Are we giving Jon Stewart a pass for his contribution to the measles outbreak?

I’m glad to see clips like this from the daily show appropriately mocking the deluded, and supposedly “educated” types that don’t vaccinate.

But have we forgotten this episode from 2005 when he allowed RFK Jr to basically spout his nonsense about vaccines without challenge?

It’s good and fine for Stewart to mock these people now. But he seems to forget he helped contribute to this problem. Is anyone aware of an apology from Stewart for allowing this crackpot to use his megaphone? Isn’t it precisely members of the media like him that are to blame for failing to vet the claims made by guests such as these?
Sorry for the autoplay. How do you stop this nonsense with code? Everything I have found doesn’t work.
**Update** Carl Zimmer points out that Jon obliquely references the RFK Jr. bit around minute 8:05. I missed it. I’m sorry, I failed there. But I think I still would have posted this and I still ask, are we giving him a pass on this? Is that brief, “I had a guy on 10 years ago” reference enough of a correction to the record? I still think he can do better. It’s not like we’ve learned so much new from 10 years ago. This was bogus 10 years ago as it is today and that is part of our frustration that it had to take an outbreak to change peoples’ minds.
**Update2** The more I think about, the more I’m still mad. Stewart really needs to do more than hand-wave away his role in this.

Vaccines and the Boanthropy Risk

I’m reading Jeffrey Kacirk’s delightful Forgotten English, which includes this anecdote concerning boanthropy, a condition where a person believes himself to be a cow or ox:

In 1792, Edward Jenner successfully developed a vaccine for smallpox by injecting a boy with closely related cowpox germs. He did this despite his medical critics’ attempts to scuttle his project by circulating boanthropy scare-stores. The critics alleged that those inoculated would develop bovine appetites, make cowlike sounds, and go about on four legs butting people with their horns…

Is Huffington Post no longer a denialist site?

Seth Mnookin has reasons to hope. It has been clear though for years that Huffpo was a clearinghouse for what I would describe as liberal crankery, which includes things like Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine crankery, or Bill Maher’s anti-pharma paranoia.

But now they have a new site, Huffpo Science, and after my head stopped ringing from that particular oxymoron I went and checked it out.
Continue reading “Is Huffington Post no longer a denialist site?”

Oprah is a crank

PZ brings to my attention this article in Newsweek which sums up Oprah’s views on health, and one sadly must come to the conclusion that Oprah is a crank. Based on our definition of crankery, one of the critical aspects is the incompetence of an individual in judging sources of information. How else can you describe her dismissal of legitimate medical opinion for the pseudoscience of celebrities like Suzanne Somers or Jenny McCarthy?

That was apparently good enough for Oprah. “Many people write Suzanne off as a quackadoo,” she said. “But she just might be a pioneer.” Oprah acknowledged that Somers’s claims “have been met with relentless criticism” from doctors. Several times during the show she gave physicians an opportunity to dispute what Somers was saying. But it wasn’t quite a fair fight. The doctors who raised these concerns were seated down in the audience and had to wait to be called on. Somers sat onstage next to Oprah, who defended her from attack. “Suzanne swears by bioidenticals and refuses to keep quiet. She’ll take on anyone, including any doctor who questions her.”

That would be a lot of doctors. Outside Oprah’s world, there isn’t a raging debate about replacing hormones. Somers “is simply repackaging the old, discredited idea that menopause is some kind of hormone-deficiency disease, and that restoring them will bring back youth,” says Dr. Nanette Santoro, director of reproductive endocrinology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Older women aren’t missing hormones. They just don’t need as much once they get past their childbearing years. Unless a woman has significant discomfort from hot flashes–and most women don’t–there is little reason to prescribe them. Most women never use them. Hormone therapy can increase a woman’s risk of heart attacks, strokes, blood clots and cancer. And despite Somers’s claim that her specially made, non-FDA-approved bioidenticals are “natural” and safer, they are actually synthetic, just like conventional hormones and FDA-approved bioidenticals from pharmacies–and there are no conclusive clinical studies showing they are less risky. That’s why endocrinologists advise that women take the smallest dose that alleviates symptoms, and use them only as long as they’re needed.

This is where things get tricky. Because the truth is, some of what Oprah promotes isn’t good, and a lot of the advice her guests dispense on the show is just bad. The Suzanne Somers episode wasn’t an oddball occurrence. This kind of thing happens again and again on Oprah. Some of the many experts who cross her stage offer interesting and useful information (props to you, Dr. Oz). Others gush nonsense. Oprah, who holds up her guests as prophets, can’t seem to tell the difference. She has the power to summon the most learned authorities on any subject; who would refuse her? Instead, all too often Oprah winds up putting herself and her trusting audience in the hands of celebrity authors and pop-science artists pitching wonder cures and miracle treatments that are questionable or flat-out wrong, and sometimes dangerous.

