The future of science and technology in this country and the world

It’s been almost a moth since I last brought you the story of a woman who compared herself to victims of the Holocaust because she thinks she’s being persecuted for being irrational and acting like she’s insane when it comes to vaccines an anti-vaccine zealot. Since that time, I took a walk in the wild, so to speak, to get a feel for where I want to go with this whole struggle against anti-vaccine groups and anti-science misinformation permeating just about every form of media out there. You might not be surprised if I told you that all of this is exhausting.

It is exhausting because I keep reading the same lies and misinformation over and over and over and over and over again. Anyone who promotes the proper use of vaccines is in the pockets of Big Pharma. Anyone who opposes the idea that vaccines cause autism is disrespecting families of autistics. And anyone who sees autistic children and adults as not lost and not stolen somehow doesn’t understand autism. Those are just a few of the things that are floating out there.

There are, of course, other lies being perpetuated. The government is trying to kill us. Bill Gates is trying to depopulate the planet. (Good luck with that one. We keep multiplying and cramming ourselves into cities.) And, naturally, Monsanto is trying to feed us genetically modified organisms whether we like it or not.

Oh, and the Apple Watch will give us all cancer.

I’m really tired of it all. I could use my time for better things because, frankly, everything that needs to be said on the subject of vaccines has been said, or other people are saying it. But what about the next anti-scientific thing on the horizon? Quacks don’t sleep. (If they do, I hope they don’t sleep well.) They’re going to come up with some scheme to get rich quick and they don’t care much about who they hurt in the process.

There will always be suckers who will fall for whatever the quacks will sell to them. I don’t mean “suckers” in that it’s their fault that they fall for these things. Often times, these “suckers” are people who are desperate for a cure or relief for whatever ails them or their children. Often times, these “suckers” are people who cannot accept the established answers for whatever is going on and so they look for an answer that is more palatable.

Thinking about all this has me thinking about the future of science and technology in this country and the world. Can a child of an ardent anti-vaccine activist ever grow up to be involved in science and technology? Sure, there are physicians who are anti-vaccine, and there are plenty of scientists who believe in the vaccine-autism lie. But can a child really contribute to the body of knowledge that is science if their parents raise them in an anti-science household? We’ve all seen what “The Kid” has become, how hard he seems to work to destroy anything that is reasonable about the science and evidence of autism.

I’ve also been listening to some of the stupidity coming out of the Republican party pre-presidential candidates. They deny global climate change. They think that STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) are not subjects that should be taught in school. (They want religion to be taught instead, because the Earth is so 6,000 years old or something.) Sadly, more and more people are seeing things their way, electing more and more of them to positions of authority.

Lucky for me, I’m a hopeful kind of person. We’ve been in these types of scientific darkness kind of days before. Unfortunately, something has happened that shakes us all out of the apathy of not caring about science. I just hope it doesn’t take another world war or space race or cold war to do that. I hope it doesn’t take an outbreak of something more serious than measles to get us to vaccinate at adequate levels again. People shouldn’t die so we can continue our march forward as human beings.

So, for now, I’ll continue to wander in the wilderness and evaluate what my role in this whole thing is.

The people with no science

I’ve been thinking a lot about people in the world who go through life with little to no science education, and I feel really, really bad for them. I feel bad for the mother of the child with a cleft lip who is convinced that the child was born that way because she was out of the house during a solar eclipse. Imagine the kind of suffering she must be living through to think that she is responsible for something that was pretty much out of her control. All it takes is a little science for her to learn and understand that these genetic things happen, and that — except for smoking and some other drugs — there is not much someone can do to avoid them.

I also feel bad for the many, many women who have been ostracized or even killed by their communities because of claims of witchcraft. It still goes on today, and an understanding that there is no such thing as magic would do wonders for people that still fear “witches.” Those same communities would save money and resources spent of magic potions and “spells” to heal disease or bring about wealth. The best chance of amassing wealth comes with hard work, saving, and being judicious on what money you spend and what lifestyle you live. There’s science in that, you know? Continue reading

Theatricality and deception, weapons against the uninitiated

If you watched the Nolan Batman Trilogy (“Batman Begins” to “The Dark Knight Rises”), you may have noticed a phrase that was uttered throughout. In “Batman Begins,” our hero is told to use “theatricality and deception” as “weapons against the uninitiated.” He was being told to use small explosions and smoke to distract his opponents and gain an advantage. He took that a step further and created the Batman persona in order to protect those he loves from retaliation when he went after the bad guys.

