My blog contains a large number of posts. A few are included in various other publications, or as attached stories and chronicles in my emails; many more are found on loose leaves, while some are written carelessly in margins and blank spaces of my notebooks. Of the last sort most are nonsense, now often unintelligible even when legible, or half-remembered fragments. Enjoy responsibly.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

My Problem With Hillary Clinton

The eternal seductiveness of bad ideas has always tempted those looking to suppress hard work and tough choices. It is the responsibility of those able to see a situation for what it is and recommend patience over irresponsible action that defines quality leadership. Over the last seven years, we have had a government, and by reflection a population, that sees movement of any sort as positive. We, as a country, have grown to see personal and national reflection as a source of weakness. This trend must stop, and I only see one candidate willing enough to take a stand on the side of measured response and a positive forward movement through a strict adherence to the lessons of the past. And while both Democratic candidates show the strength to right wrongs, one of them refuses to admit mistakes in her past. Her failure to address a specific major wrong undermines any other argument that she may have for experience and tenure.

It is a common misconception that wisdom comes with age. In reality, the only thing that age bestows upon us is perspective. I am not old enough to speak on perspective, but it is an easy observation for most rational people to make that an individual who cannot admit fault regarding key decisions does not deserve the trust of our vote. So as much as I understand people’s support of Hillary Clinton, I have no choice but to see her failure to admit that she was wrong in voting for the Iraq War as a fundamental character flaw, and a fatal, underlining detriment of the leader that she would be.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I am Jubal Harshaw

There are always characters in books that I wish I could be. I would love to think that I am as simple as a Tolkien character like Aragon or a happy hobbit, or more complex like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian, to even the always present, if not intellectually stifling, Hamlet. This last week I reread a book that I must have read a dozen times in my younger years, and found myself, again, reading what I perceive as myself. Having done so, I was curious if any of you have ever read yourself in a work of fiction. Or, baring a previous self-realization through a fictional narrative, who do you wish you were or were more like?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Vaccinating Sebastian

My wife and I are at am impasse on something to do with our child Sebastian. I’m sure that it is not our last disagreement, but it’s the first big one. She does not want him vaccinated against anything and I would like him to get some vaccinations. I’ve conceded that there are some vaccines that are completely ridiculous. For instance, the chicken pox vaccine prevents children from getting the disease while they are young, but can come with a heavy consequence later in life. Adult chicken pox is called shingles and is extremely painful, whereas chicken pox in children is almost always treated with a couple days at home watching TV and eating soup. To me, this trade-off of a minor inconvenience for something worse at a later date speaks volumes of our culture, but that is another rant.

By training, I am a researcher. Too many years of school attendance in front and behind the podium will do that to you. I can spot sham research from a mile away and can become incredibly knowledgeable about minutia within several hours given the right access. So I decided to dive into this issue full-on to see if her argument for no vaccinations held up to scientific scrutiny. Afterwards, I talked with her briefly about her decision and reasoning. In the end I came to an understanding that her issue is one of faith in her gut.

Unfortunately, this puts her on the side with the hordes of mostly uneducated people who think that vaccines are controversial. Just by doing a couple of Google searches I’ve come to realize that that army of pseudoscience-believing anti-vaccine people immediately attacks anyone who points out the obvious holes in their unfounded ideas. To me, they appear to be the same type of individuals who are still arguing that the earth is 6,000 years old, Bush had a hand in 9-11, or that global warming doesn't exist.

You can always spot these people by their constant desire to fill gaps. If there is science out there that they don’t fully understand, threatens their current belief system, or just sounds bad to their limited knowledge, they work to find holes and point to those holes as proof that the lack of evidence that exists in these holes means that something bad must inhabit them. These people allow themselves to overlook the fact that a lack of evidence of something does not prove anything else.

So they look for holes, point to these unknowns as definite proof of something evil, and try to convince others of those evils. The anti-vaccine movement is much larger, and started earlier, in Europe. The fallout is already evident. Last year, the number of measles cases in England and Wales jumped more than 30%. This was the highest level since record keeping began in 1995 (BBC 2008). The Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) immunization rates drastically dropped after a now defunct paper was release that questioned whether or not the vaccine was linked to an increased risk of autism. The research was done by a man who was trying to sell an alternative to thimerosal (an ingredient in the vaccine) and every single person who was on the research team has since denounced the theory. This is the type of cold hard fact that some people choose to overlook in favor of wild guesses and unsubstantiated rumors.

What surprises me more is that despite a long history of being both successful and safe, vaccines still have very open and angry critics. There are a small cluster of parents and an even smaller faction of doctors that still question whether vaccinating children is worth what they perceive as risks. This anti-vaccine movement seems to be completely based on bad science and blatant fear-mongering of the unknown. Recently, it has even become openly vocal and very hostile.

