Don’t defend the science, refute the lies, expose the liars

When I read an anti-science screed, I usually want to fire right back with something like “you’re lying” or “you’re full of it,” but I’ve found this to be non-productive. It’s non-productive because the person writing the screen is 99% of the time sold on the anti-scientific concepts that they are displaying in their writings (or speeches). It’s also non-productive to fight anti-science with science because science really doesn’t need to defend itself. In the end, one way or another, science gets proven right.

There was a time when people thought the Earth was the center of the known universe. Then Galileo proposed that the sun was the center of our solar system, based on scientific observations of the movement of celestial bodies, he was accused of heresy. It would take some time, but his theories were tested and found true. If we were still locked into the way of thinking of that era, we wouldn’t have a space program that yielded us things like satellite communications, GPS, or even dried ice cream. Yes, people died for these scientific beliefs, but the science they adhered to was proven true. Continue reading

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For it is written so

I thought I’d take the opportunity that it is Sunday (I wrote this on a Sunday) to write something a little bit related to religion, namely Christianity. I know, I know! This blog is all about science, and it will always be. I’m not going to try to convert you to anything. Relax.

I’d like to write today about the conspiracy theory (Snopes.com artilcle) that RFID (Radio Frequency ID) chips will be implanted in humans as part of “Obamacare” starting sometime soon. Of course, it’s all bunk. The Snopes article does a really good job of explaining why this rumor is false.

But why do people believe that rumor?

There are quite a number of Christians who take what is written in the Bible literally. To them, the Earth is a few thousand years old, all of humanity descends from the survivors of the Great Flood, and there will be an “End Times” where a totalitarian government will rise to rule over the earth. My hope in Christians is that there is a good number of them that understand that the Bible was written in times when detailed explanations were not possible, so the book of Revelation was written in code and for the people living under control of the Romans. For all intents and purposes back in that time, Rome was the “One World Government” that everyone feared. Nero (or one of his contemporaries) was the “Antichrist” because the Roman emperors of that time were all about persecuting and killing Christians.

The Christians who believe in a literal meaning of the books of the Bible do something interesting when they want to spread their conspiracies. They take a literal approach to the Bible and then add a non-literal element to it. In the case of the RFID chip conspiracy, they take the literal meaning of “Mark of the Beast” in the Bible and then say, “Well, it’s not quite a mark but an RFID chip.” Anything to sell the idea, I guess.

But this idea of the RFID chip is not exclusive to the Obama era. They’re rehashing an old conspiracy and adapting it to the here and now. The “Bible Answer Man”, Hank Hanegraaff, answered a question about RFID and mentioned how the conspiracy, at least with RFID chips approved by the FDA, go back to 2004, when that approval took place. He wrote:

“In October 2004 the Food and Drug Administration approved the marketing of a microchip implantable under the skin of humans for medical identification. Paranoid prophecy pundits immediately began touting Verichip technology as the mark of the Beast spoken of in Revelation 13. Contrary to such newspaper eschatology, there is no biblical basis for believing that the mark of the Beast is a silicon microchip.”

Why is this conspiracy theory wrong from a theological point of view, let alone a scientific one? Because:

“Furthermore, the forehead and the hands are Old Testament symbols of a person’s beliefs and behavior (cf. Exodus 13:9; Deuteronomy 6:8; 11:18; Ezekiel 9). In other words, what you believe and how you behave mark you as either belonging to God or belonging to Satan. As such, John’s reference to the mark of the Beast in Revelation is securely tethered to Scripture. Conversely, the notion that the mark of the Beast is Sunday worship, a social security card number, or a silicon microchip has no biblical basis whatsoever.”

See, the person who wrote the book of Revelation, which is really a letter to the early Christians who were being persecuted by the Romans, wrote it in code so that the readers could carry it around and the message within could not be easily read by others. He used symbols to describe people and places. In short, the letter was written to them and then compiled in the Bible for us.

Now, I know a lot of atheistically-inclined folks will read that some conspiracy is based on the Bible and discredit it on that alone. And that’s fine if that’s what works for you. But what if you’re trying to explain to a “believer” that their belief is unfounded? Do you just just try to convert them away from their belief? Or do you go to a source — like I did with the Bible Answer Man — in order to explain to them that the conspiracy doesn’t even stand up to their own belief system?

