Friday, June 13, 2008

Quack Health Part 2 : Vaccinations and why famous people should be ignored

Jim Carrey - Ace Ventura, bizarre bodily contortionist style comedian, and an actor who has made several highly entertaining movies.

Charlie Sheen - Hot Shots star, Hot Shots 2 star and Wall Street star. All round prolific actor who has made more movies than I've had hot dinners.

Jenny McCarthy. Um....who? Oh that’s right – the playboy chick.

What do these three have in common? Are they aliens? Are they Anti-Vaccine proponents? Are they out of their freaking minds? Yes. Yes they are. Well, except the bit about the aliens.

I never understood why we put people such as this on a pedestal outside of their given field. Sure they have great acting talent, and they make us laugh, but how exactly does that translate into intelligence or knowledge? We idolise these people for evoking emotion on the silver screen, and I don’t have an issue with that. I admire and envy people for their acting talent just like I admire the All Blacks for their rugby skill. You watch them and think “Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to do that?” But that’s where it ends and that’s where it should end. Just because someone is talented in one field, does not automatically infer talent in another.

More and more often now we see movie stars and musicians making bat shit crazy pronouncements (I'm looking at you Tom) and it seems to be expected of everyone to say "Well he was in that movie with the dolphin, so he must be right!" Media saturation of these so called A-list celebs has lead many people to jump on just about any bandwagon, regardless of the cause. “I mean, look at the winning smile - surely someone who smiles so well couldn't possibly be wrong?”
Fame is not a substitute for intelligence, or critical thinking. If there is no evidence to support a claim, made by anyone, then it can be relegated to the waste heap of bullshit, cast out by the trowel of fact finding, and buried under the mounds of wooly thinking.

I don't have a beef with people believing weird things - no no, really I don't. If you believe that theres a omnipotent beardy weirdy in the sky, wtching your every molve, judging you against some shifting code of morals, and listening to your thoughts – go for gold. I will add the rider that if people state these beliefs, and try and coerce others to sing along, I reserve the right to ridicule them if there's no evidence to back them up. And that's where the three aforementioned actors come in.

Charlie Sheen has recently told his ex-wife Denise Richards that he will sue the doctor if she asks him to vaccinate their children. Yes, he is more concerned with his kooky ideas that vaccines have a link to Autism, than the benefits of vaccination. Rather than investigating the information at hand, and having even a remote grasp of reality, he is forcing his beliefs on his children who now will have no protection against measles, mumps or rubella. Has he ever seen a child with mumps? Wouldn’t he want to do anything in his power to avoid having his children go through that? I for one hope Denise tells him to shove it, and gets it done anyway.

Jenny McCarthy had a baby boy in 2002, and she stated on Oprah in 2007 that he had been diagnosed with autism. This, in no uncertain terms, sucks. I have no idea who Jenny McCarthy is, what she's like as a person, or how she performs as a mother, but I don't wish Autism on my worst enemy. It’s hard on the parents, and must be hell for the poor kids. And when you are in that unenviable position, you must be desperate to find someone to blame, someone to take the rap, and something you can point the finger of blame squarely at and say "that's the root cause of all my problems". That's a pretty common response - whenever something goes wrong, everyone wants to find that one root cause that started it all and squash it. Bush invaded Iraq because of the WMD's. Petrol prices keep rising because the US invaded Iraq. Autism cases are on the rise because more children get vaccines now than ever before.

But life is never that simple. When was the last time something that was subject to so many variables ever had a single root cause? A good analogy I think is the Coke and Mentos experiments. When people started firing Mentos into Diet Coke causing fountains of froth, people began to wonder why so much bang for such a little sweet? It was assumed to begin with that the substance in the sweet (gum arabic) and the carbonation of the Diet Coke was the root cause of the violent chemical reaction. This sounds plausible, until you actually do a bit of science and test it. If you throw a Mentos into soda water, the reaction is not that great, which means it ain't just carbonation or gum arabic. So individual testing of each Diet Coke ingredient plus the Mentos sweet showed that not one, but ALL of the ingredients played a role in the fountain effect. But there was something else - when one of the flavoured versions of Mentos was used, virtually no reaction was seen at all. This meant there must have been a difference between the flavoured and mint Mentos. And there was - the physical properties of the Mentos was found to be pitted, as opposed to the flavoured one which was smooth. This meant that the sweet had millions of nucleation sites, causing a sudden and violent out gassing of the CO2 in the Diet Coke. The point that I make here is that although we automatically assume one or two root causes for things, its often never that simple. In fact, when some outcome has several possible variables acting on it, you can guarantee the answer will most likely not be just one of the aforementioned variables. Something that only repeated and reliable testing can prove.

