Category: Alt-Med

UPDATE: partial Complete success with American Airlines!

By Phil Plait | April 23, 2012 3:36 pm

Good news: I just received a tweet from the American Airlines Twitter feed:

Yay! They have decided to not air the audio version of the antivax interview. That’s excellent, and I thank American Airlines for that.

However, as far as I can tell, the interview is still slated to run in their in-flight magazine. I will hopefully have more news about that soon as well.

Update: When I asked about the printed version, I got this reply back very quickly:

Yay again!

Again, I thank American Airlines for considering this issue and making the right decision. I also want to sincerely thank everyone who wrote and tweeted about this.

Remember: we have the power to make sure good, accurate science gets told, and bad, inaccurate misinformation does not spread. Never rest, never tire, and never forget that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

American Airlines to air dangerous antivax propaganda

By Phil Plait | April 23, 2012 6:30 am

[UPDATE: American Airlines has agreed not to run the interview! That includes both the audio and print versions.]

[Note: This post contains numerous links to articles showing antivax claims are misleading at best, and pose a huge health risk. I strongly urge you to read those links before leaving a comment.]

In May 2011, an unvaccinated infant infected with measles was brought on board American Airlines flight 3965. Measles is a highly contagious, dangerous, and potentially fatal disease, and because of this public health emergency officials had to track down 100 passengers and quarantine quite a few of them.

This event was not American Airlines’ fault. However, it’s hard to see what they learned from it, since they plan on printing and airing an interview with a notorious antivaxxer who makes provably false and incredibly dangerous claims about vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases.

The antivaxxer in question is Meryl Dorey, an American living in Australia who has made it her life’s work to spread misinformation about vaccines. Her ability to distort the truth — to phrase it kindly — is nothing short of herculean. As I wrote about her in 2010:

She has said no one dies from pertussis anymore… when little four-week-old Dana McCaffery died of that very disease, because herd immunity in her area of Australia was so low. Dorey is an HIV denier. She thinks doctors lie and poison babies. […] It goes on and on.

So why on Earth would American Airlines choose to run an interview with her in their in-flight magazine and air that interview on the in-flight TVs?

The interview is her usual passel of untruths about vaccinations: she tries to tie them to worsening diseases and autism — neither of which is remotely true — and then relies on the discredited research of a man the British Medical Journal outright called a "fraud".

Bizarrely, the interviewer for the American Airlines piece apparently didn’t even contact an actual doctor to get professional information on this topic. At the very least (the very least) the ability to show Meryl Dorey’s claims to be completely wrong is a Google search away, a trivial amount of work for an interviewer to do. Her horrid behavior towards Toni and David McCaffery — little Dana’s parents, who had to suffer through Dorey’s attacks while still grieving over their daughter — is also out there for all to see.

So again, why on Earth would American Airlines choose to run an interview with her in their in-flight magazine and air that interview on the in-flight TVs?

I don’t think they should. That’s why I signed a petition asking American Airlines to not run the interview. I added a note to it, saying in part:

"I will not fly AA ever again if they run this interview, and I will make very sure the thousands of people who read my blog know about my decision."

LizDitz at I Speak of Dreams has more information, and also downloadable letters you can send to American Airlines. She took the time to analyze the interview of Dorey and debunk it, too.

And I have one more thing to note. Read More

Whooping cough outbreak in Boulder

By Phil Plait | April 9, 2012 9:40 am

Medical officials are saying that there have been 37 cases of pertussis — whooping cough — reported in my hometown of Boulder so far this year.

We’re not even 100 days into 2012 yet. [Note: Washington State is in the midst of an actual epidemic of pertussis.]

How serious is this? 30 of those Boulder cases are in children under the age of 18… and it almost took the life of six week old Natalie Schultz. The local news reported on this:

[You may need to refresh this page to see the video.]

This outbreak might shock you, especially considering Boulder is one of the most educated cities in the United States. But in fact, I’ve been wondering if and when something like this might happen here. Denial of the benefits of vaccination is strong in educated areas, like Boulder or Marin county, California — being educated doesn’t mean you get things right, and in fact can make people believe in their own knowledge even more strongly. They go online and find antivax literature which magnifies their own beliefs.

Also, these tend to be more left-leaning areas, and the antivax movement does better there. The result? A little baby, not even two months old, is recovering from a nearly-fatal event that was totally preventable if enough people were vaccinated. Herd immunity would have prevented this whole thing. Natalie is too young to get a pertussis vaccine herself, so babies like her rely on adults — us — to be immunized against these diseases.