Their original argument stemmed from the fact that mercury, which is a major component in thimerosal, is a poison to the brain due because it is a known neurotoxin. Every single argument that follows is an offshoot of this original argument linking thimerosal to autism. Almost everything is toxic in high enough doses. As many people have pointed out, too much vitamin C or even water can kill you. So the argument then comes down to dosage. Is the amount of mercury in thimerosal high enough to cause neurological damage?

The anti-vaccine side argues that the ethylmercury found in thimerosal exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) daily limit. But if actually do the math on the EPA’s website (EPA 2007) you quickly find out that there is an extraordinarily low amount in common vaccines and shots. For instance, there is 25 micrograms of ethylmercury in a flu shot, which, by those same FDA guidelines, would be safe to give to an individual every week for their entire life. By the more stringent EPA guidelines and using the same mathematic equation, it would be acceptable to give a toddler a vaccine using that same amount of ethylmercury every month.

To back up the claim that thimerosal does not cause autism, there have been a plethora of both epidemiological and ecological studies. Every single one of these peer reviewed studies showed that there was no correlation between thimerosal and autism (Parker 2004 and Doja 2006). The Institute of Medicine, one part of the United States National Academies, a not-for-profit, non-governmental American organization and part of the National Academy of Sciences, found in a review of all the available evidence of both the epidemiological and toxicological studies, that the evidence was conclusive and found no link whatsoever between thimerosal and autism (IOM 2004). And to drive the nail into the coffin of this argument further, Mitchell (2006) found that careful observations indicate that signs of autism are present much earlier, even before twelve months of age, before exposure to thimerosal.

This leaves those mercury alarmists facing an overwhelming amount of negative evidence and searching for some sort of rationalizations to keep their argument alive. What they are faced with is a solid scientific consensus. Multiple independent lines of evidence all pointing in the same direction: vaccines in general, and thimerosal in particular, do not cause autism, which rather likely has its roots in genetics. Furthermore, true autism rates are probably static and not rising.

Even despite the complete lack of evidence for any safety concern, the FDA decided to remove all thimerosal from childhood vaccines, and by 2002 no new childhood vaccines with thimerosal were being sold in the U.S. This was not an admission of prior error, as some mercury proponents claimed; instead, the FDA was playing it safe by minimizing human exposure to mercury wherever possible. The move was also likely calculated to maintain public confidence in vaccines. Since thimerosal has been removed from vaccines, autism diagnosis rates have steadily increased (IDIC 2007).

The only rationalization that the true believing anti-vaccine people had left to put forward was that there was a huge stockpile of thimerosal-laden vaccines—even though a published inspection of 447 pediatric clinics and offices found only 1.9 percent of relevant vaccines still had thimerosal by February 2002, a tiny fraction that was either exchanged, used, or expired soon after (CDCP/ACIP 2002).

With rationalization out the window, remaining stragglers have turned to desperation. A wild claim that the mercury from mortuary cremations had been increasing the environmental mercury toxicity and offsetting the decrease in mercury from thimerosal was purposed. Or that there is even more need for studies because the studies out there were part of a government conspiracy to not have to pay for damages to those who were injured by vaccines. But my favorite is that the drug companies wrote almost all of the scientific studies around the world, with different universities, and with thousands of different scientist, thereby making all of the previous studies fraudulent. Then the people who made this last outlandish claim asked for studies funded by non-scientific organizations run by lawyers who are suing over the fake vaccine controversy.

The anti-vaccines camp’s goal is to undermine public confidence in what is arguably the single most effective public health measure devised by modern science. This decrease in confidence will lead, as it has before, to declining compliance and an increase in infectious disease. The forces of irrationality are on display with this issue. There are conspiracy theorists, well-meaning but misguided citizen groups who are becoming increasingly desperate and hostile, irresponsible journalists, and ethically compromised or incompetent scientists. The science itself is complex, making it difficult for the average person to sift through all the misdirection and misinformation. Standing against all this is simple disrespect for scientific integrity and the dedication to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Right now the evidence leads to the firm conclusion that vaccines do not cause autism. Yet, if history is any guide, the myth that they do cause autism will likely endure even in the face of increasing contradictory evidence. Some of these anti-vaccine groups have since taken a more general, if not laughably absurd, stance that all vaccines are now evil because of a host of either ill-informed guesses or wild speculation. With their new points of contention coming in the recent formulation of the argument that the diseases vaccinated against aren’t really that bad and/or we already have a natural immunity to some of these diseases due to the fact that our forefathers lives through the eras where those specific diseases were rampant. Both of these arguments can and will easily be dispatched by using the previous research. But none of that matters for the anti-vaccine crowd. They are hell-bent on finding excuses to believe their side, no matter what harm it may cause their children or society.

