They’re Laughing at US

It has almost been 20 years since the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania of September 11, 2001. Since then, numerous conspiracy theories have been floated in an attempt to explain the unimaginable tragedy that that day was for the families of the victims. These theories range from the insane to the plausible, but none of them have been confirmed as true. No one has come forward in almost 20 years with credible evidence, and whatever evidence they do put forth gets explained away (easily) with just some reasoning and science.

The same can be said for the conspiracy theories around vaccines. They also range from the fantastical to the plausible. They also keep getting knocked down and preven false. Yet they keep coming up over and over again. We keep spending wasting time to prove them wrong. Why? Because they can be dangerous things that entice people to not vaccinate their children, leaving their children vulnerable to deadly diseases.

So here we are, in the middle of a pandemic of a very serious and deadly virus, and we have this:

It’s all about the NWO, isn’t it?

These things need to be addressed because the unassuming bystander might look at this and begin to question public health recommendations, leading to they or others around them getting hurt. So we begin by saying that martial law is not a thing, at least in the United States. For that, we would recommend that they read up on the limits placed on the Federal Government when it comes to how it uses the military to enforce domestic laws. Sure, states could call up their National Guards, but that would be up to the states. And, as we know, some states did not like imposing reasonable public health requirements on their populations.

The next claim that is weird is that “they are forging death certificates to inflate the figures,” but who are “they” and how would “they” get that done? Each county has its own medical examiner to sign off on death certificates for mysterious or unexplained deaths. But each death that occurs in a healthcare setting is signed off by a physician. Just like with the 9/11 conspiracies, we are to believe that thousands and thousands of people — in this case, physicians — are all coordinated into writing lies into death certificates. Not only that, but in the months since the pandemic began, we are to believe that not one of them has come forth and said that they were forced or paid or coerced into lying on a death certificate. Not a single one.

What’s even worse is that death registries in Latin America are among the oldest institutions in the continent. They inherited from the Spanish Empire the civil registries that record every birth and every death, and they do it very well. In epidemiology, one thing we can rely on is the civil registries to get data and analyze it. So are they falsifying the numbers, too?

Next, mandatory vaccinations… This one I don’t understand because there are no such things as mandatory vaccinations. If a parent wants their child to attend public school and/or use up public services, then they are required to have their children vaccinated according to a scientifically sound schedule of vaccines. But it’s not mandatory nor obligatory. Parents have the right in this country to deny their children from the protection of vaccines and a public education, unfortunately. No one is being held down against their will and vaccinated. Even soldiers in the military who don’t want to get the smallpox or anthrax vaccines are free to walk away, though not without consequences.

And that’s the gist of this whole thing, ladies and gentlemen. There are consequences to our actions and inactions. Everyone likes to go on and on about their rights, but nothing about their responsibilities. Nothing about the consequences of their actions. The people up there on that picture I took from Facebook don’t seem to be the kind who would accept their responsibilities. I mean, when you’re blaming so many other things visible and invisible for the conditions around you…

I write all this because I’m starting to get tired of the entire world — even developing nations full of corrupt government officials — laughing at us. They’re looking at the United States, the leaders of the Free World, and laughing. They laugh at our number of COVID-19 cases. They laugh at our dead. They laugh at our inability to contain a simple, little virus with all of the science ant technology that we have, and with billions upon billions of dollars in our reserves.

There used to be a time when I didn’t care, and I felt very patriotic about where I live and where my home is. But now… Now, I’m starting to chuckle a bit along with the rest of the world. It’s what I do so as to not cry. I mean, when political supporters of the President of the United States yell at Native Americans to “go home,” what else is there to do than just laugh along with those who mock us?

Work. I guess I could continue to do some work.