Adults should have a pertussis booster every ten years. I got my TDaP booster a couple of years ago. Just two months earlier, unbeknownst to me at the time, a little girl in Belgium named Lore Darch died from pertussis at the age of 83 days. Her father, Danny, wrote a diary for her as a memorial. Read it if you can. I did, and my heart aches so hard it’s a physical pain.

Like David and Toni McCaffery — who lost their daughter Dana to pertussis — Danny and his wife Katrien have become vocal advocates for vaccination.

If you haven’t had your booster, you should talk to your board-certified doctor and see if you need one as well.

As Danica, Natalie’s mother put it:

"I almost lost my daughter at almost six weeks old… that could have been prevented if everyone was vaccinated."

She’s right. Antivaxxers are wrong. DON’T believe them about vaccine ingredients. DON’T believe them when they say they just want to educate people. DON’T believe them when they say vaccines cause autism. DON’T believe them when they say vaccines don’t work.

Vaccinations save lives. It’s that simple. Go talk to your doctor. NOW.

My thanks to The Vaccine Times on Twitter for alerting me to this.

Related Posts:

Stop antivaxxers. Now.
Pertussis can kill, and you can help stop it
Pertussis and measles are coming back
More on Wakefield’s descent: money, money, money!

A case study of the tactics of climate change denial, in which I am the target

By Phil Plait | February 2, 2012 7:00 am

Over the years I have pointed out the fallacious arguments of climate change deniers when they attack legitimate climatologists like James Hansen and Michael Mann. This is, of course, like kicking at a bee hive, and whenever I do the comments section of my posts fill with lots of angry buzzing.

But now, for what I think is the first time, I find myself the target of an attack. And I have to admit, I welcome it: it’s a textbook case of denialist sleight of hand, of distraction, distortion, error, and misdirection.

Stick around for all of this. It’ll be… interesting.

Our story so far

OK, first, here’s the scoop: a few days ago, I wrote a blog post taking apart two intellectually bankrupt climate change denial articles, one in the Wall Street Journal, and the other in the UK’s Daily Mail. Both were claiming that global warming appears to have stopped in the past few years, a claim which is trivially easy to show wrong. In fact, I linked to two articles doing just that: one at Skeptical Science, and another I myself wrote. Finding actual scientists destroying that claim is not hard at all; those two links have many more links therein.

In my post about the WSJ and DM, I included a graph. It pretty clearly shows temperatures rising from 1973 to the present. And this is where the fun begins.

That’s the plot. It’s from a recent, independent study done at Berkeley, and represents actual, measured, data. Just to be clear, those points are from weather stations across the globe, and the method used to collect and analyze those measurements is described by the Berkeley team themselves (PDF). With me so far?

Apparently, William Briggs is not with me. He takes very vigorous exception to the graph in an article he wrote which he titled "Bad Astronomer Does Bad Statistics: That Wall Street Journal Editorial." I encourage you to read it, so that you can assure yourself I am not misrepresenting his arguments in any way.

I found out about this article when I saw a tweet by Dr. Briggs himself. My first thought was: Uh oh. I sure hope I didn’t make a math mistake somewhere in my WSJ post! I better read Briggs’ article and see… So I read it.

My next thought after reading his arguments was then: Ho-hum. So?

The mismeasure of an argument

Basically, Briggs accuses me of not understanding statistics, of not including error bars, of misrepresenting that points in that plot, of not displaying the plot correctly, and so on ad nauseum. His biggest claim: that those points aren’t measurements at all, but estimates.

Here’s the thing: he’s wrong. Those point are in fact measurements, though they are not raw measurements right off the thermometers. They have been processed, averaged, in a scientifically rigorous way to make sure that the statistics derived from them are in fact solid. The Berkeley team describes in detail how that was done (PDF), and does actually call them estimates, but not because they are just guessing, or using some arcane computer model. They are technically estimates, in the sense that any measurement is an estimate, but they are really, really good ones. Greg Laden tears this use of words apart, as well as pretty much everything else Briggs wrote.

Oddly, Briggs then goes on to call them "predictions" for some reason, and that they came from "models", which is just weird. It’s as if he’s trying to use a word choice that raises doubt about the measurements. But again he’s wrong. They really are measurements, not model predictions. At Open Mind, Brigg’s word choice once again is ripped apart. [Note: Briggs has left a comment there, further verifying the fact that his use of words is incorrect.]

This reminds me of one of my favorite skeptic jokes. Question: How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg?

Answer: Four. It doesn’t matter what you call a tail, it’s not a leg.

