Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yep. It's a Swine Flu Post

So, we may have the big global pandemic we've been warned about on our hands here. It's too early to tell for sure, but it's certainly not a good situation.

Unfortunately, these kinds of situations are a good example of a time to put on your skeptic hat (pictured at left).

In my estimation, there are two main things that have come into play that are deserving of skeptical scrutiny, though I suppose the second really is a consequence of the first...

...Which is panic.

I first heard about the swine flu outbreak from Twitter of all places. First a single humorous mention, then an all-out storm of both derision and panic, both founded and unfounded. Now, I love me some Twitter (you can follow me!), but witnessing how tweeps reacted to Swine Flu made me realize that by its very nature as an outlet for short, stream-of-thought messages about for whatever is on one's mind leads not only to posts like "headed to the bathroom," but also to outbursts of raw panic that one might not be as inclined to do in a more paced, carefully-worded forum, such as Facebook status updates.

Whether or not it's a plague, swine flu has definitley become a twitterdemic (a word that someone else has probably already invented, though I haven't seen it elsewhere, so I'm taking credit). I loved this excellent XKCD comic about just the effect I described above. But I don't mean to harp on Twitter. I mean, have you seen the news? News organizations exist to inform the public make money, so it's no surprise that they're focusing as much time as possible to every tiny development. And all of this in and of itself is okay. I mean, I'm writing a blog post of about swine flu as we speak.

But all of this feeds into a general public sense of helplesness and panic.

Here's the deal: swine flu is dangerous. If you are immunosuppressed, elderly, or an infant, it's even more dangerous. If you're none of the above and you have access to modern healthcare, you're most likely going to be fine. We're not on the edge of 28 Days Later here. Everyone should take reasonable precautions against infection: wash your hands, skip that trip to Cabo, don't make out with people suffering from swine flu unless you really have to. When a vaccine becomes available, get vaccinated (seriously: get vaccinated).

None of this is to say that swine flu is not a huge world health concern. It is. In Mexico, it's believed to have claimed hundreds of lives already, and it's just getting geared up for its world tour. I'd be surprised (though, of course, pleased) if it were not responsible be thousands of deaths by the time it's run its course.

Which makes the second skeptic-hat-worthy item all the more egregious. That item, of course, is...

the exploitation of panic.

Panic and public concern over a medical crisis is excellent fodder for those who would take advantage of it to make a buck or further an agenda by distorting or making up "facts."

Homeopaths, for instance, were swift on the uptake on the whole "let's dupe sick people into giving us money" bandwagon. Rebecca at Skepchick exposes some ridiculous and awe-inducing (for their brazen disregard towards fellow humans) statements at a UK website selling homeopathic cures for swine flu. Check it out.

Remember, homeopathy isn't just any alternative treatment that hasn't established any efficacy. It's water. Just water. Period.

It irks me to no end to see this kind of nonsense being pushed in a time of true crisis. Someone taking an alternative "treatment" such as these homeopathic "remedies" is less likely to go see a real doctor if they become very ill, and this puts them at risk for death.

And now I'm struggling to stay awake. This post is probably filled with typos and sentence fragments, but I can't proofread now. I can barely keep typing. Time for sleep. Good night all!

Friday, April 24, 2009

'Spook' book discussion, with special guest Mary Roach

As mentioned before, our next Salt City Skeptics book club book is Spook by Mary Roach.

If you haven't yet picked it up, get thee to a bookstore and grab it now, because we have an awesome opportunity: The author will be joining us (by phone) for our book discussion on May 27th at 7:00.

Mary Roach is the author of three fantastic, entertaining and offbeat books about scientific inquiry into some unexpected topics: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, about... well, about human cadavers (it's far more entertaining that you'd think!); Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, which addresses the scientific evidence of an afterlife (or lack thereof) and supposed supernatural phenomena; and her most recent book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, in which Roach explores the world of sex research and researchers.

All of Roach's books are a quick and entertaining read, so if you finish with Spook, check out one of her others before the 27th. Though our focus will be on Spook, this is a rare chance to ask the author questions on any of her books.

We now have a location. A Salt City Skeptics member has graciously arranged for us to use room 5100 at the University of Utah Health Science Education Building (HSEB), located at the U of U medical complex. Parking is free after 6 just to the south of the building, or it's a short walk east from the Medical Center Trax stop.

View Larger Map

Thursday, April 16, 2009

FACT: Mary Roach is awesome

Yes, I do realize this is the 3rd post in a row about Mary Roach, but after seeing her tonight, I HAVE to mention it.

Mary Roach spoke today at the Salt lake City Library, filling the main auditorium near to capacity. I'm currently tearing through Spook (okay, I'm listening to it on audiobook), and after tonight, Mary Roach is rising quickly on my list of favorite people.

Roach spoke for an hour and a half, but it seemed like twenty minutes. I could have heard her go on all night, and I think the entire auditorium felt likewise.

I wish we had more science writers like her. I honestly feel that she is one of the greatest science communicators we have today. She makes science interesting to people who might not otherwise be interested, and shows how hugely varied scientific inquiry can be, tackling everything from rotting corpses to G-spot stimulation. Also, those two topics should NEVER EVER be mentioned in the same sentence again. (She mentioned her next book would have something to do with space exploration and astronauts. Can't wait!) And on top of all of that, Roach is hilarious. I mean RIDICULOUSLY hilarious.

Whether or not you are planning on reading Spook for the next SCS book club or not, I can't recommend Roach's books any more strongly.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Mary Roach @ the Salt Lake City Library, this Thursday!

Talk about timing!

