Search Results for "vaccines"

Mar 28 2014

Synthetic Yeast

Published by under General Science

Synthetic biology is an emerging field with incredible potential. The idea is to build genomes from the ground up. Craig Venter made the first breakthrough in synthetic biology four years ago when his team created the first artificial bacterial genome. Now another team has made similar progress with yeast, which is eukaryotic (meaning the cells keep their DNA in a nucleus).

To be clear, these teams have not made life entirely from scratch, not even the genome. In Venter’s case he started with an existing bacterium, and then recreated its genome with some changes, and inserted it into a bacterium whose DNA had been removed.

In the latest research, the scientists have created one of the yeast’s 16 chromosomes. Again, they did not build it from scratch but started with the wild chromosome and then made significant changes. They therefore have 15 chromosomes to go, but there is no reason they should not get there.

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Mar 27 2014

When Does Autism Begin?

One common feature of unscientific belief systems is that they do not change in the face of new evidence. They tend to evolve like cultural beliefs or marketing campaigns, but do not appear to be affected by scientific evidence in any meaningful way.

One great example of this is the idea the autism is linked to vaccines (to be clear up front, it isn’t) This idea had a few important factors in its origin. The first was simply the existing anti-vaccine movement searching for anything to blame on vaccines. The second, and perhaps decisive, factor was the now discredited and withdrawn study by Andrew Wakefield linking autism to the MMR vaccine.

Even as the MMR claim was dying, the anti-vaccine community was moving onto the next target – mercury (specifically the preservative Thimerosal). This was the target of the book Evidence of Harm by David Kirby. This also created common cause between the anti-vaccine movement, and separate “mercury militia” blaming many modern ills on mercury, and some environmentalists (most prominently Robert Kennedy Jr.) who are keen to blame medical problems on any environmental exposure, including mercury and/or vaccines.

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Mar 18 2014

Australian Anti-Vaccination Group Loses Charity Status

The group previously known as the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) has been getting a lot of heat recently, in large part thanks to the Australian Skeptics who have been exposing their dangerous misinformation. The AVN is an anti-vaccination group that actively campaigns against vaccination. They are (or at least were until recently) also a registered charity, which means they can take tax-deductible donations.

The Australian Skeptics pointed out that the name of the AVN is misleading, as it might make the public think they are giving fair and balanced information about vaccines. In reality the information they dispense amounts to anti-vaccine propaganda.

Recently the New South Wales Department of Fair Trading ruled that the AVN is a misleading name, and ordered the group to change their name. That’s the good new. The bad news is that they decided to change their name to the Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network.

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Mar 07 2014

Health of Vaccinated vs Unvaccinated

One of the new realities of social media is that old news can be dredged up and spread around. In this way old memes can keep coming back to life like the Terminator, and we have to kill them over and over again.

The antivaccine crowd, for example, has their narrative of conspiracy and evil and their cherry-picked factoids to support their narrative. In their world vaccines don’t work and are all bad all the time, and only corporate evil and public malfeasance can support them. They scour the internet for anything to support their beliefs, and then splash it around as if it’s news.

In this case, they have resurrected a terrible survey from 1992. The survey was conducted in New Zealand by the Immunization Awareness Society. Unsurprisingly, when this anti-vaccine group surveyed their own anti-vaccine members, they found a higher incidence of disease among vaccinated children compared to unvaccinated children.

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Feb 10 2014

Anti-Flu Vaccine Rants at the HuffPo

The Huffington Post continues to be a venue for all sorts of pseudoscience, alternative medicine propaganda, and anti-vaccine sentiments. Two recent posts by Lawrence Solomon in the HuffPo Canada indicate that the nonsense is international.

His first article claims that the majority of health care workers “resist” or “refuse” the flu-vaccine – therefore it can’t be that great. The second attacks the CDC estimates for the number of flu-associated deaths. Together they demonstrate how a bit of motivated reasoning can seem like actual journalism when in fact it leads to misinformation.

Solomon cites statistics about low rates of flu-vaccine update among healthcare workers:

In the UK, only 46 per cent of health care workers — slightly less for doctors (45 per cent) and nurses (41 per cent) — are vaccinated for the flu, despite concerted government efforts according to Public Health England. This startling failure is similar to that seen in Canadian jurisdictions for health care workers today, and those seen in the recent past in the U.S.