Jenny McCarthy however, decided not to take a scientific approach to discovering the cause of her sons Autism. She has linked his autism with his MMRI (Measles, Mumps and Rubella Inoculation) vaccination at the age of 15 months. I cannot say where she got this idea from, but its fair to say there's plenty of kook's out there peddling their stupidity, waiting for anyone to buy into it. And when you feel aggrieved like Jenny probably did, its a safe bet to say it was an attractive idea to blame the vaccine.

She, and her partner Jim Carey, have organised a group to protest against vaccinations called "Green our Vaccines" who's mantra is "pro-safe vaccines", but is pretty obviously leaning towards the anti-vaccine crowd. They are not alone in this idea that vaccines cause autism. Plenty of kooks and weirdos have come out of the woodwork over the last few years stating that they "know" there is a link, and big Pharma or the Government are conspiring to cover it all up. So what the hell are they on about? Here's a quick run down of their arguments

Too Many Vaccines at once
A popular argument is that there are too many vaccines given to children under the age of two. This began when a study of 12 children was done in England by Andrew Wakefield, who suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Subsequent peer reviews failed to support the hypothesis, and the CDC, along with the UK NHS have both concluded there is no link between Autism and the MMR vaccine.
Another variant of this is that anti-vacciner's say that too many at once will deplete the immune system, allowing other diseases to take hold where they may not have. The biggest problem with this hypothesis is that there is no correlation between the admittances to hospital or doctor visits, and vaccinations.

An organomercury preservative used in vaccines since the 1930's, it is claimed there is a direct link between the mercury content of the vaccine and Autism. To date, there has been no reputable study that has concluded a link between Thiomersal and Autism.

Compounds containing Aluminium are used as immunologic adjuvants in vaccines, and there have been several recent studies into adverse effects of these compounds. All have come back with results showing no adverse effects.

We don't need no stinking vaccine
Some critics of the vaccines say that we don't really need to be vaccinated in the western world, and that all the major diseases always only break out in areas of high poverty, overcrowding and poor sanitation. This, however, is utter crap. We have outbreaks of disease such as measles every year in every developed country, and if immunisation rates weren't as high as they were, we would be in a lot more shit than we are now. heres a excerpt from an open letter to the US Government from a heap of US health and science groups :

A decision not to vaccinate is not just an individual decision. Because these diseases are spread from person to person, the decision to leave a child unvaccinated not only leaves that child susceptible to vaccine-preventable diseases, but permits the spread of those diseases to the surrounding community, including infants too young to be immunized and those suffering from immunodeficiency conditions. The ongoing measles outbreaks across the nation are a clear, current example. In each instance, the outbreak was started by an unimmunized individual who spread the infection to others, including children whose parents had opted not to have them immunized and infants less than one year of age who were too young to have received measles vaccine.

Its all bollocks. The fact (and I emphasise the word fact) is that there have been no scientific links between autism and inoculation programmes. None. Nada. Zip. There have been several studies done into a possible link and every single one has come up negative. There is no evidence. Not a single shred has ever been produced that can prove a link between Autism and vaccinations.

But that doesn't stop the anti-vaccine crowd, oh no. All these bastards do is drum up fears in already nervous parents, who then make ill-informed decisions about their children putting not only them at risk, but everyone else in the community as well. Parents are supposed to make decisions based on the best welfare for their children, and they cant do that if whack jobs like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey are all over the TV saying crap like "don't immunise your child or they might become autistic!". Its annoying, its dishonest and its dumb. Like Orac said, I didn't know Dumb and Dumber was a documentary.

The only thing I can take heart from all of this, is that the number of people who believe there is an Autism-Vaccine link is still very small. A majority of people still understand the principles behind vaccination, and agree that the risk of complications during immunization are far lower than the risk of catching one of the diseases if you are not immunised, and that there is a large risk of even small percentages of the community not being immunised. As long as we take care not to listen to idiots like Jenny and Jim, and think a bit more skeptically about this sort of stuff, we'll all come through ok.

For more information check out these sites :

Science Blogs - Oracs Insolence
Autism News Beat
Science Based Medicine
AutismDiva - Autism : Its not like you think
Evidence Based Medicine

Blow Up Doll Gets Quick Ride To Work - No Pun Intended

Here in New Zealand just like most other countries there are issues with traffic congestion, especially Auckland which is the largest city. Some drivers have been coming up with some novel ways to beat the transit lane rules that have been put in place to reward those who carpool. Those who have three or more people in a car are allowed to drive in the same lanes as buses, taxis and motorbikes therefore making their journey shorter by up to fifteen minutes. Some enterprising commuters have started taking their blow-up dolls to work in an effort to make it look like they carrying the allotted amount of passengers.