Just yesterday, I announced Mary Roach's book Spook as our next Salt City Skeptics book club selection... And what do I learn today?

I just found out that Roach will be speaking at 7:00 at the Salt Lake City Library on her latest book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex." If you get the chance, this is a rare opportunity to hear directly from Roach. I'll be there by 6:30, so if anyone wants to meet up before hand, come on by!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Salt City Skeptics Book Club: Spook

Last Wednesday, we had our first SCS book club at Coffee Connection where we discussed Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World. In my opinion, it was one of our best ever events. It certainly was, with the exception of the Darwin Day event, our most well-attended.

Lots of new faces, lots of great discussions. I did hear a few minor complaints that we didn't talk about the book more... It's true that we veered off-topic pretty quickly. I personally feel that's okay, that the book was more of a touchstone for starting conversation, but I'll try to keep that in mind going forward. I think our next book, on a more specific topic than the wide-raging Sagan book, will help with that issue...

In June, we'll meet and discuss Mary Roach's Spook. In Spook, Roach tackles claims of the afterlife, ghosts and the paranormal from a scientific perspective.

Roach is a science journalist with a very entertaining, engaging style who dives head-in and tackles an incredibly wide range of topics. Her other books, Bonk and Stiff (about the science of sex and... well, corpses, respectively) are a great read by all accounts. I've been meaning to read her books for some time, so I'm excited to jump in with Spook.

I heard this excellent interview with Roach on Little Atoms last year about Bonk, her latest book. (Friendly heads-up: contains very frank discussion of sex and sexuality, including pig masturbation, penis-stealing witches, and the "Thrillhammer.")

So, go buy Spook now! Also, for you Audiobook listeners, Spook is available on Audible.com.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A few notes on my last post...

Yep, I'm up late tonight... So I thought I'd take a minute to post a quick note about yesterday's post...

I feel obligated to follow-up on my last post about Larry King's interview with Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey. In my post as originally written, I stated that CNN and Larry King Live did not allow for a rebuttal.

It seems I was quite mistaken on that. An anonymous commenter on my last post pointed out that indeed there was a rebuttal section. The video of the interview I saw initially did not include the follow-up, and none of the accounts I had read up to that point had made mention of it. I came away assuming a falsehood. I wrote the post in haste, and though I stand by it as it stands now, I no longer feel CNN was as much in the wrong on this.

I do still feel that the interview was more credulous than it should have been. Hearing King gush about the knowledgeably of Carey and McCarthy in lead-ups to this interview lent them a credibility which they do not deserve.

The fact remains that the there is no demonstrated link, no plausible causitive agent, and just plain no evidence for a link between autism and vaccination. (Check out David Gorski's account of the interview and the various links within it to see a thorough response to the various claims made by McCarthy.)

I just wanted to point out the importance both in general and to me personally in taking the time to verify facts, which is the essence of skepticism, the very purpose of this blog and its associated group. I will endeavor in the future to verify the factuality of my statements here, and I'm more than happy to be called on the carpet if something I say is incorrect.

Monday, April 6, 2009

An open letter to CNN and Larry King Live

This is an expanded version of a note I did actually send to CNN and the Larry King Live show:

I have to say that I'm disappointed at CNN and Larry King Live for last week's show featuring Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey discussing the supposed link between childhood vaccination and autism.

It is irresponsible for CNN, with its reputation as the "most trusted name in news," to allow McCarthy, et al, to propagate unsupported claims about a link between childhood vaccination and autism for which the scientific evidence is not just weak, it is nonexistent (a fact acknowledged by McCarthy when she claims that she first diagnosed her son herself using her "mommy instinct," and that anecdotal evidence should be sufficient to conclude that vaccines lead to autism).

In fact, study after study shows that there is no causal link whatsoever between autism and vaccination. This isn't some cute story about a mom and her son overcoming an unfortunate affliction, this is a growing threat to public health. And it's an issue on which McCarthy is having a notable impact. Lives are at stake on this issue. People have died and will continue to die due to declining rates of vaccination, due in large part to the success of antivaccinationist rhetoric pushed by McCarthy and her ilk (indeed, McCarthy freely acknowledges that vaccine-preventable deaths are on the rise... and that she doesn't care).

As for what the evidence is, just this year Andrew Wakefield's study which began in earnest the vaccine->autism myth was found to be not just incorrect, but fraudulent; and the autism omnibus findings have lain waste to antivaccinationist claims. (Check out this post at Science-Based Medicine for a thorough excoriation of such claims. Be warned, it's a long article, but very much worth your time).

As I do not have children of my own, I cannot understand the pain that parents, including McCarthy, must go through upon discovering a developmental disability, such as autism, in their children. I do understand the desire to want to find something to hold on to, some kind of explanation, something or someone to blame. I believe that McCarthy is going down this road earnestly because she truly wants to have a positive impact...

But, as unsatisfying as it may be, autism can't be blamed on childhood vaccination. The evidence contradicts the claim.

Letting McCarthy and Carey present their unsupported claims on CNN is very much akin to letting a climate change denialist promote his particualr brand of unsupported nonsense, or letting Kevin Trudeau hawk some "miracle cure" as news. CNN's name would lend these views credibility, credibility they do not deserve. Though LKL did allow for a rebuttal, it would be wonderful to see a more thorough explanation of the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and an objective analysis of the supposed link to autism.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Here's a great little video on open-mindedness, specifically how the charge that skeptics are "close-minded" is innacurate, and that in fact those who accept unsupported claims and reject claims supported by evidence are, in fact, close-minded.

Absolutely work checking out.

[hat-tip: John Loftus]