As you can see, Batman wasn’t the only one using theatricality and deception. His adversaries also did, to deadly consequences. In “Batman Begins,” the League of Shadows releases a toxin to bring fear to the people of Gotham. In “The Dark Knight,” the Joker uses a lot of deception to play games with our hero and the Gotham City Police Department. And, in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Bane hides in the shadows and acts from within them, very patiently, until he stikes and holds the city hostage.

It is also Bane who says something about theatricality and deception:

“Theatricality and deception, powerful agents against the uninitiated… But we are initiated, aren’t we, Bruce?” Some days, I feel just like Batman did at the end of that fight, to be honest. Continue reading

Oh, ye who have ears and yet won’t listen

There is a hilarious thread going on on Facebook right now between an anti-vaxer and a pro-vaxer. (Yes, I checked in with a few comments and explanations, but mine are just a small fraction of the comments.) Go over and check it out before it gets deleted by the anti-vaxer.

If you don’t want to go over and read, I’ll give you the long and short of it:

The anti-vaxer calls herself “Vaccine Skeptic Society” and a “non-profit organization”. Mind you, she is just one person, an at-home medical coder (per some conversations of hers on Facebook), and someone who is totally ignorant of science. Okay, maybe not totally ignorant, but she does come off as knowing nothing, absolutely nothing about science.

(She should also be careful because calling yourself a non-profit without being one is a crime, and I have been so far unable to find her registered as a non-profit anywhere.)

The anti-vaxer began claiming that the influenza season is a result of influenza vaccination. That is, she postulated that the flu vaccine — and shedding from the vaccine, which is incredibly improbable with the nasal vaccine and impossible with the injected vaccine — causes the yearly epidemics that we see in the northern and southern hemispheres. I’m not kidding. Check this out:

And Easter eggs cause Easter

Those 150 comments are her and a couple of science-oriented people, myself included, trying to set her straight. But then she just goes off on a tangent. This is a later post of hers, in which she alleges that H. influenzae (a bacteria) is what really caused the pandemic:

Because something believed in 1918 is so true today

Now, I would try to explain to her why she’s wrong and why that was just what scientists believed at the time, but it would be pointless. (Viruses as such were theorized before 1918, but it wasn’t until the invention of the scanning electron micrograph that they were visualized and later isolated. Shortly after that, we had a vaccine. In between the SEM and the vaccine, we were able to isolate antibodies. Later, we’d isolate the virus from corpses of people who died in the pandemic, but no H. influenzae.)

It would be pointless to argue because she is a germ theory denialist.

Anyway, if you want to have a good laugh at someone who is rabidly anti-vaccine and wants to come off as a scientist, go over to her page. Chuckle as you read her write over and over that she’s “just asking questions” and wants to have a “balanced” debate.

There are bigger, more important reasons why I’m pointing out her stupidity. I’m pointing out her stupidity because it is classic of most anti-science and anti-vaccine people. They know very little to nothing about the sciences of microbiology and immunology, yet they pretend that they do. They then go and google for any science article that sort of kind of confirms their beliefs and post it on their own echo chambers to show to their followers how smart they are. (Their followers are just as clueless about science as they are, by the way.)

This brings to the forefront the need for better science education at the elementary and secondary school levels. We really can’t get more people like the idiot above get out into the public, create Facebook pages alleging to be non-profit organizations (a crime) and “just ask questions” that lie and deceive unknowing people out of a safe and effective way to prevent deadly communicable diseases. Because, soon enough, some poor new parent is going to stumble onto her rants and get the wrong idea about vaccines, refuse to vaccinate their child, and lose or have that child injured by a vaccine-preventable disease.