The end of my research showed overwhelming evidence that, not only are the odds greater that your children could get sick from a disease than from the vaccine meant to prevent it, but the sickness itself would be more severe in those children whose parents decided not to vaccinate them. Those people who do not choose to vaccinate their children will have a much higher rate of harming their child, and all out of blind faith in themselves. What I have realized is that the argument to not vaccinate comes down to fear of the unknown and the hard task of admitting wrongness.

The arguments above have been presented to help anyone trying to figure out if there is any validity to the claims that vaccines are harmful. There is not and I hope that you have seen this. My wife is still steadfast in her belief that vaccines are evil. She will not waver, change her mind, or see the overwhelming scientific research as proof that she is wrong. And in the end, I have had no choice but to yield to her unfounded fear. It is not something that I am living well with. To me, it seems as if she’s found some sort of goofy cult that I can do nothing but mock in the vein hope that she’ll grow out of it. But, being that she is the mother of our child, I have had to yield to her intuition. My last wish for the argument is that our son never encounters any of these diseases, so that he will not blame her for her decision.


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Monday, April 14, 2008

Entry for April 14, 2008

"Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some. We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing." - Eric Hoffer

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Entry for April 12, 2008

There is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. They both kill innocent people for political reasons.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

My Struggle with the Term "Atheist"

An atheist is someone who does not believe in a God or Gods. This suits me just fine, but the connotations that come along with it are those of absolutism. The lack of doubt, the complete ending of questioning, is not something of which I approve. I see the existence of God as being just as probable as the Lock Ness Monster, Angels, or Gnomes. But any time I try to completely rule out the existence of anything supernatural or incredible, I hear the voice of Carl Sagan ringing in my ears. It’s a stalwart “Well, maybe,” meaning, “there is a still a probability, no matter how small.” My belief that nothing is absolute creates the core discomfort that I have with a group that lately appears to be made up of Anti-God Evangelicals.

My struggle complicates even further when I examine the needed solidarity of those who consider themselves “nonreligious,” but not necessarily “Atheist”. Nonbelievers (whatever they call themselves) are more persecuted then Jews, Gays, or any other sect of people. And all other religious people, no matter of what affiliation, label themselves as “religious”. So there is an underlying obligation for those of us with similar beliefs to stick together and label ourselves as “Atheist,” even if we don’t fit all of the necessary criteria.

This desire is driven by the knowledge that most educated people know that your mother’s Sunday potluck at church provides a base of normality and approval for Christian extremists to kill abortions doctors or gays. Keeping the Sabbath holy or kneeling on prayer rugs eventually justifies mortar attacks and century old wars. Individuals, who define themselves as taking the best beliefs from other religions and incorporating those ideas into their own spirituality, add creditability and acceptance to the things done in the original religion’s name. This last group provides a buffer and an even wider foundation for people who would pervert religions with the goal of horrific atrocities. Again, it is the organization and labeling under a banner of religion that creates fanaticism.

Sure, anything can be distorted into raving zealotry. But history has shown us that, in order to gain the support of the people, the will of a God or Gods must be employed. It is the propagation of these organized religions and structured beliefs that allow mass horrors to be fulfilled by a willing people. Without blind faith, and their validation from those who still follow the basic tenants of that faith, there would be “no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as Christ-killers’, no Northern Ireland ‘troubles, no ‘honor killings’, no shiny-suited bouffant haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money (‘God wants you to give til it hurts’). Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues; no beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female for the crime of showing an inch of it” (The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, 2006).

So there is obviously a clear need for a presence of a united group of people who can point to a large percentage of the world’s problems as being religious in nature. Both here in the US and abroad, religious extremists reek havoc in the name of whatever God in which they are aligned. These are problems that root cause is religion and they have no formal enemy but each other.

Now I know that not all Atheists believe in the absolute non-existence of the supernatural. I’m sure that there are a large percentage of this same group who believe that the term implies ambiguity. But because the definition of an Atheist does not leave any doubt, so we cannot infer that uncertainty does exist. All nonbelievers should see this argument as the same as their old standby of, “a lack of evidence is not evidence of existence.” If the definition does not specifically cast doubt on the existence of a God or Gods, then it is not part of the definition. To pretend otherwise is incorrect. Moreover, spending your time backpedaling from the definition, or trying to redefine it further to suit your own needs, undercuts your primary argument.

So here I stand, feeling uncomfortable that I will never fully conform to the term Atheist when I know that the need for such a group is paramount. I do not know what to call myself, or if I should ever take a label willingly, but I know that this label is the closest thing that I will ever have to a likeminded people.