Blow up dolls, mannequins and medium sized dogs dressed in children’s clothes have all been employed by drivers trying to get to work quicker. I commend them for thinking of ways to beat the rules but they should really just get more real people in the car. Drivers that get caught are fined NZ$150 and are usually caught by officers standing on the side of the road noting down registration plate numbers. They first noticed something was wrong when cars were stopping at lights had passengers that were not moving.

At least if it is a quiet day at work then there is something to do to break the monotony.

"There were some odd people that tried these antics," said North Shore city council officer Andre Dannhauser

Check out the video from one of our local news broadcasters who reported this after Reuters broke the story.

News Video

The Emperor : Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

Some people have ordinary workstations, 1 monitor, crappy post-it notes all over everything, and more crap than you can shake a stick at. Well screw that. From now on, we should ALL be issued with new workstations from Novelquest, designed by Patrick Laflamme Duval. Modelled after a scorpion, the tail section rises up to let the user be seated, and then descends again with "the three monitors at the perfect height and angle for perfect viewing comfort". Nice. Click on the image left to embiggen.

NovelQuest via Gizmodo

Guns are bad m'kay

Ah yes, guns are useful for only one thing. Putting successively larger holes in things to make sure they go away. But its looks like we've found another use - comedy! Yes for every able gun toting marksman out there, we also have the dimwits and idiots who forget the principle rules of firearms - don't point it at anything you don't want to die, and don't forget the safety. Check out the vid after the jump for a Benny Hill inspired look at all those people who should NOT have a gun. Darwin would be proud.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Those wacky Creationists!

Ever wondered what's inside the temple of stupidity that is the Creationist Museum in Kentucky? Ever felt like having a peek but aren't willing to shell out the dolleros to fund the fundies? Well wonder no more, and don't bother going - demonbaby has done a fairly huge write up on his site, covering all the bases and checking out the gift shop too. I heartily recommend you take a visit to his blog and read what he has to say. Clear, humorous and chock full of fruits/nuts.

Exploring The Creation Museum - America's New Mecca of Fanatical Ignorance
[Currently Going To: Hell]

Two Eyed Brown Snake vs One Eyed Trouser Snake

In a clash of the titans match up reminiscent of Ali vs Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, a man was bitten on the wanger by a snake in Laura, 300km north of Cairns in north Queensland, Australia. It happened a few weeks ago, and because its the outback, these things take time to come to the attention of anyone else. Mr Zutt said he had crouched down by the side of the road to take a dump when the attack took place.

"I squatted down – I reckon I must've nearly sat on his head," he said.
"As soon as I felt it, I yelled. As would anyone I reckon - any guesses what he was yelling?

Arrrrrrgh fuuuuuuuck!

Fair suck of the sav, a snakes bit me willy!

Strewth, look at the size of that snake. Oh no hang on, its me old fella.

Mr Zutt was also quoted as saying "It really hurt." One would imagine so. He said he tried to remain calm as he inspected the damage. "He got me about halfway down," he said. "I saw fang marks and a bit of blood come out."

Ok - that's about all we need to hear really. Apparently he was taken to hospital where tests confirmed he had not been poisoned. On the way he had called his mum to say goodbye, preparing her for the worst. Not the nicest phone call to receive I imagine.

Oh hello Basil, hows the hunting trip going?
Well Mum, a snake just bit my John Thomas and I might be on my way out. Don't put it on my gravestone please.

His mates have been none too sympathetic either. "They've been saying things like `It was a trouser snake fight' and `He (the snake) saw the competition and got scared'," he said.

He said he would still venture to the outback but there would be no more "running through the bush barefoot and pig-hunting".

Bugger eh?

UPDATE : When the cubicle becomes just too much

I posted the other day about some cubicle freak going ballistic, and I mentioned that it looked quite real. Well, in another example of "don't believe everything you see on the internet" I've been told by the Internet that its a fake. Yes, irony is everywhere these days. Apparently its a viral marketing campaign for a new movie called Wanted with James MacAvoy and Angelina Jolie. Not quite sure exactly what the fuck the link between the two was supposed to be, but there you go. Obscure video links to obscure film. Who'da thought it eh.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Photo of Earth from Mars - Well done HiRISE

Oh my God the aliens are coming, run for the hills.... Aarrgghh!!!
Here is the best photo ever of the planet Earth taken from the orbit of Mars. This falls into the same realms as the photo that was taken recently of the Mars Phoenix lander descending to the Martian surface. Funnily enough both images were taken by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and goes to show just how good that technology is.
So this is what we look like to an approaching invasion force, or to an alien race as it leaves our solar system after having its ass whipped by Will Smith.... Bigger picture after the jump.