When You Only Read the Abstract, You End Up Thinking That Vaccines Cause Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Anti-vaxxers are spreading a new rumor, and so, here I am, screaming in the wilderness to see if anyone is paying attention. The new rumor is — as you may have guessed from my clever title to this blog post — that vaccines cause autism SIDS. SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) is a syndrome in which an infant dies suddenly and for no apparent reason. The cause of the death may be revealed later through lab testing or an autopsy, but — at the time of the death — there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the child.

Now, let me stop right there and make emphasis that losing a child is something that I cannot even begin to imagine. I love my Toddler Ren with something close to all of my heart. She is the pint-sized love of my life (with my wife being the take-home size). If anything were to happen to her, I would lay waste to the world. I think I’ve told you this before.

Nevertheless, there are some people out there who prey on the grief of parents who’ve recently lost a child to SIDS or some other disease or condition and bait the parents into their cult. This seems to have happened to a woman whose child died while sleeping. It was later determined that the child died from asphyxiation from sleeping in an unsafe manner. Still, the mother refuses to accept that finding and has become an activist anti-vaxxer. She is even selling tee shirts now.

One of the arguments that these anti-vaxxers are making is that a paper published in Clinical Infectious Diseases back in 2015 “proves” that vaccines cause SIDS. How? Because of one simple sentence in the paper. But, before I talk about the sentence in question, let’s talk about the paper. The authors of the paper went into the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) and looked at deaths reported after vaccination. As you can imagine, they got a few hits.

The reason why they got so many hits is that the system doesn’t track good outcomes from vaccination from the millions of doses given each year. Instead, the system tracks adverse events, including death. Many things happen to many people in the hours, days, weeks and years following vaccination. There are some reports in there of people dying in car accidents days or weeks after vaccination. There are reports of women who are morbidly obese and on birth control dying from a blood clot months after vaccination. Basically, if it happened after a vaccine, someone is bound to report it.

Of course, most of the reports are for minor things like soreness, redness or a slight fever after a vaccine. But that doesn’t stop anti-vaxxers from making some very interesting leaps of logic when looking at VAERS data out of context. To them, it doesn’t matter that the system is passive and that just about anyone can report to it. All that matters is that if something bad happened after a vaccine, the vaccine must have caused it.

The authors of the paper write the following in the results section of their abstract:

“VAERS received 2149 death reports, most (n = 1469 [68.4%]) in children. Median age was 0.5 years (range, 0-100 years); males accounted for 1226 (57%) reports. The total annual number of death reports generally decreased during the latter part of the study period. Most common causes of death among 1244 child reports with available death certificates/autopsy reports included sudden infant death syndrome (n = 544 [44%]), asphyxia (n = 74 [6.0%]), septicemia (n = 61 [4.9%]), and pneumonia (n = 57 [4.6%]). Among 526 adult reports, most common causes of death included diseases of the circulatory (n = 247 [46.9%]) and respiratory systems (n = 77 [14.6%]), certain infections and parasitic diseases (n = 62 [11.8%]), and malignant neoplasms (n = 20 [3.8%]). For child death reports, 79.4% received >1 vaccine on the same day. Inactivated influenza vaccine given alone was most commonly associated with death reports in adults (51.4%).”

There is one sneaky sentence in there that these anti-vaxxers are pushing hard: “For child death reports, 79.4% received >1 vaccine on the same day.”

Think about the meaning of that for a second. For anti-vaxxers, it means that 79.4% of children who died after receiving a vaccine received more than one (>1) vaccine on the same day they died. However, if you read the entire paper, you come to find out that the authors meant that these children received more than one vaccine in a single day, and later died… But not necessarily on the same day. They might have died days, weeks or moths after receiving all of those vaccines.

I hope it doesn’t surprise you that children usually receive more than one vaccine in a single visit… It’s how the vaccine schedule works.

What is funny to me is how anti-vaxxers skip over the conclusion section of the abstract they are peddling: “No concerning pattern was noted among death reports submitted to VAERS during 1997-2013. The main causes of death were consistent with the most common causes of death in the US population.” In other words, reports to VAERS mirror the causes of death in the general population, and they do so at the rates expected by chance alone.