There’s no good answer because it will depend on how comfortable you are discussing these things with someone who doesn’t share your beliefs. If you’re an anti-theist, you might be encouraged to tell people that they’re crazy for believing and continue the debate from that angle. (It puts people off, by the way. They pretty much stop listening once you tell them they’re crazy.) If you’re more moderate in your views, you might want to find evidence with the history and study of the Bible — or some other holy book — in order to explain things away. It’s up to you.

I recommend a balance.

Connecting the dots between cause and effect

When I was a child, my teachers used to give us connect-the-dot drawings. I used to happily connect the dots and take the resulting drawing home to my parents. My mom or dad would then post the drawing somewhere for everyone in the home to see. I was really proud of my work, even if it wasn’t real work. All I had to do was go from #1 to #2 and so on until the picture revealed itself to me.

It was something like this:

Not hard to do at all

I’ve often wondered how the mind of someone who believes in outlandish conspiracy theories works. Do they just put the dots together but in a different way?

For example, let’s take this post at the notorious anti-vaccine blog of the (non-existent) epidemic of autism. It starts like this:

“My daughter, Megan, regressed in her physical, mental and social health after vaccinations. Her life forever changed, I am committed to finding out both cause then cure to improve her quality of life, along with so many like her. As a result, I spend a good amount of time reading research and scientific papers to help clarify any connections. Those connections would include immune issues, autoimmunity, mercury and vaccines.”

I highlighted in bold the main gist of that opening statement. This mother, looking for someone or something to blame for her daughter’s atypical neurology, has taken it upon herself to do research. Here’s an article blog post about the author of that post. Here is her Facebook profile. I keep looking and looking and looking some more, and I can’t find anything to tell me about her scientific background.

By the way, she proposes that her daughter developed autism after (and thus because of?) the MMR vaccine:

“Her regression into autism at 18 months developed after her MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine.”

I mean, if she’s going to do scientific research and dive into scientific studies, then she must have a scientific background that allows her to explain what the studies and papers say to a lay audience, right? If anyone finds out what her background is, please feel free to mention it in the comments. But let’s go back to her blog post on that notorious anti-vaccine blog of the (non-existent) epidemic of autism.

In that post, she mentions that her daughter has an auto-immune disease. So, connecting the dots and using a scientific dissertation and subsequent published paper, she concludes that the mercury in the MMR vaccine caused an auto-immune disorder in her daughter, wich may have led to her daughter’s autism. Never mind that the MMR vaccine never had thimerosal to begin with.

Nevertheless, let’s look at the paper titled “Regulatory Roles for NKT Cell Ligands in Environmentally Induced Autoimmunity“. First, some terminology. “NKT” stands for “natural killer T-cell”. A “ligand” is a molecule that sends a signal, traps another molecule or element, or just plain does something. From an immunology point of view, ligands can make immune responses more vigorous, or even less, depending on the ligand.

The long and short of it is that these researchers gave mice an auto-immune condition by exposing them to inorganic mercury. (Mercury in thimerosal is organic, bound to carbon molecules and, thus, behaving differently.) On top of that, the mice were bred in such a way that exposure to inorganic mercury and even some bacteria would cause their immune systems to go haywire.

I’ve told you before that mice are not people.

How did these mice get an induced auto-immunity, exactly? Like so:

“Mercury-induced autoimmunity was induced according to a standard protocol by three s.c. injections of 30 μg of HgCl2 in 100 μl of sterile PBS at days 0, 2, and 4.”

They got 90 micrograms of inorganic mercury over the course of four days. How much organic mercury in an MMR vaccine? None. How much inorganic mercury in a can of tuna? None. How much organic mercury in a can of tuna? About 70 micrograms.

See what I’m getting at? Organic, inorganic? It’s like saying that salt — aka “Sodium Chloride” — is the same as chlorine gas. It’s not. It’s all in the chemistry. And that’s an important thing to note when you’re talking about these papers to a lay audience of anti-vaccinationists.

The paper continues to note that, yes, and as per their protocol, the mice developed an auto-immune disease. The researchers then went on to look at how the ligands behaved under these circumstances. But that’s not what matters to the blog post author. She hangs on the whole “mercury causes auto-immunity” and “my daughter has an auto-immune condition” and “she also has autism” to basically state that “mercury causes autism”. If this trope sounds familiar to you, it should. It should sound familiar because it’s the trope that a certain British doctor tried to use in hid fraudulent study to link the MMR vaccine to autism. Except that he was smart enough not to say that the MMR vaccine had mercury, which it never did.