This picture was taken on October 3, 2007, when Earth was 142 million kilometers away, that is amazing. It is similar to an image that was taken back in 2003 by the Mars Global Surveyor but this new image is a much better resolution.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Monday, June 9, 2008

Quack Health Part 1 : Insidious Advertising and Magnet Quackery

I normally try and ignore most advertising on the television. A majority of it holds no interest (toothpaste - it ain't that interesting), does not apply (do I really need another pair of high heels?), or is total bollocks (thanks whoever wrote the ad's for Dunedin). But tonight whilst watching the news and having a spot of dinner, I noticed an ad that has been on for quite some time and although I had noticed it in the past, I hadn't really paid much attention. But when I tuned in I realised it was an ad for good old, gen-eew-ine higgery pokery. Yes it was quack medicine from the 1800's, on prime time television.

Magnesleep, a product distributed by Body Magnetix for the duped masses all over New Zealand. Its their advertising we see most often, and certainly the one I notice the most, although I have seen others. I looked them up to see what they sold and what they claimed. Their website is decidedly unprofessional, and if I was purchasing something on this fact alone I wouldn't send them a cent. Their front page is full of good sales language - lots of descriptive words and emotion evoking, but little content or description of their actual product and its benefits. Here's a sample :

Imagine waking each day feeling better - refreshed, energized and ready to get into life. Imagine your aches and pains gone, your illnesses and injuries being eased away quickly and painlessly.

Sure - that's nice, but although they imply that's what their product does, they don't say it. Imagine this, imagine that - nice try but no substance.

It's not a dream! It's the reality you can enjoy, thanks to the amazingly effective magnetic therapy created by Magne-Sleep. We are magnetic therapy specialists, using only better quality magnets and manufacturing procedures. No short cut's - just better pain relief, better quality in every way.

Although they use the right words, they are still not really claiming to do anything other than what would be given by having a sleep in a warm bed (which is the wool part). "Magnetic Therapy specialists" = specialist in nothing. In fact, replace the word "magnetic" for "nothing" and its about right.

The next two paragraphs are much the same - no substance to the claims other than "Magnetic therapy has helped millions of people worldwide" and "Discover how magnetic therapy can make your life better, ease your aches, pains, illnesses and injuries and help you get the very best out of life". But how? Well, if you scroll past all the intro, past the prices for the products, past the guarantee (more disclaimer and refund policy) you get to a list of ailments this product is supposed to affect. here's the list :


Shit - is there anything it can't do? New Super bed blanket thing! Cures all ailments, feeds the hungry, makes you a cup of tea and leaps tall buildings in a single bound. Depression Lupus - I'm sad because I'm a werewolf? Ok - I couldn't help it. Lupus is apparently a very real condition with a lot of symptoms. I cant say I know a lot about it, so look it up on disease and medical sites if you are interested.

And what does the magic hoo-doo cost? Shitloads - from $190 for a single budget COTTON (not wool) version, and from $290 (single) to $429 (super king) woollen version. Compare that to a standard woollen underlay from a standard NZ supplier of $190 (single) to $350 (super king). And that's not the cheapest price I could find, merely the one I knew off the top of my head. So you pay an extra $70 to $100 for what? Some magnets.

If you look at any of these websites like Body Magnetix, Biomag, Biomagnetic, you will notice the same formula. There are plenty of vague claims about supposed health benefits, several key phrases like "ease your aches, pains, illnesses and injuries", "all without pills and potions" or "as viewed by leading Western medical practitioners and researchers". They use word play and advertising jargon to convince the unwary and people in pain that their product will cure their problems. They point to specific studies that back up their claims of magnetic therapy. They claim magnets increase circulation because blood has iron in it. They say things like "the magnetic force stimulates nerve-endings to improve blood flow to injured or swollen joints, causing the blood vessels to dilate". Hmm - really?

Pills and Potions
This is a standard advertising technique used by fringe medicine. If you used the word potions along with pills, it evokes negative connotations by drawing on peoples mental picture of alchemists and pre-1800 style quacks selling tonics at sideshows. Ironically, this is exactly their area of trade and they apply it to science based medicine to give it a negative spin.

