom related to the year 2012. All of this put together makes for a nice mix of irrational fear out of essentially nothing. And while fantasy does make good movies, it makes lousy real life.
Posted in media woo, psychology | Tagged: 2012, apocalypse, apophenia, Ben Radford, Bible Code, conspiracy theories, critical thinking, disaster, doomsday, end of the world, Knowing, media, Michael Drosnin, movies, Nicolas Cage, prophecy, pseudoscience, psychology, selective thinking, skeptic, skepticism | Leave a Comment »
Posted by mattusmaximus on March 18, 2009
I wanted to take a few minutes to share with you a really neat online film about the question of the importance of science. I will share my own, very personal, thoughts about this in a future post, but for now I will turn it over to Alom Shaha, the creator of the “Why is Science Important?” video.
In Alom’s own words…
“Happy is he who gets to know the reasons for things”. I wish this 2000 year-old statement from Virgil was enough to deal with the question that must plague teachers all over the world — “what’s the point of this?” But, as someone who’s just returned to the teaching profession after a seven-year break, I can assure you it’s not.
I teach at an inner city comprehensive school where science, as in all UK schools, is compulsory for all students up to the age of 16. As well as trying to get my students to understand electrical circuits or Newton’s Laws, I make an effort to convey to them that science is important, that it’s something worth doing for reasons beyond the need to pass exams.
Anyone who knows me will confirm that I wear my passion for science on my sleeve, but I don’t think that’s enough to convince all my students that science is important. Nor do I think, like some in my profession, that the importance of science is implicit in the courses we teach, that it will somehow seep into my students’ consciousness through the sheer number of hours they spend doing “science” at school.
So, I’ve started this film and blog project in which I want to ask the question “why is science important?” to people who feel the importance of science so deeply that they have dedicated their lives to it — working scientists, science writers and, of course, science teachers. I’m making a documentary, funded by The Wellcome Trust, and running this “collective blog” as I work on the film. Bits from the blog will appear in the film and bits of the film will appear on the blog. The idea is that the two will inform and enrich each other.
I’m hoping that this project will help me arrive at an answer to this question; an answer that speaks to readers of this blog, as well as my students, and convinces them that science is important. Furthermore, I want this project to reach people who don’t think science is important and convince them otherwise. I want it to demonstrate that science is absolutely crucial to the future wellbeing of our world, that its contribution to culture is as significant as that of music, art or literature and, most important of all, that a sound appreciation of science is vital to realising your potential as a human being. I want this project to make it far, far easier for any science teacher to be able to answer that inevitable question, ‘what’s the point of all this?”
So please take a look and, if you’ve got something to add, please get in touch.
With that, here’s the video…
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Alom Shaha, critical thinking, education, science, scientific method, skeptic, skepticism, teaching, Why Is Science Important? | 3 Comments »