Sunday, May 25, 2014

Dereliction of Science

Mix Bake Shop
Soy Cappuccino
Anise Shortbread

I think I've talked about this already but I only have half an hour today, so I don't have time to check...

My younger brother asked me last night, for a paper he's writing for his English class, if I had vaccinated the boys.  Apparently, he read that there's a school here in town just for unvaccinated kids.  I hadn't heard about that but I have seen message boards advertising kids parties designed to expose other kids to a sick kid to help the other kids get sick, and thus, build up their immunity.  I think they are called "booster-pop" parties, or some kind of "pop" parties, because the parents have the kids share popsicles or lollipops or something, to increase the exposure.

I assured my brother - the boys have been vaccinated.

That doesn't mean I wasn't lobbied hard by both sides when they were born.  And on the one hand, I had my strong love and respect for science, while on the other I had my unconventional upbringing and a deep skepticism of blind adherence to authority.  Respecting science also means remembering the errors of scientists and the corrupting effects of both arrogance and money.

It is not beyond belief that there could be unintended harm from a scientific cure - it's happened before.  It's not at all unbelievable that the manufacturers making money off the cure might want to believe there's no connection, no harm.  And it stretches no credulity to believe political officials that have extolled the virtues of these cures might want to downplay any adverse side-effects.  It's also the task of the human mind to find answers, and it is our burden to distinguish truth from fitting fiction.  On the one hand, there's the staggering rise in autism cases, and while we're seeking to find a link, along comes a preliminary study that suggests a link.  It fits!  Ah-ha!

But a preliminary study is not science, and correlation is not causation.  The next step is to repeat the experiment, broaden the population sample, rule out confounding factors.  And, in the meantime, wait.  You don't know anything until you know it.  But that's not what happened.  There was already an anti-vaccination movement when the autism link was put forth, but it was mainly confined to old hippies like my dad.  But I think it was the foundation that allowed the misinformation to flourish.  Sadly.  For the record, none of the studies since have found a link between any vaccines and mental illness.  And, the most important thing, if you have doubts about the study you can and should look into how the study was conducted to satisfy yourself about the strength of the conclusion.

The important thing about this debate is really the way we talk to each other about it.  People are getting angry because people are starting to die from these diseases again.  But it is wrong, and counter-productive, to talk to people who hesitate or refuse to vaccinate as if they are crazy, stupid, or uncaring.  The entire reason I would hesitate is because I do care so much.  When you look at the tiny, tiny fragile little infant in the crib, you are terrified of everything hurting them.  You're afraid of stuffed animals that might smother them in the night.  You're afraid of a gust of wind blowing a plastic bag across the house and landing on their head and strangling them.  You're terrified that if you stop watching them as they sleep, that regular rise and fall of their little chest will just... stop.

Okay... so that's me.  Maybe most parents are too exhausted to be quite that paranoid, but still...

The thought of injecting something that used to kill people into this tiny little body that can barely roll over is itself terrifying.  And guilt-i-fying.

So all I could do was try to listen to both sides and read as much as I could stand to read.  First, the vaccines of today are not the vaccines of the hippy children.  They are almost all inert and contain far, far less of the viruses.  They have also now had decades of testing to verify their safety, and overwhelmingly adverse reactions are mostly mild and sever reactions are exceedingly rare.  Not so are the adverse reactions to the diseases these vaccines have all but eradicated.

(Day 2:
Mix Bakeshop
16oz Soy Chai
Sweet & Salty Doughnut)

There is a "however," however.  As I tried to do my due diligence and learn about the nature of the vaccines, and more specifically about the manufacturing, I found almost zero useful information.  I tried to find out who was the supplier, how they were made (whether incubated in eggs, for example), what other chemicals were present that might cause some kind of adverse reactions.  Things like that.  I had a particular interest in researching is the manufacturer had had any violations or red flags, as there have been bad batches of flu vaccines in recent years, for example.  I wanted to know if the same people were going to be supplying our regular vaccines.  When I tried to ask any of these questions, the health workers at the county offers looked at me like they had no idea what the hell I was asking or why I would want to know.