But back on the Oprah show, McCarthy’s charges went virtually unchallenged. Oprah praised McCarthy’s bravery and plugged her book, but did not invite a physician or scientist to explain to her audience the many studies that contradict the vaccines-autism link. Instead, Oprah read a brief statement from the Centers for Disease Control saying there was no science to prove a connection and that the government was continuing to study the problem. But McCarthy got the last word. “My science is named Evan, and he’s at home. That’s my science.” Oprah might say that McCarthy was just sharing her first-person story and that Oprah wasn’t endorsing her point of view. But by the end of the show, the take-away message for any mother with young kids was pretty clear: be afraid.

Dangerous is right. One wonders why the CDC doesn’t have a public health authority devoted to studying the spread of quackery at the hands of celebrities and promoters of woo such as Oprah. It’s disappointing though, she’s clearly an intelligent person and has the potential to do so much good, but instead chooses to follow the advice of any celebrity at hand who will tell her and her audience what they want to hear.

What’s worse is that while seeking advice from quacks who promote this wishful thinking, at the same time she reinforces that most fundamental aspect of medical woo. When you are sick it isn’t because human bodies are fragile, or they wear out, or are attacked by bacteria and viruses, instead it’s your fault. Sickness isn’t an accident. It’s your failure. You failed to take supplements, or you failed to protect yourself, or you are weak-minded, or you failed spiritually. Of course there are things that we can do to protect ourselves and stay healthy, I wouldn’t suggest some form of health fatalism. But medical quackery takes a healthy attitude of self-protection to an extreme of self-flagellation. It promotes the idea that there is always a way of staying healthy, (take this vitamin!) when in reality sickness and death comes to us all no matter how hard we wish it were otherwise. This wishful thinking and self-doubt is, of course, what is exploited to sell quack remedies.

Oprah fails her audience, not only in her incompetence in judging medical expertise, but also for complicity in this most insidious aspect of quackery, that of blaming the victim.

Have you written your letter to Oprah yet?

If you have been keeping up with Pal or Orac in my absence, you already know the bad news. Oprah has decided to up her woo quotient from promotion of the Secret and relatively harmless nonsense to actively promoting anti-vaccine conspiracy theories in the form of a Jenny McCarthy TV show. Gawker suggests a good title, “Finding Someone to Blame When Bad Things Happen”.

Jenny McCarthy is an insipid, dangerous idiot. And a Wacko. Oprah’s move isn’t just some harmless addition to the drivel that occupies our screens known as “daytime TV”. This is actively dangerous. This is, as Pal says, infectious disease promotion. I don’t want the proof that we’re right about vaccines (other than thousands of scientific papers and the last 100 years of human history) to be a bunch of dead kids or more kids born with birth defects due to a reemergence of congenital rubella. I don’t think Oprah is a bad person, she certainly doesn’t have malicious intent. I’m sure McCarthy even has good intentions behind her lies and misinformation. But that doesn’t mean such dangerous idiots should be tolerated, given airtime, and their own TV shows. If Oprah does not work to actively reverse this deal, and undo the harm that Jenny McCarthy does as an infectious disease advocate, the resulting illness and deaths will be her responsibility.

Young Australian Skeptics have written their letter to Oprah. Go here and write your own. Mine is below the fold.
Continue reading “Have you written your letter to Oprah yet?”

The Autism/Vaccines Fraud

I have to admit I’m somewhat surprised (even if Orac isn’t). We all knew that Andrew Wakefield’s research was bogus and the link between vaccines and autism was engineered by ideologues who fear vaccines irrationally. But fabrication of data? Sloppy research is one thing, but the need for cranks to be correct, no matter what reality reflects, has resulted in yet another example of egregious dishonesty.

This is in line, however, with what we know about cranks. Mark Crislip recently wrote an interesting piece on mathematics crankery which bears upon just this phenomenon. Mathematics is a wonderful area to study crankery because as Crislip points out, mathematics is a field in which it is possible to distinguish between the possible and the impossible.

In mathematics there are things that are impossible. Absolutely impossible. No ifs, ands, or buts. Impossible. Can’t be done no how no way. In the world of mathematics, things are not only impossible, they are proven truly impossible within the boundaries of the mathematical discipline.