Oh, yes, it’s that important to learn science early and often.

The aimless

I see them every morning on my way to work, a group of kids who are not heading to school that day or any other day. If they were heading to school, they’d have books with them and be dressed for it. They certainly would not run on and off buses, or openly steal a bicycle that wasn’t tied down to something. But maybe I’m just biased.

One sector of the public has stated that these “hoodlums” are beyond repair. They are of the opinion that these children should be rounded up and thrown into jail, and that those in jail should stay there since — in their view — they are a threat to “western civilization”. I’m not joking.

Another sector of the public blames all sorts of things for the behavior of these kids. They blame Wall Street, the White House, Congress, the 1%, the police, the courts. They blame anyone and everything but these kids for their behavior. As if the moral compasses that are found in every human being are missing in these kids. They refer to them as automatons, mere criminals who can’t help to do what they do.

I take a different approach. I see these kids and see that they lack a role model, a good leader. The “alpha male” in the “pack” is a bad seed. They are not being led or influenced by people of good. The people of good have abandoned them.

Just the other day, on the bus, the leader began to harass an older man. The leader started yelling at the old man, cursing at him and mocking him for being old. The man just sat there with a silent strength. The other kids followed the leader in making fun of the old man. People on the bus nervously looked at each other. As it turns out, an off-duty cop got on the bus and scared them away, but not before they laughed one more time at the old man.

How would these same kids react if their leader decided that they were going to help the elderly instead of mock them? One can only imagine. That’s why I’ve come to call these kids “The Aimless”. They wonder around, jumping on and off public transportation, walking up and down the street, not necessarily to commit crimes or cause trouble. They just meander about without any goal for the day. there doesn’t seem to be an aim to their actions.

Imagine for a second that we collectively decide to treat the problem of crime and lack of education — because these kids are most definitely not going to school — imagine if we treated these things like we treat public health problems. Imagine if those two politicians arguing over each other right now on their quest to be POTUS decided that they were going to use their power and position in society to provide these aimless kids with a reason to live.

Yeah, imagine that. And what if we threw our resources at putting these kids in school and, for the older ones, to work and learn? Heck, I’d just ask one of the “Super PACs” to give 1% of the money they’re putting toward getting their candidates elected to a YMCA, Big Brother/Big Sister club, after school program in any of our inner cities. Just 1%.

Sadly, too many in power at all three levels of government don’t see this as a necessity. See, they don’t ride public transportation with me. They have their own drivers or high-end cars. They fly past us with their police escorts. And things don’t change “down here” while they are living well “up there”.

So, on top of everything else I have going on all over the place, I’ve decided to help the aimless. Gosh, I’m such a softy.

It’s all in the chemistry

When I was a kid, one of my father’s friends bought a bottle of alcohol from a man on the street. He brought it over to my dad’s work to share. Dad took one whiff of it and threw it away. His friend was mad, but my dad knew exactly what he was doing. Dad had grown with solvents and chemicals, so he knew methanol when he smelled it.

A trained chemist could have also made the distinction. They can also recognize methanol when they see it. You see, although ethanol and methanol are made up of the same atoms of Carbon, Oxygen, and Hydrogen, the arrangement of the atoms is what’s key. How atoms are arranged in a chemical maters a whole lot, and it is something you need to keep in mind when you are being bombarded by misinformation about vaccine preservatives.

In our “cocktail o’ death” example, ethanol, the actual alcohol that makes you all sorts of easy to get along with, looks like this:

In this image, C is for Carbon, H is for Hydrogen, and O is for Oxygen. On the other hand, methanol looks like this:

Oh, look! It’s made up of the same stuff. Of course, if you look closely, you’ll see that methanol has one carbon while ethanol has two carbons. (Those links between the atoms represent electrons linking the atoms through energy bonds. The ones that look like cones are drawn that way to represent the 3D position of the atoms, with the solid cone telling us that the hydrogen atom is toward us while the hydrogen atom with the segmented cone is behind, or away, from us.) These chemicals are collectively called “alcohols”, and you can recognize them because they all have a carbon that is attached to an OH. The length of the carbon chain tells you the name of the alcohol. One carbon and it’s “methanol”. Two carbons and it’s “ethanol”. Three carbons, and it’s “propanol”. A form of propanol, where the OH is attached to the middle of three carbons, is isopropyl alcohol, rubbing alcohol.