After all, you either are doing what we who know better told you to or you're some crazy anti-vaccer hippy who's going to get us all killed.  They could not process that I was for vaccinations but not in a submissive manner.  They could not understand why I would question what was being done to my child's body and who was doing it.

I just stopped asking after that and hoped for the best.

I think there is a healthy middle ground in this discussion.  I do think it is urgent that people be persuaded to start getting vaccinated once again.  However, I think it's crucial to listen to what those people have to say, because there are definitely things we could do to improve both the information about the vaccines and the vaccines themselves (do we absolutely have to use formaldehyde?).  For a culture that is so obsessed with treating everything as a marketplace, this is one area where we are not respected as consumers who might want a say in what they are consuming.  I recognize that there is a good reason to defer to trained scientists in this regard, but I do not think that trust should translate to complete ignorance.

Lastly, I want to be clear that, while I am pro-vaccinations, I am against mandatory vaccinations.  At the end of the day, I have the right to consent.  The right to my body - and in this case, my right to protect my child's body - is fundamental beyond any other right.  I have to retain the right to determine what is done to my body, what is put into it.  Period.  If my choice is seen to compromise the health of others, I understand the concern that would cause.  But to force me to have a foreign substance injected or ingested against my will is tantamount to rape.  Seriously.  That's not a word I would use lightly.  So, I believe it is for us to figure out the best way to respect each person's right to their body with the rightful concern for the safety of all people.  I don't know if that means segregating the unvaccinated children, or limiting the percentage of vaccinated to unvaccinated in public schools.  If we force parents to homeschool their unvaccinated kids, should we help them financially to be able to accomplish that?

This is all stuff for each community to evaluate, and hopefully, we can look to each other for the things that work best.

And that's about where I thought I was going to leave it, but the past couple weeks since starting this blog have been loaded with science vs pseudoscience crap.  Here's a taste...

The other night on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart interviewed a scientist warning about the overuse of antibiotics.  His concerns focused on the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics and over-prescribing by doctors for parents who are a little too nervous and have a little too easy access to health care.  He recommended utilizing our growing knowledge of genetics to develop narrower, more focused antibiotics.  You know what was not mentioned once?  Factory farms.  Exactly zero reference to the massive amounts of prescription drugs that are given to livestock because of the horrific, disease-inducing conditions in which we raise our food.  I haven't heard the argument that we are unaffected by consuming antibiotics already consumed by the animals we eat, but it is unarguable that the conditions of factory farming at the regular use of non-treatment levels of antibiotics in the animal feed creates antibiotic-resistant diseases.

But too much healthcare is our problem?

Fuck you, venerable science dude.  Of course, I think his premise is reasonable about pursuing more focused antibiotics instead of the slash and burn broad-spectrum kind.  Has there been an over-prescribing trend?  Sure.  To a point.  But to not even mention the dangers of factory farming on antibiotic-resistance is a dereliction of real science.

And speaking of the dereliction of science - Antarctica!  You've probably heard that the melting of its sea ice shelf thingy is irreversible now.  But this time, it wasn't because the near entirety of the scientific community hadn't told us that it was happening, that they had massive amounts of data to assure us that we were doing exactly the wrong thing to stop it.  With climate change, it only took a handful of liars and kooks to persuade us to do nothing, to keep doing all the wrong things.  As with anti-vaccers, I don't blame the duped - I blame the people that have known better all along, and who use them like tools for their own greedy ends.  Those fuckers can burn in hell.  They have wasted my entire lifetime pushing us past the point of no return.  And climate deniers at this point in time, even those who have been deceived, should know better by now.