There are many other places where Briggs makes mistakes that render his arguments null; for example, the error bars (what statisticians usually call "uncertainty") are in fact made available by the Berkeley team, and are small compared to the long-term rise in temperature. For another, Briggs says I should’ve shown the plot going farther into the past, because 1973 was actually a low point. However, that’s completely wrong: it’s actually a high point! As Deep Climate points out here, this actually makes the warming trend lower. So in true contrarian fashion, Briggs is contrary even to himself. It’s bizarre.

So really, there goes Briggs’ argument. His main point is wrong, so we’re done, right?

Well, no. There’s more fun to be had here.

Beside the point

If you read Briggs’ article, you certainly get the impression that because the graph I use is statistically meaningless (so he incorrectly claims), then my whole argument about global warming is wrong.

And this is where I found myself greatly amused, though in a schadenfreude sort of way.

Think of it this way: if my argument hinged on that graph, and I removed it, my argument would have no foundation, correct? It would change the tenor of the entire blog post.

Go look at my article. If you remove that graph from it, what changes? Nothing. My main point — that the WSJ and DM articles are wrong, that we have lots of evidence the Earth is warming up, that 9 of the 10 hottest years on record occurred since the year 2000, that the DM article specifically uses scientific studies and presents them as if they say the exact opposite of what they actually say — still stands.

So even if that graph is wrong and misrepresents what I’m saying — which it does not — it doesn’t matter. In fact, I used that graph as an illustration, to show how we’re warming up. I never intended it to be the basis for the argument I was making, just a way of further showing it. If you read the actual words I wrote, including the links to many, many articles backing up my position, you’ll see that Briggs has not refuted a single actual point I made.

So even if he’s right about that graph, it doesn’t matter. And he’s not right.

But notice what he’s done. He’s taken what is clearly a minor point and blown it up as if it’s my main point. He’s used shady words (predictions, models) to cast aspersions, and to make someone (me!) look bad. Then, by "refuting" this minor issue he can then poison the well, strongly implying that all my arguments are wrong. That’s kind of a big no-no when trying to argue a point.

But it packages well. Watts Up With That, another denialist blog, has run with Briggs’ claims about me as well. He also makes the false claim that warming has stalled, and so on. Note WUWT also says the signers of the WSJ OpEd are "16 scientists", which isn’t true: not all are scientists, and only four have actually published climate science research. And don’t forget about the article the WSJ refused to print talking about the reality of global warming, signed by 255 actual scientists.


Denialism’s dark mirror

I will admit the irony of this attack amuses me greatly; Briggs accuses me of many things he himself is doing. That is standard fare from antiscience group: creationists, global warming deniers, and alt-medders, for example, all seem to project their own tactics on the scientists with whom they disagree. Don’t like real medicine? Accuse scientists of being in the pocket of Big Pharma (and forget about the millions being made by quacks on useless "remedies"). Don’t believe in evolution? Accuse scientists of being too dogmatic. Don’t think global warming is real? Accuse scientists of misrepresenting the data.

My favorite irony is that a lot of these global warming denialists take money from fossil fuel interests, but then routinely say to "follow the money", as if it’s the climatologists who are raking in the big bucks from shady think tanks with undisclosed bankrollers. While Briggs points out he gets no money from them, he asks where my money comes from. Think on this, Dr. Briggs; how much money would I make if I suddenly turned coat and said global warming wasn’t real? I’ll guarantee you it would be a lot more than I make now, probably with a couple of zeroes added to the end. So that argument falls a wee bit flat here.

Like all the others.

Of course, given the comments I’ve seen on my blog, on Briggs’ blog, on Watts Up With That, or in any other blog discussing global warming, I know how this will go. You can bring up the major pieces of evidence supporting reality again and again, but the denialists will ignore them and go after phantoms instead. Because if they do acknowledge the actual evidence, they lose.

Stop antivaxxers. Now.

By Phil Plait | December 29, 2011 7:00 am

There are times when reality is so obvious, so clear, so rock-solid 100% amazingly in-your-face incontrovertible, that it is beyond belief that anyone could deny it.

And yet, antivaccination groups exist.

Let me be very, very clear: they are wrong. Vaccines save lives. Vaccines save millions of lives. And not just directly, like they did by wiping out smallpox, a scourge that killed hundreds of millions of people. But also, through herd immunity, vaccines save infants too young to be vaccinated, the elderly with weak immune systems, and people whose immune systems are compromised due to chemotherapy, genetic issues, or because they are taking immunosuppressants for other illnesses (like arthritis).