The full text of the study is freely available, by the way. It’s not like there is some big cabal of pharmaceutical company executives with billions of dollars to waste stopping these results from reaching the public. In the discussion section, you’ll find this gem that the anti-vaxxers also skip over:

“SIDS deaths in the United States have been declining since the early 1990s for a variety of factors that include recommended changes in sleeping position and environment, clarification of the case definition, and diagnostic coding shifts. This downward trend in SIDS reports has also been observed in SIDS reports submitted to VAERS since the early 1990s and has continued during the years of this review from 1997 through 2013. There is considerable evidence that vaccination is not causally associated with SIDS, including an Institute of Medicine (IOM) review in 2003 that rejected a causal association between the whole cell pertussis–containing vaccine (which is no longer in use in the United States) and SIDS and between exposure to multiple simultaneous vaccines and SIDS.”

If anything, there is good evidence that vaccines prevent SIDS by keeping children from developing underlying respiratory and systemic infections. (Though, admittedly, you give vaccines to healthy children, not children who are sick and would then succumb to SIDS. So that’s a bias there that creeps into these studies.) But don’t tell that to the anti-vaxxers, you don’t want them to think you’re making fun of them by presenting them with facts.

It Kind of Tickles, Does It Not?

There is a great podcast by economist Tim Harford about things that have gone terribly wrong and what we can learn from them. The podcast is called “Cautionary Tales,” and, believe me, they are. If you’re the kind of person who learns from their mistakes and the mistakes of others, you’ll like this podcast.

Two of the recent stories really resonated with me. The first is called “The Deadly Airship Race,” and it’s about two airships from the early 1900s that were pitted against each other in a race. One airship, the R101, was pressed into service by an overzealous British Lord (Lord Thompson) to beat another airship, the R100, in a race to see which one was the best airship. Along the way, many signs that the airship was not airworthy were ignored by those who would make the decision for it to fly, resulting in tragedy. You can listen to it here: https://megaphone.link/CAD1187741475

As the podcast points out, one of the big factors that led to the tragedy is the human impulse to push through adversity when there are large stakes at hand. (Read “Large Stakes and Big Mistakes.”) One such example is the concept of “get-there-itis” which many aircraft pilots exhibit, sometimes to their own demise. The principle basically says that we will push through even if there is a danger component to our goal if the goal’s reward is big enough, or if we see others doing the same thing. For many pilots, this “get-there-itis” has led them to not deviate from their flight plan even if they’re low on fuel, flying into a storm or have some mechanical failure. For some, it has cost them dearly:

The other cautionary tale that stuck with me is that of the cognitive dissonance we humans tend to show when we’re deeply invested in a program or idea. The podcast episode, titled “Buried by the Wall Street crash,” told the story of two economists, each successful in their own way after taking risks with investments. When the stock market crashed in 1929, both of them were hit badly with the consequences of their “gambling,” but one of them was more resilient than the other.

As it turns out, John Maynard Keynes was not afraid to change his mind about things when given new data. He was flexible enough to protect his wealth from the crash. On the other hand, Irving Fisher stuck to his guns and continued to invest in companies that were crashing. Embedded in the podcast was the story of cult members who were waiting for the world to end. When the world did not end, and their savior aliens did not appear, they took one of two paths: they either admitted that they were wrong and moved on, or they found a way to rationalize the error they made. Those who rationalized their mistake attributed the lack of the end of the world to their own faith in the end of the world. Not doing so would cause them mental discomfort.

Here is that podcast episode: https://megaphone.link/CAD8216744261

I’ve experienced cognitive dissonance myself at different points in my life, and I’d like to think that I have dealt with it rationally. Like John Keynes is said to have said (maybe), I took in new data and changed my mind accordingly. But, man, it is hard to accept that you’re wrong when you’re in too deep on something.

