Category: Alt-Med

Jenny McCarthy infects Chicago

By Phil Plait | October 22, 2012 10:43 am

Splash, a style magazine in Chicago, is reporting that they’ve hired Jenny McCarthy to be their new daily blogger.

Yes, you read that right. But it gets better. And by better, I mean worse.

Besides a daily blog, she’s being given a weekly advice column called "Ask Jenny", where, among other things, she will "tackle parenting".

Tackle, indeed. Body slam is more like it.

As someone who strongly advocates parents to get their kids vaccinated – y’know, to keep them from contracting potentially debilitating or deadly diseases, because I’m funny that way – I am not exactly a fan of Ms. McCarthy. I’ve written about her many, many times, because of her tenuous grasp of medical reality. She has for example repeatedly and fallaciously linked vaccines to autism, and has spouted inflated propaganda about toxic ingredients in them.

If you want the truth about vaccinations, and why they are critical for our public health, then go to the Immunize for Good website. Or talk to your board-certified doctor (good advice under any circumstances). But don’t talk to Jenny McCarthy. When it comes to medical advice she’s as wrong as wrong can be, and people who listen to antivax propaganda are putting lives at risk.

As you can imagine, there are some questions for her "Ask Jenny" column it would be interesting to see her answer. Why, despite the vast and overwhelming evidence against it, do you think vaccines cause autism? Do you know the difference between ethylmercury and methylmercury? How many babies die of pertussis every year? How big a number is acceptable to you?

Let me leave you with this. Guess what the slogan is for Splash magazine. Go ahead, guess.

"Chicago’s Dose of Style, Society, and Celebrity." Emphasis mine. But still.

You can’t make this stuff up. But antivaxxers make up lots of stuff about vaccines. Too bad people pay attention to them.


Related Posts:

- Jenny McCarthy: spreading more dangerous misinformation
- Jenny McCarthy still thinks vaccines cause autism
- Why you should listen to celebrities
- …but how do we recover from Jenny McCarthy?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Antiscience, Piece of mind

Vaccines: opinions are not facts

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2012 10:07 am

There’s an old phrase among critical thinkers: you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts*. The idea is that these are two different things: opinions are matters of taste or subjective conclusions, while facts stand outside that, independent of what you think or how you may be biased.

You can have an opinion that Quisp cereal is, to you, the best breakfast food of all time. But you can’t have the opinion that evolution isn’t real. That latter is not an opinion; it’s objectively wrong. You can have the opinion that the evidence for evolution doesn’t satisfy you, or that evolution feels wrong to you. But disbelieving evolution is not an opinion.

The same can be said for many other topics of critical thinking.

Deakin University Philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes makes just this case in a well-written piece called No, You’re Not Entitled to Your Opinion. For his basic example of this he uses the modern antivaccination movement, specifically Meryl Dorey and the Orwellain-named Australian Vaccination Network, or AVN.

Dorey’s name is familiar to regular readers: she spews antivax nonsense at nearly relativistic velocities, able to say more provably wrong and blatantly dangerous things than any given antiscience advocate after eight cups of coffee (just how dangerous the antivax movement is has been written about ably by my friend Seth Mnookin in Parade magazine). She never comes within a glancing blow of reality, and has been shown to her face that whatshe says is wrong, but stubbornly refuses to back down. She claims vaccines are connected to autism, that vaccines contain dangerous levels of toxins, that vaccines hurt human immune systems. None of these things is true. Reasonable Hank, who is outspoken about Dorey, has an exhaustive list of the awful things she’s said and done.

But some media pay attention to her, and in Australia the rate of pertussis is skyrocketing. Babies have died from this illness – not that Dorey actually believes that. Despite this, some media let Dorey rant on with her medical health conspiracy theories, citing "balance" when doing their stories. This is, simply, crap. Talking to doctors and researchers with years of experience in public health, and then Dorey (who has zero qualifications to discuss this topic) gives her de facto equal footing with reality. It would be like having astronauts interviewed about the space station, then talking to a UFO hunter.

Specifically, the article by Stokes I linked above takes the station WIN-TV to task for interviewing Dorey, and lays out just why this was a boneheaded thing to do (the ABC program Media Watch did an outstanding job destroying WIN-TV and Dorey, too). His bottom line: sure, you get to have an opinion, but don’t confuse it with fact, and don’t think you have a right to state your opinion in the media.

Predictably, and with predictable results, Dorey herself has jumped into the fray on the comments to the article. She has an uncanny ability to completely miss the point of what’s being said, and as usual is tone-deaf to what’s being said. It’s fascinating, in its own way.