Here’s a fun at-home science project. Mix equal parts rubbing alcohol and distilled water. Note that the alcohol kind of mixes in with the water. Now add salt to the solution and notice what happens. The alcohol layer separates out pretty well from the now salty water. Go on and try it, or watch this video:

This gets me to my next point. Table salt is sodium chloride, and it looks like this:

See how it’s made up of one atom of sodium (Na) and one atom of chloride (Cl)? Together, they make up table salt. You’ve added table salt to water, haven’t you? When you make a nice soup or something salty? Does it blow up? It does not. However, this is what happens when you add sodium alone to water:

That’s right, it explodes! How about chloride? Chlorine gas has been used to kill people as a chemical weapon. So how can these two very serious and deadly things come together to be just plain table salt? Well, it’s all in the chemistry.

This is how table salt is made in the laboratory:

On our planet, the salt deposits and salt in the oceans was made millions of years ago, when this planet was a ball of melted stuff.

Okay, so what about the preservatives in vaccines? What does this little chemistry lesson have to do with those?

Well, I gave you this short lesson in chemistry to stress the fact that chemicals are all about the chemistry. First, you have to understand how the chemical reacts with us. Do we absorb and retain it, or do we excrete it? In the case of thimerosal, we do absorb it, but we don’t retain it. We get rid of it quite easily. Think of it as an analogous reaction as ethanol and methanol; both are alcohols, one is deadly at a low concentration (methanol), while the other is also deadly, but you have a ton of fun getting there. (So to speak.)

Thimerosal is an organic mercury, meaning that it’s mercury that’s attached to a carbon compound. This is what allows it to be processed and discarded by the body. Inorganic mercury, the mercury you see in thermometers, is not attached to those carbon compounds, so it’s hard for the body to get rid of it. Inorganic mercury is usually attached to a “salt”, and it can really do a number on your kidneys.

What about formaldehyde? That’s also a vaccine preservative. Remember what I wrote about “one is deadly at a low concentration”? Well, this is not true of formaldehyde. You need a hefty dose of it to mess you up. Vaccines don’t have that much in them, and you process it and get rid of it pretty quickly. Does it look familiar?

Wow! One hydrogen away from being methanol. In fact, your body turns methanol into formaldehyde on the way to making water-soluble formic acid formate that can be excreted from your body and is a building block for other things. But the body doesn’t get formaldehyde from drinking it only. We get it from our own cellular processes. We make more formaldehyde in our own cellular processes than we get from a vaccine.

The long and short of this all is that you really need to be well-versed in chemistry before you go believing the lies and misinformation of those who say that vaccines are “witches’ brews” and whatnots. Notice that they won’t tell you how much of the “toxin” is in the vaccine, and they’ll quote studies done on mice whereby the mice were given those “toxins” in what would be the “truckload” for us. You really do need to get yourself educated, or these anti-vaxers will trick you into a dangerous decision.

EDITS: Edited to correct the reaction of formaldehyde to formate, not formic acid.

Sure, do your own research, but…

You’ve probably heard this one:

“PLEASE do your own research! Vaccines are poison. There’s so much misinformation here. Look at the package inserts provided by the CDC. They list autism and SIDS as possible side effects. All this talk about Dr. Wakefield being a fraud and the pro vaxers never even bothered to read the package inserts for themselves. My daughter regressed into autism after a vaccine. Kids all over are dying of SIDS, which is the convenient title that doctors give to babies who die from vaccines. Not to mention allergies, asthma, ADHD, and all other illnesses brought on by vaccines. When America realizes that vaccines don’t make sense, we’ll be healthier for it!”