The most painful of all of those experiences was the one girlfriend who drove me into the ground in more ways than one about 15 years ago. Like many romantic relationships, that relationship was at first all about the physicality of it all. Slowly but surely, the physicality was replaced with actual discussions about stuff, and I started to realize that I was probably making a mistake in staying together. Not only that, but she did not like cooking at all, so we found ourselves eating out every single night. Between that and other expenditures, I found myself without cash quickly. I ended up overextending my credit because I didn’t want to see that the relationship was costing me more and more each week.

Lucky for me, a hurricane of circumstances allowed me to walk away, breaking off the relationship and opening my eyes to what had happened. I had changed in many ways, and my bank account was deep in the red. Slowly, I made my way back to mental and financial health, and I shudder to think of where I would be had I continued to cling on to something that clearly wasn’t working.

It would be exactly three years of no dating before I’d go on my next first date, my last first date.

I see the effects of cognitive dissonance today when I take up arguments with anti-vaccine people online. When presented with facts that are incontrovertible, you can see them twitch a little. They may even clutch something on their person, or the person next to them. They reach out for something, anything, to steady themselves and their belief. It hurts too much — or tickles a little bit — to think that they could possibly be wrong.

I also see it in people who’ve been at their jobs for decades and can’t possibly imagine a new and better way to get something done… And I’m not talking about reinventing the wheel, either. I’m talking about realizing that the wheel can be created with new and interesting technologies. They get an allergic reaction to that.

So I must say that I do find it refreshing when I meet people who share with me the lack of fear about changing one’s mind. There’s nothing wrong with adjusting the course, especially if there are rocks ahead. Doing so can be painful, though, so I get if if you don’t do it right away, or if you don’t do it at all… But I wish you did and I wish you will.

Your Views Will Evolve

The environment I grew up in was a socially conservative one heavily influenced by my extended family. On mom’s side of the family, it was all about born-again Christian Evangelicals who saw a world full of evil all around them, except for the evil they themselves perpetrated. That evil was justified… Everything was justified, just as long as you went to church on Sunday and apologized. On dad’s side of the family, it was all about conservative Catholics who followed every word the local priest — “on word from The Vatican” — preached every Sunday. They were very devout, and they lived in a somewhat isolated part of the world.

Thankfully for me, both my parents were rebels. Mom decided to buck the tradition of the youngest daughter staying home and taking care of her parents, so she scraped up some cash and went to law school as a single mother. Dad decided that the education he could not get would be mine, especially the sciences and technology. They both taught me to love my curiosity and answer the questions I fell in love with.

Through that curiosity, I found out truths that didn’t quite jibe with the worldview that my relatives tried to impose on me. The world was not 6,000 years old. Dad showing me the fossils he collected while scouting for a uranium mining company proved it. Understanding that uranium has a crazy long half-life, there was no way that the Earth was 6,000 years old. And that scared — like really scared — some of my relatives.

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and AIDS, the plague that was afflicting gay men in the 1980s and well into the 1990s — and today as well — was caused by a retrovirus that I could see through electron microscopes at the local university when I went on a field trip. It was right there, in black and white, that nasty motherf*cker. And it didn’t care about anyone’s sexuality or the color of their skin. Those who cared about who was affected the most by HIV were privileged humans intent on blaming the victims instead of doing what had to be done to stop the epidemic. It was an accident of circumstances that made it arise first in homosexual men, but it could just have easily have been any other group.

The “sinners” were not being punished by God with AIDS. It doesn’t work that way. Heck, if you really read the Bible with context and proper guidance, God doesn’t work that way. “If you find a cure for AIDS,” some kid told me at church one day after I told him I wanted to work in a clinical lab, “God will just find a better way to wipe out sinner.” To say the least, that didn’t sound like Jesus.

This is not to say that I didn’t have some weird beliefs and attitudes when I was younger. As gay marriage was being debated in the early part of this century, I thought to myself that gay rights groups should just be happy with civil unions. “They’re biting off more than they can chew,” I once said. Then I took a course on constitutional law as part of my public health degree. Something funny happened… It became clear that the Equal Protection Clause was a thing, and that the Constitution didn’t care if you were gay or straight.