But what about GMOs?  We just banned the growing of GMO crops in this county.  Where do they fall on this spectrum: hysteria or deception?  Part of the reason 2/3rds of use voted to keep them out of this county had nothing to do with the merits of genetically-modified foods, but of property rights.  There is no way for GMO crops to co-exist with the organic crops next door without cross-contamination.  The consequence is that the organic farmer not only loses his right to grow organic food, for that season and the next since he can no longer save his seed to replant, but he can - and most often will - be sued for patent-infringement by the multinational seed/chemical manufacturers.  Imagine someone taking a dump on your lawn and then suing you because now you have their property on your lawn.

The other problem with the GMOs is that they increase pesticide use - since they are often made to be resistant to the pesticides the same seed manufacturers are selling - thus increasing the amount of pollution in your water supply.

But do they deserve the title "Frankenfood"?  Aren't they going to save us from starvation? which is coming because of the climate change we helped nurture along?  Isn't the anti-GMO crowd just like anti-vaccers and climate-deniers?  They are certainly trying to be discredited by being lumped in with those crowds.  There is a difference, though.  Climate change has decades worth of data.  Massive amounts of data.  Likewise, with vaccines.  Lots of data.  GMOs, on the other hand, are more recent, are not required to be peer-reviewed by independent scientists, and are virtually untrackable because these massive multibillion dollar companies have succeeded in defeating all efforts to label them.  So not only are their indirect effects - their post-processed, post-animal-feed effects - not being tracked, but their direct effects are not being studied, not in human health, not in the environment at large.  Not by the whole scientific community at any rate.

None of that is good science.

There's also the element of consent again.  I have the right to consent to what goes into my body.  If I want nature's food instead of man-altered food, shouldn't I have that right to nature?  I want my strawberries not covered in chemicals, and I want them to taste like fucking strawberries, damn it.  I also want to know that they were developed through the long-balancing process of evolution and not the tweak and pray and "...seems alright here," method.  Not to disparage my geneticist friends... 

Also, what if I go the full-bodied, no animal-exploitation vegan?  Wouldn't a fruit or vegetable that has been altered with animal genes violate my conscience?  But how am I to avoid it if I have no way to know what is normal and what is altered?

Our fundamental problem here is that we do not have good ambassadors when it comes to the dissemination of scientific information.  News is not news.  It is hyper-ADD, sensationalist, and self-serving.  It's a business and not a public service.  It will give equal time to the climate deniers in a completely not-representative way and give people the perception that there is something disputable about the science.  It lets pseudoscience go uncontested, even if they're not actively promoting the claims.  It will also squash and trivialize real concerns at the behest of wealthy advertisers.  I've watched it happen.

Organizations that are supposed to operate objectively and for the public good have been bought, bullied, or infiltrated.  There are organizations calling themselves universities or Journals of this or that that are deliberately trying to sound legitimate to mask their PR or pseudoscience objectives.  And even legitimate institutions, colleges and universities, have been taking money from donors who insist on stacking the faculty to suit their ideology, or who refuse to donate if certain kinds of studies are conducted.

All that is bad enough.  But I have a personal peeve with another trend that I have noticed among my science-loving friends.  Like me, they hate pseudoscience and denialism and just bad science.  But that has engendered a certain kind of arrogance and hostility that is unwarranted and unproductive.  Just because something has not become part of the science Canon, that doesn't immediately make it pseudoscience.  And sometimes, even the crackpots get it right.  Yes, I might have reposted a few things from less than reputable websites - I blame internet grazing, where I don't always click all the links to properly vet the source or the methodology.  (And, yes, little sister, you are right to point it out when you see it).  Nonetheless, even these people might be arriving at the right position, even if they've gone about it the wrong way.  And even good scientists reach very wrong conclusions.

And that's why any good teacher makes you show your work.

Okay.  It's time for me to wrap it up.  Thank you to anyone who made it this far down.  I promise to try to talk about something shorter next time, like...

Dress tape: Your boobs' best friend, or the sticky shackles of the Patriarchy?