An example of mathematical impossibility is the quadrature of the circle, also called squaring the circle.

It is impossible, using only a straight edge ruler and a compass, to construct a square with the same area as a given circle. It was proved to be impossible in 1882 by Lindeman. Not improbable or unlikely or very, very, very difficult. With in mathematical reality, it is impossible.

But in his review of Mathematical Cranks he hits upon many of the commonalities between cranks we discussed in the Crank HOWTO.

Here is Crislip’s description of the mathematical crank:

1) They are convinced that their opinion is superior to the accumulated opinion of 2000 years of mathematics and mathematicians. That hundreds of mathematicians have worked for hundreds of years on these problems and found no errors in the proof that it is impossible to square a circle is of no consequence. Despite the accumulated mathematical knowledge of uncounted mathematicians, they are convinced that their solution is the right solution. Everyone else for all of history has been wrong. There is a tinge of megalomania in all the correspondence, and some appear to me to be clinically insane.

2) To accommodate their solutions, they are willing to alter reality to fit their proofs. There are solutions to squaring the circle, but they require a value of pi that is different that 3.14159265… Pi, for those that have forgotten, is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle and is a constant of the universe. For some circle squarers, Pi has a different value and all the mathematics that has confirmed the current value of pi is wrong. Others deny that pi exists or that the definition is meaningless, since they can construct a squared circle with pencil and paper, and send in the (flawed) construction.

3) When errors of math or logic are pointed out, they respond not with understanding, but a redoubling of efforts to prove that their erroneous solution to the problem is actually correct. They are incapable of recognizing flaws in logic, or mathematics, or flaws that are in opposition to mathematical consistency. A crank cannot recognize their error because they cannot recognize that their reality differs from mathematical reality.

4) Cranks are impervious to arguments based on mathematical reality. They do not recognize or understand that their solutions are in error because the solution contradicts known mathematical reality. They do not base their solutions on known mathematics, but on their own flawed understanding of mathematics.

5) Cranks evidently send their ‘solutions’ to multiple mathematical departments and rarely receive a reply. This silence from academia is interpreted not that their solution is worthless, but that there is a conspiracy of Professors of Mathematics to keep their solution secret, to the detriment of human kind. Big Math, out to suppress the truth THEY don’t not want you to know.

It is obvious to me that no matter what the field, the problem is crankery – the defective thought processes that allow people to believe in nonsense, no matter what obstacles reality throws in their path. Every description of every crank in every field ultimately boils down to these same factors. Cranks believe in something contrary to observable reality. They will do anything to prove it. When reality gets in their way, they ignore, subvert, lie, cheat, or obfuscate to create confusion. And when it’s proven beyond all doubt they’re wrong? That’s when the conspiracies come out. The comments on the Huffington Post coverage of the most recent Wakefield dishonesty are an excellent example of this. Wakefield is a victim of Big Pharma, being persecuted by Brian Deer, it’s all a conspiracy against children by doctors and pharmaceutical companies etc.

The more time passes the more I’m convinced that our original thesis on cranks and denialism in general has been confirmed again and again. No matter what the foolish belief the problem the reality-based community is fighting is a defective pattern of thought, an incompetence in evaluating the quality of evidence that afflicts millions of individuals and ultimately is why so many people believe in such stupid things. Wakefield, ultimately, is just another in a long line of cranks. And while biology is never as concrete as mathematics, it is clear that accepting reality was never a part of the the anti-vaccine movement’s ideology. And what do cranks do when reality opposes your world view? They do what Wakefield did. Reject reality, and substitute their own.

Even after all this time I was surprised they would find outright fabrication in Wakefield’s work, but I shouldn’t have been.

Stop the RFK Jr. appointment NOW

I would beg everyone who reads the scienceblogs and cares about science to contact the transition team in the Obama administration as Orac has requested.

It should be clear by now to readers of this blog that pseudoscience is not a problem of just the right. The left wing areas of pseudoscience are just as cranky, just as wrong-headed about science, just as likely to use the tactics of denialism to advance a non-scientific agenda. We have been dealing with the denialism of the right more because they’ve been in control. Now is the time to nip the denialism of the left in the bud so it doesn’t take root in this new administration.

RFK Jr. is a crank (Orac for more), and one of the problems with cranks is Crank Magnetism. When people have one type of pseudoscientific belief it tends not to be isolated. Instead it reflects a general incompetence in understanding science, evaluating the quality of evidence, and what constitutes good science. RFK Jr.’s crankery will not be limited to vaccines and autism. He will undoubtably become the poster boy for all sorts of left wing crankery – be it environmental extremism, toxin/radiation paranoia (we’ll never get public wifi), or his already well known anti-vax crankery.