She goes on to rant about the ligands, stating that they have been added to vaccines in order to increase the potency of vaccines. In short, it’s all evil. The ligands, the mercury, the non-existent mercury in MMR. Everything. It all causes auto-immune diseases, and, in their mind (the author and the people commenting on her blog post), autism is an auto-immune disorder.

To all this, she concludes:

“It appears that mercury, “abundance as a pollutant, and presence in dental amalgams, cosmetics, preservatives, fumigants, and vaccine preparations ” can cause immune and autoimmune disease via Toll Like Receptors (TLR) activation and then additionally, Man-made, Toll Like Receptors could also have their own influence on immune issues, and very possibly autoimmunity.”

It appears to me that this person, if presented with the brontosaurus connect-the-dot picture above, would come up with this:

If you see a dinosaur, you’re being fooled by the Man

I’m not surprised that this person displays little knowledge of understanding the paper she herself used as evidence. It happens a lot with anti-vaccine and anti-science people. They say that there is a conspiracy, that researchers are being paid by “Big Pharma”, and then they use that same research to try to prop-up their theories.

Someone in the comments section of that blog quoted this paper as clearly showing that vaccines caused all sorts of horrors. Here’s the “Results” section:

“Only in 1 analysis for tics was there some evidence of a higher risk with increasing doses (Cox’s HR: 1.50 per dose at 4 months; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.02-2.20). Statistically significant negative associations with increasing doses at 4 months were found for general developmental disorders (HR: 0.87; 95% CI: 0.81-0.93), unspecified developmental delay (HR: 0.80; 95% CI: 0.69-0.92), and attention-deficit disorder (HR: 0.79; 95% CI: 0.64-0.98). For the other disorders, there was no evidence of an association with thimerosal exposure.”

The commenter in question did not understand what “statistically significant negative associations” meant. It means that higher doses showed reduced risk. He or she thought that it meant “negative”outcomes, as in “bad”.

That’s the problem. You have non-scientists trying to make heads or tails out of scientific papers and studies, and they’re misinforming the public in the process.

Merry Christmas, by the way.

Crisis of faith

I’ve been away from the blog for a little bit because I had to take care of some stuff at home, at work, and everywhere in between. That, and I had a little bit of a crisis of faith. Not “Faith” faith, but just faith. I started questioning whether or not it was worthwhile to keep up this blog, keep working on “The Poxes”, and keep up my other extracurricular activities regarding combating anti-vaccine and anti-science forces.

After all, only two kinds of people show up on this blog: those who agree with science and those who vehemently oppose it. There are very few, if any, people who are in between visiting this blog. Alright, there are very few, if any, people who are in between telling me that they have been visiting this blog. I call them the “silent in-betweeners”.

These silent folk are those who have a hint that vaccines (and other scientific principles) work the way, but they are not quite convinced just yet. At the same time, they see rabid anti-science people as unreliable or willing to twist facts to fit their agendas. These silent folk probably don’t have any scientific training, or their science background is a basic level, one you find in a high school or entry-level college stuff. No hard sciences. Math is addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Math is not algebra or trigonometry. Biology is cells and “King Phillip Came Over For Great Spaghetti”. It’s not microbiology or virology. Organic chemistry is probably not something they think about when it comes to organic molecules.

Frankly, I don’t know why they stay silent. I want them to be vocal and ask us — the scientists — all about what troubles their minds. Why are vaccines safe, even when they’re not 100% safe? Why is organic mercury not the same as inorganic mercury, when both of them are mercury? Why does fluoride in the water not cause all those horrible things associated to it? Are you really pharma shills?

I mean, I try to answer these questions as much as I can, but I’m going on what I think the questions are and against what the anti-science forces have said. Because they — the anti-science — are surely filling someone’s mind with all sorts of [expletive] lies. And that irritates the hell out of me, because people who should know better, and many times do, are misinforming people out of things like chemotherapy for cancer, vaccines for vaccine-preventable diseases, and even antibiotics for infections.

Anyway, I’ll continue my sojourn for a couple of more days, maybe until the weekend. Maybe something will happen to make me understand what my purpose in all this is.