Archive for September, 2009

Sep 30 2009

The HPV Vaccine

The Daily Mail reports of a 14 year old girl who died within hours of receiving the HPV vaccine (the brand being given in the UK is Cervarix, the better known brand is Gardasil). While this story is sensational and sure to stir up fears of the risks of the vaccine, a more sober look at the data shows that the vaccine has a very high safety record.

The bottom line is that we cannot interpret a single case such as this. As present there is no medical conclusion as to why the girl, Natalie, died. She stopped breathing, arrested, and could not be resuscitated. While tragic, this can unfortunately happen from a number of causes. It is plausible that the vaccine was a trigger, but it’s also plausible that it was not.

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31 responses so far

Sep 29 2009

Science Bloggers Pigpile on HuffPo

Published by under Skepticism

And with good reason.

I am a bit late to the latest round of this party, but as I have previously pointed out, The Huffington Post has been since its inception a bastion of pseudoscience, especially in the medical field. Like distressingly many news outlets, it has decided to abandon all pretense of being “fair and balanced” in its actual content when it comes to its ideological stance.

Arianna Huffington clearly is enamored of anti-scientific pseudomedical nonsense. Earlier in her career she wrote for and frequently appeared on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher – another quack-friendly media personality.

So it is no surprise that the HuffPo has been a haven for unscientific dangerous medical misinformation. Specifically, writers for the HuffPo, including David Kirby, have consistently taken an anti-vaccine stance.

The science blogging community just can’t keep up with the steady stream of medical stupid coming from the HuffPo, but occasionally an article or group of articles reaches a critical mass of stupid and triggers a response. Such is the case recently.

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30 responses so far

Sep 28 2009

The Overpopulation Hubbub

Published by under General Science

The question of human overpopulation of the earth is one of those empirical scientific questions that garners a strange amount of emotional opinion.  It is as if the sense of overcrowding and depleting resources triggers something primal in our monkey brains. On the other side, we resent being told to curb what is perhaps our strongest natural instinct – to make more versions of our genome.

Another feature of this debate that encourages or at least allows emotion to reign over data is that the core questions involve predicting the future. We are very bad at predicting the future. Predicting the future is really just an exercise in projecting our biases onto the future. The best we can do is extrapolate current trends forward, but there are often multiple overlapping trends that we can choose from, some trends are really cyclical, and the appropriate curve (linear, geometric, exponential) may not be obvious.

It is also important to identify in a controversy where there are value judgments that cannot be resolved objectively with facts. The abortion debate continues to rage because at its core is a personal choice of value – the mother’s biological freedom vs the life of a fetus. In the population debate there are value judgments regarding humanity’s rights and responsibilities toward the earth and all other life on it.

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24 responses so far

Sep 25 2009

New Oldest Bird

Published by under Evolution

archiornisI have been following the story of bird evolution for some time. My fascination began, appropriately, with Archaeopteryx – a beautifully transitional species from theropod dinosaurs to modern birds living about 150 million years ago. The Berlin specimen is simply a gorgeous fossil.

The story of bird evolution also has everything a paleontology enthusiast could want – impressive fossils, exotic extinct creatures, an unfolding mystery, and a bit of legitimate scientific controversy. There was also a case of fraud thrown in to keep things interesting.

So of course the news item about the oldest fossil bird being discovered – finally overtaking Archaeopteryx for the title, caught my eye.  Anchiornis huxleyi is a feathered theropod dinosaur from the Troodontidae family – the group of theropods most closely related to birds. The specimen was found in a formation in China now dated to between 161 and 151 million years old – making it older than Archaeopteryx. This specimen has great significance, but first let me set the stage with some background.

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13 responses so far

Sep 24 2009

Conspiracy Mongering at Age of Autism

Published by under Skepticism

Orac thinks Jake Crosby is just a “crazy mixed up kid.” I am not inclined to be so generous. I have no personal knowledge of Crosby, so all I have to go by is his blogging over at Age of Autism. He recently wrote a two part blog that is nothing more than a malicious conspiracy-mongering grab-bag of logical fallacies, sloppy reasoning, and sloppy journalism – all in the name of anti-vaccine pseudoscience. Maybe he is just an innocent tool, but it really doesn’t matter – he’s responsible for the absurd vitriol he had dumped onto the blogosphere.

Orac has nicely deconstructed the nonsense in Part I of Crosby’s rant. But there is a Part II, and Crosby threw into his follow up a regurgitation of the personal attacks that J.B. Handley had previously made against me.

In the words of the immortal Bugs Bunny, “Of course you know this means war.”

Weaving a Conspiracy

The entire two-part blog is based upon the naive premise that finding tenuous connections among science bloggers, skeptics, and skeptical outlets means that they are all involved in a deep dark conspiracy. Further, that any connection, no matter how tenuous, to any other organization or corporation means that the science blogger is in fact a shill for such organizations. This is conspiracy-mongering at its most childish and uninformed.