"Studies have shown"
Really? Which ones? These website make major claims and don't back them up with any evidence whatsoever. I will steal a few paragraphs from the Silly Beliefs site...

The following is typical of proponents of magnetic therapy:

The positive effects of magnetic treatment have been confirmed by clinical tests and are recognized by modern medical science around the world.

Do you believe these claims, and if you do, why? What clinical tests support magnetic therapy and since when has modern medical science proscribed a treatment of magnets? Since they provide no real evidence whatsoever that their claims are in fact true, this statement is worthless, just as worthless as the following claims that I might make:

'The positive effects of treatment using Eskimo magic has been confirmed by clinical tests and is recognized by modern medical science around the world'.

Or how about this one:

'Many scientists believe the Moon is made out of green cheese, and suppressed government files support this belief'.

These examples clearly demonstrate that saying something is true does not make it so. Magnetic therapy proponents can make bogus claim after bogus claim on their websites and in their promotional brochures, but this doesn't mean there is any truth to them. They can claim that science and research supports their claims, just like I can claim Eskimo magic works and that the moon is made of green cheese, but you shouldn't believe either of us until we provide supporting evidence.

A double-blind test study - apparently.
Some sites actually refer to a study conducted at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston on which people who had suffered Polio as a child and had pain related to that illness were treated with magnetic therapy. Although the results of that one pilot study of 50 people showed a statistically significant result in favour of magnet therapy, there were several major problems with the study, and the results have never been accepted as proof of the efficacy of magnets, except by the Magnet Salesmen. The key phrase here is "pilot study" - it was never a full blown test. The authors themselves acknowledge that the study was a "pilot study." Pilot studies are done to determine whether it makes sense to invest in a larger more definitive study. They never provide a legitimate basis for marketing any product as effective against any symptom or health problem.
Every other scientific study conducted within double blind testing, and large groups has shown there is no effect from magnets of the size marketed by the woo merchants like Biomag, Magnesleep and other such conmen.

So in conclusion what more do I need to say? Its pretty clear that there's no evidence to support any of this mumbo jumbo, but it continues to be pushed onto the unsuspecting public here in NZ. I think the Government should make these guys put up or shut up - scientifically prove that what you are selling has an effect on the diseases you claim to cure, or fuck off. They fleece the unsuspecting public for millions every year, and should be subject to the same kind of rigorous testing all other medicines go through.

See these websites for an even more in depth dissection of Magnet Therapy and its false claims.

Silly Beliefs - Magnetic Therapy - Healing or Scam?
Magnetic Therapy: A Skeptical View

Clint Eastwood V's Spike Lee (I know who my money's on)

One of the greatest actors of all time and the one man that should be ruler of the universe has told Spike Lee to ‘Shut his face’. Clint Eastwood made the comment in regards to what Lee said about there being no African Americans in the veteran filmmakers war films Letters to Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers. If I was Spike Lee I’d be shitting myself about now as Clint is probably not someone I would want knocking on my front door with a .44 Magnum in hand.

The Dirty Harry star, turned director said that the film Flags of Our Fathers was about the chaps that raised the flag in the iconic photo taken at Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal, and it just so happened that there was no African Americans in the story he was telling. He went on to say about the black troops that were actually there:

“they didn't raise the flag. The story is 'Flags of Our
Fathers,' the famous flag-raising picture, and they didn't do that. If I go
ahead and put an African-American actor in there, people'd go, 'This guy's lost
his mind.' I mean, it's not accurate."

Mr Harry responded to Lee’s jibe with the simple line “A guy like him should shut his face."

A lot of films are made about historical events and most of them take a lot of liberties with the actual facts and the fact that there are few depictions of African Americans is a testament to Eastwood’s film making and Spike Lee’s lack of knowledge about the subject. The moral to this story really is don’t piss off the man with no name or he’ll eat you for breakfast.

Go Pale Rider.

Classic prank - as long as you ain't the prankee

Mentos and Diet Coke - has there been a better find in chemical and prank history after compressed air and the whoopee cushion? We've seen all manner of interesting things done from Mythbusters testing exactly what it is in the two substances that makes the violent reaction, to the guys on Youtube with their Coke\Mentos synchronised musical fountains. Lets not forget all the idiots eating mentos and drinking coke to "see what happens". Darwin would be proud. But its always interesting to see new and inventive ways to use old tricks. See after the jump for a neat, and messy way to entertain yourself and perhaps make a new enemy.

How To Build A Mentos And Diet Coke Booby Trap