My letter to the transition team is below the fold. Please join me in trying to prevent this terrible error on the part of the Obama campaign.

Continue reading “Stop the RFK Jr. appointment NOW”

“Kennedy” is a name, not a qualification

I can’t cover this topic better than Orac; he’s the expert. I would like to suggest that you go read his post.

This is important. I voted for Obama. I believe that he is one of the brightest people we’ve every had the chance to vote for, and I think that after 8 years of open hostility to science, we have a chance to remove some of the politics from the issues that affect all of us.

But Obama has floated a lead balloon for the head of EPA. Robert Kennedy, Jr. is an anti-science wacko. He has drunk the Kool Aid (I know, Flav-R-Ade, stop correcting me!) of the anti-vaccine movement, and crankery is never isolated—it always carries over from one area to the next, as it indicates a flawed way of thinking. Read Orac’s post for specifics.

Building an administration is probably hard. Please, Mr. Obama, don’t get off on the wrong foot with science. Please?

My irony meter just exploded

How stupid do you have to be for Jenny McCarthy to legitimately toss the epithet back at you?

This question may seem unanswerable, but in this case, McCarthy may have gotten it half right regarding Dennis Leary. The headline at MSNBC delcares: McCarthy calls Leary ‘obviously stupid’

I don’t know much about Leary, but like many comedians he has said something that he will probably regret and move on. In attempting to be funny, Leary scored an epic fail (you can tell it’s an epic fail because Jenny did get it half right):

“There is a huge boom in autism right now because inattentive mothers and competitive dads want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can’t compete academically, so they throw money into the happy laps of shrinks . . . to get back diagnoses that help explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons. I don’t give a [bleep] what these crackerjack whack jobs tell you – yer kid is NOT autistic. He’s just stupid. Or lazy. Or both.”

OK, in or out of context, not very funny. Autism is a serious neuro-developmental disorder, and his unfunny pseudo-Scientological riff doesn’t help advance the cause of autism diagnosis and treatment. So Jenny is right (if somewhat non-specific and unsophisticated) in calling him “stupid”. But Leary is up against some serious competition, and when it comes to bringing the stupid, no one does it quite like Jenny McCarthy.

“My fight isn’t with Denis Leary, my fight is with the government — a bigger fish to fry. So I’m still gonna work on the vaccines and I’m still working on pediatricians and Denis Leary can go hopefully be more educated by every mother that stops him from this day forward to give him a piece of their mind,” she said.

I’d argue that Leary’s comments are an opportunity for public education. To minimize a public figure’s idiotic comments about autism in favor of a fight against “the government and vaccines”, is a level of stupid unique to Jenny. The only conspiracy in Jenny’s world is her own conspiracy of ignorance. He’s is a conspiracy that prepares fertile soil for other real conspiracies—those by quacks and charlatans who give parents false hope, steal their money, harm their children, and distract from real autism research.

Brava, maestra!

Another Open Letter to Jenny McCarthy

Dear Jenny,

Thank you! Thankyouthankyou thank YOU!

You see, my medical education had a few gaps. I was unfortunate enough to do my training during the last couple of decades, which means I never saw measles, pertussis, polio, and many other vaccine-preventable diseases.

Well, last year, I saw three cases of pertussis! Sweet! And it looks like, if I play my cards right, I may get to see some measles.

It’s not that I don’t know anything about measles. I mean, I’ve read Hippocrates, Rhazes, Osler, and all the other ancients. But to see the real thing, to experience the real fear, well, you just can’t buy that kind of education. I’ve never been able to experience the fear that my little girl–who loves to swim— might bring polio home from the lake. How am I supposed to relate to my older patients if I don’t know that fear?

If I were in charge of awards for medical education, I’d give you one. But, alas, I’m not. I guess we’ll have to find some other way to honor all your hard work, education, and expertise. I mean, my four years of undergrad, 4 years of medical school, and 3 years of residency can’t hold a candle to your experience as a Mommy Warrior. I wish we could just bottle that. Or perhaps isolate it in northern Idaho.

Anyway, if you’re on google doing research for your next cult, I have a few suggestions. First, try to find one with UFOs. UFOs are kinda cool. Second, find one that makes you cut off all your ties to the outside world. As much as I’d miss the educational opportunities of your public appearances, I’ll find a way to make up for it.

So thanks, and good luck! Keep up the personal growth! Move on to the next issue!