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Feb 04 2014

The GMO Controversy

Published by under General Science

The controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMO) has intrigued me for some time, and recently I have been reading everything I can on the topic. It is an excellent topic for skeptics – it is mainstream (not a fringe topic), it has real importance for society, there are complex scientific and logical issues to sort through, and the topic is rife with misinformation and motivated reasoning.

I wrote recently about the fact that beliefs concerning GMO tend to be dominated by two opposing narratives: GMO critics despise corporate control and greed, and fear the unnatural, while GMO advocates see this technology as an example of the triumph of human ingenuity and science. I admit that with regard to this issue my bias is toward the latter narrative, however, I can understand caution regarding huge corporations (the tobacco industry comes to mind).

But, as a skeptic I have really tried to follow a critical thinking process and pull back from my initial gut reactions. Here, then, is my overview of the issues regarding GMO.

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Nov 07 2013

Early Detection of Autism

Part of the impetus for the fringe belief that vaccines are somehow causally related to the development of autism is that the signs of autism often become apparent at 2-3 years of age, after children have received many of their routine childhood vaccinations. (Average age at diagnosis is 3.1 years.) In an otherwise healthy child, the vaccines might be the only thing the parents can think of that could be a potential cause.

Signs of autism are not clinically noticeable prior to 6 months of age. From about 6-18 months the signs can be detected by careful clinical observation, but may be missed by parents. During this time parents may become slowly aware that their child is not developing as expected, and the creeping suspicion that something is not quite right often culminates in a diagnosis between age 2-3.

The phenomenon of temporal binding may then cause the parent’s memories to shift over time so that the temporal correlation between getting vaccines and signs of autism appearing become closer together. For some parents this can become a very powerful memory – my child was perfectly normal, then he received vaccines and started to show signs of autism.

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Oct 24 2013

Golden Rice – A Touchstone

Published by under General Science

Psychologists have documented a human tendency to pick a belief and then defend it at all costs. We all do this to varying degrees, and the more emotionally invested we are in a belief, the more extreme we are in our defense.

In fact, a skeptical world-view is largely about avoiding this mental trap by tentatively accepting or rejecting claims based upon available evidence, and modifying our beliefs as new arguments and evidence come to light. Skepticism values the process over any individual belief.

Since reality is complicated, if one follows an objective process it will often be true that any controversial issue will have valid points on both or all sides. This is not always true (creationists are completely wrong in their denial of evolution, making this a false controversy), but it often is. For this reason, one of my skeptical “red flags” to alert me to the probability that someone is an ideologue rather than an honest broker of information and analysis is whether or not their opinions point entirely in one direction on a genuinely controversial topic.

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Oct 03 2013

Politics, Science Rejection, and Conspiracy Thinking

Even among self-identified skeptics and critical thinkers, there is the full spectrum of political ideology, and this varying world view does seem to color certain opinions. In my experience in the community, most skeptics eventually get to a similar place with regard to politically-charged scientific topics (logic and evidence do hold sway in the end), but they certainly start in different places. There is also the occasional skeptic who, while displaying critical thinking in most areas, retains a sacred cow or two associated with their political world view.

A recent study explores the issue of political worldview, conspiracy thinking, and the acceptance or rejection of certain scientific topics. Stephen Lewandowsky et al published the study in PLOSOne, The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science

The study essentially looks for association between a free market ideology, conservatism, and conspiracy thinking as these world views relate to acceptance or rejection of vaccine safety, global warming, and acceptance of GMO (genetically modified organisms). A number of interesting and not-so-surprising findings emerged.

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Sep 20 2013

Health Canada Misses the Point

This is an unintended follow up to my post yesterday about holding the line against pseudoscience – this time with regard to regulations. It is one thing to lend an organization’s reputation to pseudoscience, and another when outright unscientific practices are given official sanction by a government or regulatory body. It continues to amaze me how naive (or perhaps it’s just politically expedient) such regulators can be.

On September 6th Nathan Kunzler and Arthur Caplan published an excellent editorial in The Star in which they called out Canada’s public health agency for hypocrisy. They pointed out that, according to Health Canada’s own website:

“To be licensed in Canada, natural health products must be safe, effective, of high quality and carry detailed label information to let people make safe and informed choices.”

Therefore, if they license a product they are proclaiming it safe and effective. Health Canada licenses homeopathic products, which are not effective. They are nothing but placebos, magic potions based on prescientific notions and with “active ingredients” that are often diluted beyond the point where any original substance is likely to remain. Homeopathic products are therefore literally nothing. Further, clinical trials have consistently shown that they do not, in fact, work.

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