I don’t think Dorey will ever change. I’ll note too that there are groups out there looking for the real causes of autism; the Autism Science Foundation is one. They even have a page up showing no connection between autism and vaccines. It’s wonderful and refreshing, and we should praise them for it. I have, like here and here. They’re good folks.

And remember another stock phrase in the critical thinking community: Keep an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out.

Image credit: Shutterstock (jimmi)


* The phrase is generally attributed to NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.


Related Posts:

- Stop antivaxxers. Now.
- Debunking vaccine myths
- Antivax kills
- BREAKING: BMJ calls Andrew Wakefield a fraud

Debunking vaccine myths

By Phil Plait | September 10, 2012 9:30 am

My friend Dr. Rachael Dunlop is a tireless promoter of science and fighter of antivaccination propaganda. I somehow missed this when she wrote it last November, but she put together a fantastic article tearing apart a whole passel of antivax lies: "9 vaccination myths busted. With Science". It’s basically one-stop shopping for the truth about vaccines.

We need people talking about the need for vaccines more than ever right now. Measles cases have nearly doubled over last year in the UK. My hometown of Boulder is suffering through an outbreak of pertussis. California is on its way to having serious epidemics due to lower vaccination rates. In North Carolina just a few days ago, a two month old infant died from pertussis.

Let me repeat that: babies die because of diseases that can be prevented by a simple vaccination. Factually-bereft antivaxxers – cough cough Meryl Dorey cough – claim that no one dies from these diseases any more. They are wrong.

Antivaccination beliefs are bad science, pure and simple. Vaccines don’t cause autism. They don’t have toxins in them that can hurt you in the doses given. They don’t overtax the immune system. Read Rachie’s article to get the truth.

What vaccines do is save millions, hundreds of millions, of lives. They protect us from diseases that used to ravage entire populations. And they save babies’ lives.

We need to keep up our herd immunity if we are to keep ourselves healthy, and that includes adults. Talk to your board-certified doctor and see if you need a booster. Please.


Related Posts:

- Washington pertussis outbreak is very, very bad
- UPDATE: partial Complete success with American Airlines!
- Whooping cough outbreak in Boulder
- Stop antivaxxers. Now.

Washington pertussis outbreak is very, very bad

By Phil Plait | July 24, 2012 9:42 am

This is one of the scariest graphs I’ve seen in a long time.

This plot, from the CDC, shows probable and confirmed cases of pertussis – whooping cough – in the state of Washington from 2011 through June 2012. Last year’s numbers are the short, light-blue-grey rectangles, and this year’s are the dark blue. The plot is by week, so you can see the 2011 numbers slowly growing across the year; then this year’s numbers suddenly taking a huge leap upward. They are reporting the new rate as 13 times larger than last year. Note that 83% of these cases have been confirmed as being pertussis, while 17% are probable. The drop in recent weeks is due to a lag in complete reporting of cases.

Got that? There are 13 times as many people – more than 2500 in total so far – getting pertussis right now as there were last year at this time in Washington.

Some of this increase may be attributable to the pertussis bacterium growing a resistance to the vaccine and booster. However, it’s curious that Washington state has seen such a large jump; the incidence of pertussis overall in that state is nine times higher than the national average.

Why would this be? Well, it so happens that the antivax movement is quite strong in Washington state, and it also so happens that parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children in higher numbers there than the rest of the nation.

There may be other factors, but it’s clear that people who don’t vaccinate are at least partially to blame for this. Maybe it’s due to religious reasons, or the large number of antivaxxers who still blame autism on vaccines, when we know for sure that’s not the case. Either way, when vaccine rates get too low, herd immunity is compromised, and we see more pertussis cases, even among those who are vaccinated.

Pertussis is a terrible, terrible disease. It puts infants at grave risk of dying, and eight infants so far this year have been killed by pertussis in the US. Even if it doesn’t kill them, it’s a horrible thing to put them through.

Vaccines save lives. Talk to your board-certified doctor and find out if you need one, or a booster. I did, and my whole family is up-to-date with their vaccinations. I refuse to be a part of spreading a disease that can kill anyone, let alone babies, and I refuse to be silent about it.

Tip o’ the needle to Steven Saltzberg at Genomics, Evolution, and Pseudoscience and mims on Twitter.


Related Posts:

- Not vaccinated? No kisses!
- Whooping cough outbreak in Boulder
- Pertussis can kill, and you can help stop it
- Pertussis and measles are coming back

It must be true. I heard it on the Internet.