There was also a time when I listened to Rush Limbaugh and approved of the stuff he said… And then I turned 23, so we won’t talk about that.

The thing is, points of view change based on new information. At least that’s the way things should be. It is useless to grab on to a dogma and not let it go once you find out that the dogma is verifiably false. I mean, you might get a good job at the White House in this administration, but you’re still going to be sorely disappointed at the end when the truth comes out.

Truth has a way of coming out.

Today, I find myself wondering about what things in the future I’m going to change my mind about. I’m not in my 20s anymore like I was when I started blogging. Looking back at some of those blog posts, I can see where I’ve definitely changed my point of view on things. I’ve definitely matured.

Time will do that to you.

(This blog post brought to you by the letter T.)

The Lies People Tell You About Me

I recently learned that a anti-vaccine person was spreading an interesting rumor about be online. This person, whom we will name “Jenny,” wrote in an open forum on Facebook that I was fired from a previous job for saying “awful things” online. She wrote this as she circulated a screen capture of my LinkedIn profile where I openly mention where I am working. She said she was surprised that I would share the name of my employer because, again, she thinks that I was fired for saying “awful things.”

Sigh.

I think it’s kind of funny that I need to remind people over and over that I am not very anonymous with who I am and what I do for a living. If anything, I think I might be sharing too much. (A colleague of mine told me that she worried I wouldn’t be able to get a job after the doctoral degree because I wouldn’t be able to get security clearance.) Although, as some of you have noticed, I don’t share too much about Baby Ren, which is mostly because she has not consented to me sharing pictures of her. (So I get around that by using “faceless portraits” of her.)

Of course, this is not the only lie people have told about me. Back when I was living in Texas, my aunt was convinced that I was the one encouraging one of her sons to drink to excess. I was the black sheep, she said. The truth is that her son would go across the border to Mexico, where the legal drinking age is 18, and he would get plastered all on his own. It was his way of escaping from the realities of his life, I think. Because I was the one he’d call to come get him and drive him back home — on the occasions he found himself without a way to get back — I was named as the person making him drink. Talk about an post how ergo prompter hoc situation, right?

(Would it surprise you that the branch of the family they belong to has become ardently anti-vaccine lately?)

Back in college, we were assigned a hematologic cancer to study and present in a poster competition. Because I didn’t know a lot about leukemia, I went to the pathologist at one of the laboratories where I was doing my practicum and asked her for help. She patiently sat with me in a dual microscope and showed me all the slides she had on all the known leukemias. She showed me the differences between the cells and all the indicators of what made a cell cancerous. Then, at the end, she allowed me to print some photographs of the slides we looked at.

Well, that didn’t go over to well with this one dude in my cohort. He kept whispering to my other colleagues that I had not done any of the work, that the pathologist had done it for me. He did this as we were presenting the posters, too. I finally had enough of it and loudly told him to go tell the professors if he thought that I had cheated. I even asked one of the professors to come over and listen to him. It was one thing to spread gossip, it would be another for him to back it up with evidence and make a formal accusation. He didn’t. He told me to calm down and backed away slowly. It was comical.

It should not surprise you that I grab the bull by the horns.

No, dear readers, I do not do 99.9% of the things people accuse me of doing. The remaining 0.1% can be attributed to mere stupidity, or grumpiness, and I know very well when to apologize. I’m an adult, and I don’t have time for games. Just like with the anti-vaccine activists who accuse me of all sorts of things, anyone lying about me is quickly confronted and told to produce the evidence or shut up. In essence, “poop or get off the pot.” Ain’t nobody got time for that.