You’ve probably heard the “do your own research!” part, that is. The rest you’ve probably heard as well, but that’s not the subject of this post. The subject of this post is the “own research” that these people want you to do. Yes, you can do research on your own, but…

But you need a solid scientific base on which to base that research. Without knowing what you are reading, you are very likely to be deceived. You’re likely to believe the lies of the anti-science forces out there. You need to know what is scientifically plausible and what isn’t.

For example, if you read a paper from an obscure source, claiming that homeopathy works, you will tend to believe it if: A) You desperately want to believe, and/or B) you don’t know how basic math and chemistry rules-out the possibility that homeopathy works.

Likewise, if you don’t know how the light spectrum works, and how prisms are used to visualize the spectrum, and that water droplets work as prisms… Oh, forget the science. If you don’t know how rainbows work, you might be this lady:

See, she thinks that rainbows are a sign that the water is contaminated. I bet it’s because she’s seen the sheen on water surfaces after oil or oil-derived compounds are spilled onto them.

If you don’t have a solid base of biology, immunology, and chemistry, you may be inclined to believe that vaccines cause all sorts of evils. If you’re not an epidemiologist who understand causality, you might think that vaccines do cause autism because autism diagnoses are made after vaccination. (Diagnoses are also made after car rides, eating cereal, getting a scrape, teeth coming out, but that doesn’t make any of that be the cause to the effect.)

So, sure, do your own research, but make sure that you are educated in the things you are researching. Most scientific concepts are not easy to understand with a quick view via Google. You need to know what you are looking at, if it is plausible, and the science behind what you are observing.

I’ll tackle the rest of that comment later, if I feel like it.

Science Is Not The Enemy, Ignorance Is

Take a quick look at the following YouTube video. You don’t have to watch it all – or watch it at all – to get the gist of it because I’ll tell you what the gist of it is. The gist of it is that a mother in some suburban town in America is so afraid of contrails from airplanes, and so ignorant of basic principles of science (physics and chemistry), that she goes out of her house and uses a simple spray bottle to spray vinegar “at” the contrails.

Let me tell you what happened again, because even I have a hard time understanding this without writing it again. A woman is so afraid of contrails from planes that she uses a household spray bottle to spray vinegar in the air out on her backyard in hopes – and belief – that the vinegar will clear the contrails. I’ve written that twice and seen the video, and I still can’t believe that this is happening in the 21st centruy in the United States of America. I really wished it was a joke. Unfortunately, the lack of science knowledge in the US is very prevalent. There is no fake science or fake medical remedy that people won’t buy. All you need to do is stay up late one night and see the infomercials to see what is going on.

There are metal bracelets that promise you better athletic performance.

There are remedies to help your male genitalia get “bigger” or perform “better”.

And what can I say about homeopathy?

It is because the consumer is not aware of the science – or lack thereof – behind these products that these products sell. And they must sell well if they’re solvent enough to produce infomercials. A quick way to know that there is no evidence of the products’ function is in the advertisements themselves. Skeptics call this the “Quack Miranda Warning“:

“These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevenet any disease.”

But let’s get back to contrail – or “chemtrail” – lady. What science is she missing? First, she is missing basic physics. Physics prescribes that the vinegar she is spraying from a spray bottle behind her house will not spread far enough or high enough to have any effect on the contrails thousands of feet above her. Could you imagine if it did?

Second, she is missing basic chemistry. Contrails are made from condensed moisture. Adding vinegar to that condensed moisture doesn’t cause any kind of chemical reaction to do away with the contrail. (She alleges that she succeeded in erasing the “chemtrails” when the contrails disappear on their own.)

Third, she is missing basic research and critical thinking skills. Many people who believe in this conspiracy do so because they read about it on some blog – ehem! – or online somewhere. However, that ability to do “their own research” doesn’t seem to extend to the truth, or to truthful sources, or to sources that question her beliefs. It’s not a bad thing to have one or two of the basic tennets in your life questioned every once in a while. It’ really isn’t. I’ve had it happen to me all my professional life, and it has led to some really good discussion.