By Phil Plait | June 20, 2012 11:52 am

So you hear some claim on the Internet — say, vaccines will make you grow a second head — and you’re not sure if it’s true. What do you do?

This is not a trivial question. The greatest strength of the ‘net is that it gives everyone a voice, and the greatest weakness of the ‘net is that it gives everyone a voice. Because not everyone has a good grasp of reality, any claim, no matter how ridiculous, will have its supporters online somewhere. If you have no familiarity with a topic and stumble on some crackpot’s website about it, you might not know what they’re saying is baloney.

At Lifehacker, Alan Henry wrote an outstanding article about all this. And I don’t just say this because he quoted me extensively in it, though of course there is that. He also talked with David McRaney from You Are Not So Smart who also has excellent advice, and then wrapped it all up in a readable and IMO very important article on how to make sure the Internet isn’t duping you.

The most important thing I have to say on this is: just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you’re right. This is an incredibly common fallacy, and one I see a lot. In many cases, the opposite is true, especially when it comes to closely-held beliefs. Smart people hear a claim and decide to check up on it, and then fall victim to the bias of only reading articles that support their pre-existing belief. It’s maddening, but well-documented, and leads to things like outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in places where people are better educated on average. Like Boulder.

In the Lifehacker interview I recommended following the scientific consensus as a default position. Why? Because when scientists agree on something, it’s almost always because there is overwhelming evidence to support it, research indicating it’s correct, and vast amounts of experience going into accepting that conclusion. That doesn’t mean it’s always right 100% of the time, of course, but that’s the way to bet. Also, it makes a lot more sense to go with the consensus of people who have experience in a topic versus the opinions of people who don’t.

And like I said, that should be your default position, not your entrenched one. There should always be some room for doubt, some allowance for data not yet seen, evidence not yet collected.

But there are times when that room is small indeed. I can list lots and lots and LOTS of topics where that’s the case.

So go read the article at Lifehacker, and remember that even though you’re smart — hey, you’re reading Bad Astronomy, so that’s self-evident — you might be wrong.

But of course, you already knew that.

Not vaccinated? No kisses!

By Phil Plait | June 12, 2012 10:00 am

I love this. Just love it. Short, simple, and to the point.

This was a billboard designed by Every Child By Two, a vaccination advocacy group I like a lot and strongly support (in fact, if you buy a Zen Pencils print of my Science Fare speech half the profits go to ECBT). While people like Meryl Dorey and Judy Wilyman vilely attack parents of babies who have died from vaccine-preventable diseases, groups like ECBT are trying valiantly to save babies’ lives.

Go talk to your board certified doctor and find out if you need to be vaccinated, and if you need your TDAP booster. Help save lives.


Related Posts:

- Followup: Antivaxxers, airlines, and ailments
- Whooping cough outbreak in Boulder
- Pertussis can kill, and you can stop it
- I got shot

Victoria, Australia government wants to stop free pertussis vaccines

By Phil Plait | May 29, 2012 12:38 pm

[Note: Although I think it's clear in the text below, I changed the title of this post to reflect the fact that it's the Victorian government doing this, not the Federal Australian government.]

In Australia, pertussis — whooping cough — is at epidemic levels. There were over 38,000 cases last year, and it’s killed eight babies since 2008. Despite this, the Health Minister of Victoria wants to cut a program that provides free pertussis vaccines for caregivers and parents of babies. He claims (under advice of a panel of experts) that it isn’t providing sufficient clinical results, but many doctors are concerned what this will do to the already too-high rates of infection.

Even if the results aren’t as good as hoped, it would make sense to fund this program until infection rates are down, at least to where they were before the epidemic.

Toni McCaffery — the mother of Dana McCaffery, one of those eight infants killed by pertussis — has created a petition to continue the program. If you live in Australia, I urge you to read it and sign it if you choose.

And please, please talk to your board-certified doctor and see if you need a shot or a booster.

Why? Because of this, and this, and dammit, because of this.

As long as antivaxxers spread their thin gruel of nonsense, as long as people think it’s OK to get a religious exemption from a life-saving vaccination, as long as people aren’t even aware that as adults they need to keep up with their TDAP booster shots (as I wasn’t), then I will continue to write about this.

As long as babies are dying, I’ll continue to write about this. Let’s hope I can stop very, very soon.


Related Posts:

- Followup: Antivaxxers, airlines, and ailments
- UPDATE: partial Complete success with American Airlines!
- Whooping cough outbreak in Boulder
- Stop antivaxxers. Now.