A Brief History of Measles

According to the best evidence we have, measles makes its appearance somewhere between the 11th and 12th Centuries when the measles virus diverged (separated) from the rinderpest virus (a sort of measles of cattle that has been eradicated through vaccination). This probably happened when cattle herders spent just a little too much time with their cattle somewhere in the Middle East.

Before we go any further, you need to understand that measles is highly infectious. It’s, like, really infectious. One person can infect up to 18 other people, and the virus floats in the air for up to two (maybe four) hours where an infectious person has been. What’s worse, a person is infectious 3 to 5 days before the onset of the typical measles rash, and 1 to 2 days before the onset of fever. This means that a perfectly healthy-looking person can go around spreading measles and not even know they’re sick.

Because of this, measles likely spread as people with the disease came into contact with population centers, and then as trade occurred between those population centers. Soon enough, measles was found worldwide, with some of the first accounts of it in the Americas in the 1600s. That said, the descriptions of some of the plagues brought to the Americas by Columbus and subsequent invasions do resemble measles. It’s hard to pinpoint when the exact introduction of measles to the Americas was since the invaders and explorers brought smallpox, syphilis and other plagues with them.

As worldwide travel became more accessible to more and more people, measles spread far and wide and established itself in communities where there was a cohort of children large enough born each year for it to continue to spread. It wasn’t just the children that suffered, however. Measles in adults has always had more serious consequences. During the Civil War, about 20,000 cases were reported in Union Soldiers, with about 500 deaths.

By the time the 1900s rolled around, this translated into hundred of thousands of cases worldwide, with thousands of deaths. It was only when better medical treatment became more available in the mid-1900s in the United States that deaths in American children began to decline. Measles cases, however, did not decline until the arrival of a vaccine in 1963. From then on, cases and deaths declined to very low levels in the United States and everywhere the vaccine was licensed and administered. However, outbreaks would still occur, concentrated mostly in the unimmunized.

In 1978, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) targeted measles for elimination. The initiative was soon followed by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). It wouldn’t be until the year 2000 that the goal was achieved of eliminating measles from the United States, and it would not be until 2015 that the entire continent was declared to have eliminated measles.

Elimination doesn’t mean eradication, though. As we know, there continue to be measles outbreaks in the United States and elsewhere, albeit for different reasons. In Venezuela and Brazil, for example, there have been measles outbreaks due to the collapse of the public health infrastructure in Venezuela. The political instability there then drove people to emigrate to Brazil, bringing measles with them.

In Madagascar, off the eastern coast of Africa, the low vaccine supply has triggered an outbreak that has seen tens of thousands sick and hundreds dead. In Europe, a measles outbreak that started in Ukraine has spread to the rest of the continent. And in the Philippines, bad reporting on some adverse events over a vaccine against dengue fever scared parents away from vaccinating altogether, triggering an outbreak that has killed dozens of children from measles.

In New York City in 2018, a measles outbreak happened among Orthodox Jewish community members whose religious practice is to not immunize. Across the country, in Washington State, an outbreak is still going on (in early 2019) in a community where anti-vaccine sentiment runs high and misinformation about the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine is widespread… Misinformation that really got going in 1998.

Back in 1998, a researcher in the UK published a since-retracted paper whose conclusion read: “We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described. Virological studies are underway that may help to resolve this issue.” Nevertheless, the principal investigator in the study held on to the idea that the MMR vaccine caused autism, saying, “Again, this was very contentious and you would not get consensus from all members of the group on this, but that is my feeling, that the, the risk of this particular syndrome developing is related to the combined vaccine, the MMR, rather than the single vaccines.”

The study has since been denounced as a fraud, with the paper retracted and the principal investigator being struck off the medical register in the UK. In essence, he cannot practice medicine anymore. However, based on his “feeling” that the MMR vaccine caused autism, millions of parents around the world have declined the MMR vaccine — and other vaccines — out of a fear of their children becoming autistic. (This, as the evidence points more and more toward autism being a normal variation in the anatomy and physiology of human brains and human development and heavily influenced on genetics.)