Sadly, as you can see in the video, she is dragging her child into this. How is that child supposed to interact in a high school chemistry class if they should ever touch on the subject of condensation, chemtrails, or even vinegar for acid-base reactions? What kind of laughter will this video on the net trigger in his peers? What kind of future is expected for him with a mother like this? I won’t speculate – much – on that, but I will tell you that it will not be an easy adolescence.

There are other examples of the lack of science education – and/or critical thinking – in the world around us. People who discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity are ignorant of basic principles of evolution and genetics. If they did, they would know that our external differences are just the cause of generations’ worth of adaptations to the climate where our forefathers lived. If there was too much sun, our ancestors adapted by having more melanin in their skin for protection from the sunlight. If it was very cold, then our ancestors adapted by having more fat tissue around the face – which needed to be uncovered for seeing and interacting with each other. That’s it. There is no difference in the intellectual capability between people, only differences in learning styles or knowledge because of different social, political, or economic situations. In essence, we’re the same, it’s the stuff around us that’s different.

I was going to write about 300 or 400 words on the anti-vaccine crowd, but that’s been done on this blog. So I’ll just write that they’re really, really lacking on the science, and it’s a dangerous thing because those vaccine-preventable diseases that we almost had defeated are making a comeback. All because they don’t know – or refuse to know – about immunology and biology, and a little bit of chemistry.

Global warming? Well, that’s a whole chunk of people who never did a science fair project where they took a box, painted it black on the inside, covered it with plastic, and left it out in the sun. The plastic works just like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It lets sunlight in, but then traps the heat, warming the earth. The process in the real world is gradual, but the principle is the same. Yet, somehow, this principle is beyond any comprehension by some people – people who should know better, nonetheless.

Unfortunately, the heroes of today have little to nothing to do with science, for the most part. Movie stars who overdose every other week, athletes who shoot themselves in the leg, or singers who have pretty voices do nothing to stimulate young minds into wanting to learn more about science. Sure, there will be the few children who’ll dig deeper into the science of movie-making, throwing the perfect spiral, or getting the best acoustics. But the rest of the audience will just sit back and enjoy the show.

Even more unfortunate, we’ve ended the Space Shuttle program. There are no more impressive take-offs from Cape Canaveral. No more drama of docking to the International Space Station. While NASA is still recruiting astronauts, being one is not at the top of the list for today’s children. They’re prefectly happy – our children, not the astronauts – flipping burgers and buying “kicks”. Science be damned.

If I were the President’s science advisor, I would call on him to create a “Manhattan Project” of sorts to solve some of our most pressing problems, issuing a challenge to the country and the world to help in figuring out things like alternative fuels (because oil WILL run out and the climate can’t take much more of this), disappearing forests (we all need their oxygen), species going extinct, or diseases emerging and reemerging. Instead of spending billions of dollars on bailing out companies that are too big to fail, I’d suggest those companies be acquired and rebuilt to solve our problems. Imagine General Motors being compelled to make environmentally-friendly and gas-efficient vehicles as a condition of their bailout. Imagine building factories all over the country, employing thousands of people, to build better and more efficient solar panels for home water heating. Think of a government that continues to fund space exploration and experimentation to continue to give us technologies that will make our lives better.

And don’t tell me about solar panels and how inefficient they are. I remember a time when satellite dishes were several yards in diameter and only affordable to the very rich. Now we have small units sitting atop almost every dwelling in our cities. I also remember a time when video cassette recorders were twenty pounds heavy and took up lots of space. Now we have phones that play better videos and store thousands of video cassettes’ worth of data. Technology gets better and more affordable if we work at it, not if we are afraid of it and pass legislature to scare people away from it.

But we’re not there quite yet. We still have people spreading diseases because they were told that vaccines are ultimate evil. We have people sparying vinegar at the sky. And we have influential politicians denying that carbon dioxide is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, what’s it has been known to do for a very long time. Furthermore, we are still arguing about race and ethnicity, or who speaks what language and why. People are still shooting other people for money or property or relationships gone bad. In the huge universe of things – and perhaps because not all of us have looked through both a telescope and a microscope – we are launching wars against each other for really nothing… Nothing at all.

Yeah, totally worth spilling blood over instead of trying to make it better so we can start to get off it.