Vaccines don’t cause autism. Vaccines don’t contain dangerous levels of mercury. Vaccines don’t contain fetal tissue. Each of these – and many, many more — is misinformation spread by antivaxxers, statements that are easily proven wrong (like, in order, here, here, and here). But many antivaxxers continue to use them.

What does that say about their willingness to tell the truth?

Yesterday, in Australia, one of the most vocal antivaxxers alive, Meryl Dorey of the grossly misnamed Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), spoke at the Woodford Folk Festival about her beliefs. However, she didn’t get quite the chance she had hoped for. Once the news got out that she was invited to the festival, the group Stop AVN went into action. A protest cry went up, and the venue was changed from her speaking solo, to her participating in a panel with a series of experts — actual, real experts — on vaccines. As I write this, I have a window open on Twitter, and I’m watching the tweets using the hashtag #StopAVN flow by. It’s a thing of beauty. Dorey’s arguments are being destroyed, 140 characters at a time.

The bottom line, repeated over and over again: Vaccinations save lives. That statement of fact is so simple, so powerful, that Stop AVN put it on a banner and had it flown behind a plane at the festival.

Wonderful! My congratulations to my friends Down Under for this impressive campaign.

But we here in America cannot rest easy. We have antivaxxers here; loud, wealthy, ones, who won’t hesitate to spread the same kind of misinformation; dangerous misinformation that poses a serious health threat.

The National Vaccine Information Center is one such group. They have a long history of antivax rhetoric, remarkable only in its breathtaking inaccuracy, and their ability to get it into the mainstream. And they’re at it again: they’ve put an ad on ABC’s digital 5000 square foot screen in Times Square in New York City, a place that will be packed with people celebrating the new year. To top it all off, Jenny McCarthy — who dispenses incredibly dangerous and incredibly wrong advice about vaccinations and other health safety issues — is slated to be a guest on ABC’s New Year’s Rocking Eve with Dick Clark… and she has stated she plans to promote her dangerous nonsense on the show.

Skepchick has an excellent post about this. My friend Jamie Bernstein has started a petition on to get the ad taken down. I signed it.

Again, let me be clear: these antivax groups pose a public health threat. If you don’t believe me, then read this account by someone who knows.

And if you wonder why I feel so strongly about this, then I suggest you steel yourself — seriously — and read this account written by the parents of Dana McCaffery, who lost her life to pertussis when she was four weeks old. She was too young to be vaccinated. Because vaccine rates were so low in her area, pertussis had a place to grow. She was infected, and she died.

You want to know why I feel so strongly? This is why. She is why.

Talk to your board-certified doctor about vaccines. Find out what you might need — being an adult doesn’t mean you’re exempt from childhood vaccines; you may need a booster — and if your doctor approves, then do what needs to be done.

The solution against the antivaxxers is to make sure their misinformation is countered by facts. It’s one of life’s great ironies that vaccines have helped these people live as long as they have to spread their nonsense about vaccines. We can speak up to stop them… and at the same time get vaccinated to make sure that they — that everyone — gets a chance to be wrong for a long, long time.

The $37.6 Million Dollar Fine HE Doesn't Want You To Know About

By Phil Plait | December 18, 2011 7:00 am

If schadenfreude made a noise, then you’d be hearing it pretty loudly from me right now: Kevin Trudeau — a convicted credit card fraud, and a man who made tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars by telling people he could cure their cancer using, get this, coral calcium — has lost his appeal to the federal court, and must pay $37.6 million dollars in fines.

Trudeau, who shilled this false cancer cure as a diet supplement, was ordered by a federal judge in 2008 to stop making and airing infomercials about it. I wrote about this at the time, but I kept seeing those evil infomercials on TV. I wondered about this, but now I understand: Trudeau was trying to sidestep the order by selling books about this false cure, not the supplements directly. And, he kept buying up those ad spots while appealing the order. But on November 29th of this year, the appeals court said "nope".

As the court papers say:

The protections, unfortunately, were too weak: Trudeau aired infomercials in violation of the order at least 32,000 times. He should not now be surprised that he must pay for the loss he caused. At a minimum, it was easily within the district court’s discretion to conclude that he should. And $37.6 million correctly measures the loss. The figure is conservative — it only considers sales from the 800-number, not sales in bookstores carrying his "As Seen on TV" titles…

Wow, so he only violated a court order 32,000 times. But wait, there’s more! Apparently, there’s not a lot of real info in those books; they just funnel people to a web site urging them to spend hundreds of dollars for the products he sells. So how much money do you think he really made?