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8 responses so far

Sep 23 2009

Learning in the Comatose

Published by under Neuroscience

Neurologists are often confronted with patients who have a disorder of consciousness and are asked to predict their probability of recovery. The more severe the neurological damage the easier prediction is, but there are many patients in the gray zone – they have enough damage that they may never have a significant recovery, but there is also enough preserved function that they may improve – even to the point of crossing an important functional milestone, for example being able to communicate.

Traditionally we have relied upon the clinical exam to determine the the level of impairment – for example, whether a patient is in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) or a minimally conscious state (MCS). However, there are limits to the exam (patients, for example, may be unable to move because they are paralyzed rather than due entirely to lack of consciousness) and a recent study has shown that errors in the distinction between PVS and MCS are not uncommon.

Making this distinction is also becoming increasingly important as neuroscientists develop possible techniques to treat patients with disorders of consciousness to help them recover. For example, patients have been treated with transcranial magnetic stimulation or with implanted chips to stimulate brain activity. It is not inconceivable that within 10-20 years we will be able to augment brain function in those in a MCS and help them regain significant consciousness.

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14 responses so far

Sep 22 2009

More Evidence for Vaccine Safety

Published by under Neuroscience

The BBC reports today of a National Health Service study that shows that autism rates are consistent at about 1% among all age groups. If true, this has profound implications for the now-discredited notion that autism rates are rising and that this rise is linked to vaccines.

Starting in the late 1990’s fear swept the UK over the MMR vaccine and a possible link to autism – sparked by research by Andrew Wakefield. In the decade since, a succession of studies have shown that Wakefield’s original research was not valid and that there is no detectable link between vaccines and autism. Attention shifted, especially in the US, from the MMR vaccine to a preservative, thimerosal, in some childhood vaccines. This prompted the Centers for Disease control and the FDA, to mitigate public concerns, whether justified or not, to remove thimerosal from the vaccine schedule, which they did by 2002 (except for insignificant trace amounts). This dramatic decrease in thimerosal exposure had no effect on the rate of increase of autism diagnoses – pretty much the nail in the coffin of the thimerosal-autism hypothesis.

Unfortunately – this is a fake controversy, not a genuine scientific one, and dedicated anti-vaccinationists are not swayed by compelling evidence, so their vaccine-autism fear mongering continues, and has even been increasing. They have migrated their claims away from MMR and thimerosal to other “toxins” (mostly imagined), and made-up claims such as vaccines overwhelm children’s immune systems (when in fact they represent an modest addition to the antigens kids are exposed to).

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12 responses so far

Sep 21 2009

Science-Based Medicine Hickup

Published by under General

SBM was down on Friday and is down again today after days of very slow responses. We are not sure what the problem is – it could be simply the wild popularity of the blog, or a denial of service bot, or something else.

In any case, we are already in the process of changing hosts and significantly upgrading the service. This process should be done today, so hopefully SBM will be back up and running soon.

7 responses so far

Sep 21 2009

“The” Scientific Method

Published by under General Science

Or – Why are there so many engineers on the list of scientists who doubt Darwin?

At a recent live SGU show (at Dragon*Con 2009) a questioner asked why it was that so many of the scientists who have added their name to the list of those who doubt Darwin were – and then I cut him off and finished for him – engineers. He was not the first person to make this observation. (You can download the list here:

First, on a separate note, this list has been the focus of much ridicule because after years of scouring the globe they have only managed to come up with 700 scientists willing to sign the list. And, whenever they add scientists to the list they boast that the number of scientists dissenting from Darwin is growing, as if the percentage of scientists is growing, and therefore the scientific community is moving away from evolutionary theory (which they tellingly equate with Darwin). No – they just added another buffoon to their list.

Also, I have to point out that the National Center for Science Education, to parody the silliness of this list, launched Project Steve, and have now listed 1,107 scientists named Steve (or some variation of Steve) who support evolution (and of which I am a proud member).

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85 responses so far

Sep 18 2009

Naive About Science

SGU listener Ben Lurvey sent me a link to this blog post by economist Eric Falkenstein. I have to say, this had my irony meter going to 11, so I thought I would have some fun with Mr. Falkenstein. The fact that he specifically criticized the SGU may also have something to do with my attention.

Falkenstein laments that “nonscientists (are) naive about science.” This is sometimes true, but not always. I also know some scientists who are naive about science.  But certainly the degree of scientific understanding tends to be much greater among working scientists than the lay public. Falkenstein specifically complains about science journalists who “when these journalists digress from a specific subject, to science in general they are extremely naive or duplicitous.”

I have myself been highly critical of sloppy science journalism – but I don’t think it is limited to “science in general” – I think it is often atrocious even when dealing with a narrow topic. Sloppy journalism is sloppy journalism. Falkenstein then gets to the SGU:

If you go to The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, you invariably hear a bunch of caricatures of those who disagree with conventional wisdom on science—most of which truly are quacks, but not always—and they pedantically emphasize how these alternative views are ‘not science’: they have beliefs that do not have peer-reviewed tests supporting a falsifiable hypothesis.

Let me translate – the SGU does a generally good job describing science and attacking pseudoscience, but I take exception when they attack my sacred cows so I must find some excuse to dismiss their criticism.

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42 responses so far

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