Big Picture Science: Antivaxxers (and updates)

By Phil Plait | May 15, 2012 11:15 am

I do a roughly monthly segment with astronomer Seth Shostak on Big Picture Science, a radio show/podcast done by The SETI Institute. This month, Seth and I talked about the American Airlines dustup when they were planning to run an interview with reality-impaired antivaxxer Meryl Dorey. This story is a great victory for reality, and I’ve already written about the back story.

Never forget: this antivax issue is more than important: it is literally life and death. Because of lowering vaccine rates, pertussis outbreaks are so prevalent health officials in the state of Washington have declared it to be an epidemic. The governor has had to dip into emergency funds to the tune of $90,000 to finance an information campaign to get the word out.

But the money is secondary to the idea that babies and people with immune deficiencies are at risk of dying from a disease that is essentially totally preventable if everyone got their vaccinations and boosters.

I cannot state that any more simply. The antivax crowd says vaccines cause autism, vaccines cause neurological problems, vaccines hurt your immune system. None of that is true. The real danger is when people believe the antivax propaganda. Infants too young to be vaccinated themselves rely on herd immunity — if enough people are vaccinated the disease has no place to live. And when we as a community don’t vaccinate, people get sick, and some people — including those infants, usually just a few weeks old — die.

Talk to your board-certified doctor, and if they say it’s OK, get vaccinated. You may save more than one life doing so.


Related Posts:

- Followup: Antivaxxers, airlines, and ailments
- UPDATE: partial Complete success with American Airlines!
- Whooping cough outbreak in Boulder
- Stop antivaxxers. Now.

Unstoppable

By Phil Plait | May 9, 2012 8:49 am

My willingness to fight has seen some major impediments in the past few weeks. The increase in antireality nonsense seems like a growing tsunami. Antivax health threats. Global warming denial on a major (and heavily funded) scale. The ugliness yesterday in North Carolina.

And even though we’ve had some great victories, it’s still an endless road, always uphill, always against the wind. Despair seems inevitable.

But then, but then, this:

Made for the Canadian Paralympic Committee, that may be the single greatest ad ever made. I suddenly find myself able to stand, dust myself off, and get back on the road.

Unstoppable. As we must be.

Tip o’ the starting gun to Laughing Squid.

MORE ABOUT: commercial, Paralympics

Followup: Antivaxxers, airlines, and ailments

By Phil Plait | May 1, 2012 6:15 am

Reality recently scored a major win when American Airlines agreed not to run an interview with notorious antivaxxer Meryl Dorey. An American living in Australia, Dorey runs the Orwellian-named Australian Vaccine Network, where she dispenses horrifically bad and outright false information about vaccines. Read the link above to see details about her shenanigans.

After AA decided not to run the interview, Dorey pulled a lot of tired and clearly silly claims out of her playbook, saying it’s denying her free speech — which it obviously isn’t, since this isn’t a free speech issue! — and that we’re all part of a global cabal funded by Big Pharma blah blah blah. I’ve yet to see a check from Big Pharma, so her making this claim is at best paranoid and at worst a lie. You can read more about her nonsensical claims in an ABC article about this.

As usual, I have a very, very hard time feeling any sympathy for Dorey, especially when measles is roaring back into the population. Measles is easy to prevent with a simple vaccination, but due in large part to the antivax effort (and I include religious exemptions in that group) it’s still out there and infecting more and more people.

Some folks are fighting back, though. While I was in Utah last weekend I saw some great billboards promoting vaccines. Shane Larson, an astronomer at Utah State University where I spoke, grabbed a great photo of one:

That shot shows the billboard in context and might be hard to see with everything else in the picture. Here’s a zoom on the billboard itself:

It says, “Vaccine preventable diseases are just a plane ride away" and shows a child standing next to an open suitcase. The line refers to the fact that Europe and other countries are seeing a resurgence in measles and other diseases due in part to the antivax movement, and if you’re not vaccinated, you can bring those diseases back to the US. Measles was stopped natively in this country in 2000 due to high vaccination rates, but international travel has brought it back. That’s not speculation; we know this has happened.

The billboard links to the wonderful website Vaccinate Your Baby, which has great advice — science-based, reality-based, fact-based, and truthful — about vaccinations.

Vaccines do not cause autism. Vaccines do not hurt your immune system. Vaccines do not contain poisons that can hurt you. Those are all spin by the antivax movement at best, and again, lies at worst.

Vaccines save lives. Talk to your doctor and see if you or yours need to be vaccinated, including getting the TDaP booster.

You can help save lives.

Tip o’ the needle to Liz Ditz for several of the links in this article.

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