The court also instituted a $2 million bond in case he tries to make more infomercials. It doesn’t stop him from placing ads or writing books, just from bilking people using those long-form late night infomercials:

Read More

"Alternative" cancer clinic threatens to sue high school blogger

By Phil Plait | November 28, 2011 1:57 pm

Everyone has been touched by cancer in one way or another. If you haven’t had it yourself, the odds are extremely high you know someone who has, and who has died from it. I’ve lost loved ones to cancer, and it’s awful; it can take years filled with tests, hope, lack of hope, expensive therapy… and in the end the odds are what they are. It all makes for desperate times for those involved, with an emotional distress level that is beyond my ability to describe.

There are people out there who claim they can cure cancer, or have therapies that can mediate it. Some of these people are simply con artists, ready to swoop in as soon as they smell blood in the water, vermin that they are. Others are honest but wrong, thinking they have stumbled on some therapy that no one else has found. However, time and again, when these alternative methods are tested rigorously using controlled, properly done studies, they are shown not to work. In general this does not stop people from making the claims, however.

In Houston, Texas, is a man named Stanislaw Burzynski. He claims he has a method for treating cancer. He calls it antineoplaston therapy. However, according to the National Cancer Institute, “No randomized, controlled trials showing the effectiveness of antineoplastons have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.” That’s a bad sign. Furthermore, the FDA has not approved of antineoplaston therapy for use. Also telling is that “… other investigators have not been able to obtain the same results reported by Dr. Burzynski and his team”. Yet, despite this, Burzynski charges hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to get his therapy — though he has to say they’re participating in research trials, since the FDA won’t allow him to use his ideas as an actual treatment.

Those are red flags, to be sure.

Read More

A pox on antivaxxers

By Phil Plait | November 5, 2011 7:00 am

A couple of antivax stories hit the web in the past day or so, and both have me pretty angry, shaking my head about how people can manage to get things so wrong.

First, the antivax organization that is (Orwellianly) called the National Vaccine Information Center has paid for ads to run on in-flight Delta airline TVs. These ads give what can charitably be called misleading information about vaccines. Skepchick has the details, as does Harpocrates Speaks.

NVIC is an organization that is resolutely antivaccination, despite the overwhelming evidence that vaccines are one of the greatest medical science triumphs of all time, having saved hundreds of millions of lives. NVIC, on the other hand, is a group that likes to try to sue critics into silence while at the same time spouting statements so ridiculous they make my irony gland fear for its life.

I decided to make a short and simple tweet about the ads being run on Delta airlines:

I mean it, too. Read More

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

Had your flu shot yet?

By Phil Plait | October 10, 2011 1:38 pm

Hey, it’s flu season! Got your vaccine yet?

If not, this might convince you:

I’m getting mine, as will Mrs. BA and The Little Astronomer. Talk to your doctor, then get one too if they recommend it. The flu is more than an inconvenience; it can be deadly to those unequipped to deal with it.

Tip o’ the needle to Mike’s Weekly Skeptic Rant (sometimes NSFW language there).

Related posts:

Undue influenza
I got shot
An unvaccinated child has died from a preventable disease
Congress hears about antivaxxers

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Cool stuff
MORE ABOUT: influenza

SCOTUS denies mobile phone lawsuit

By Phil Plait | October 5, 2011 11:00 am

I’m not a huge fan of the current US Supreme Court, but they recently did something right: Bloomberg is reporting the Court denied the revival of a lawsuit against mobile phone companies from a group claiming cell phones cause brain damage, including cancer.

The Court denied the claim for legal reasons — basically, the suit was filed under state law claims, but a court had already ruled that those laws were superseded by federal (FCC) regulations. So the Court ruled the claimant doesn’t get to sue mobile phone companies.

And while you might consider this ruling decided on a technicality, it turned out the right way. Mobile phones don’t cause cancer. Or, if you want to be technically accurate, studies of this topic have shown that any link between cell phones and brain damage is so weak it’s statistically indistinguishable from no link at all.

The exception would be if you’re using your phone while you’re driving. Then the likelihood of brain damage — and spleen damage, and kidney damage, and bone damage, and life damage — jump by a factor of four.

So you can use your phone and not worry about brain damage… as long as you use it intelligently.

Related posts:

Why I’m (still) not worried about my cell phone hurting my brain
Repeat after me: cell phones don’t cause brain cancer
(note the followup in the link below!)
More on cell phones and the lack of harm
xkcd radiates


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