As you can see, we are dealing with a virus that can be easily eradicated with a well-coordinated approach from health agencies around the world. This is because the vaccine confers long-term immunity, and having the disease or getting vaccinated both mean that you’re immune for a long time. If we were to vaccinate absolutely everyone for whom the vaccine is recommended (children age 1 and then before they start elementary education), and we did this the world over, measles would join smallpox and rinderpest as a virus that is wiped off the face of the planet. (Polio will likely be the next one, instead.)

Instead of that, we are faced with more and more epidemics around the world, many of them fueled by bad information or health inequalities, or a combination of both. A disease that we could eradicate is instead killing thousands, and the fight against it is taking more than just immunizing. It’s taking educating and fighting the spectre of misinformation that is being spread at the speed of light through social media and the internet.

Will we still be writing about measles in present-day terms one hundred years from now? The odds are we will… Measles outbreaks are turning out to be caused as much by the human condition as by the virus’ characteristics themselves.

Religious Intellectual Dishonesty

The story goes that I got in trouble with the priest when I was a kid because I asked too many questions. My inquiring mind wanted to know the context of biblical sayings, not just the quotes themselves. That carried on into my teenage years, when I sat in the back of the church and read the Bible, cross-referencing verses and making notes to look up in my history and science books later on. I would also look up works by theologians, especially the non-religious ones, to get a better understanding of why the Bible said what it said.

When one of my aunts said that the Book of Revelations clearly announced the end of the world, and how this end was surely to happen in her lifetime, I knew that it wasn’t the case. The Book of Revelations was written in code to the Christians of the time to warn them of the Roman Empire’s attempts at finding them and getting rid of them. Yes, there was a time when Christianity was outlawed, when emperors passed executive orders to find them out and kill them.

As an adult, I’m very skeptical when someone — especially a politician — quotes any kind of religious work in order to justify some injustice.

Exhibit A: Roger Marshall of Kansas

Roger is a Representative in Congress. He is also an obstetrician. When he was interviewed about the Affordable Care Act and how much he and his friends despise it, he gave a rather interesting take on why we as a country don’t need universal coverage for healthcare expenses:

“Like many other Republicans, Marshall said he wants the health care system to rely on the free market rather than Obamacare’s regulations. He measures success in how many people can afford to leave the Medicaid program and enter the private insurance market.

The law’s Medicaid expansion, which Kansas has not adopted despite support from many hospitals, including some of Marshall’s former colleagues, is one of the big sticking points for Republicans. Many GOP-led states adopted it and want to see it preserved in some form.

Marshall doesn’t believe it has helped, an outlook that sheds light on how this new player in Washington understands health policy.

“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us,’” he said. “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”

Pressed on that point, Marshall shrugged.

“Just, like, homeless people. … I think just morally, spiritually, socially, [some people] just don’t want health care,” he said. “The Medicaid population, which is [on] a free credit card, as a group, do probably the least preventive medicine and taking care of themselves and eating healthy and exercising. And I’m not judging, I’m just saying socially that’s where they are. So there’s a group of people that even with unlimited access to health care are only going to use the emergency room when their arm is chopped off or when their pneumonia is so bad they get brought [into] the ER.””

And, you know, Jesus knows all about Conservatism.

“The poor will always be with us,” is not what Jesus said. The misquote comes from a statement made by Jesus and written in the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 14. In that chapter, we are told that priests and teachers were plotting to kill Jesus. It was right before Passover, though, so they didn’t want to chance getting the people very angry. Meanwhile, Jesus is in Bethany, visiting Simon The Leper. (That was probably not his actual surname.) While there, a woman breaks out some expensive perfume and anoints Jesus. Some of the people there get mad at the woman and say that the perfume could have been sold and the money used for the poor. Jesus rebukes them, telling them that there have always been poor people but now they choose to get incensed?

Here’s the full story from the New International Version:

“Chapter 14. 1 Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. 2 “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”

3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. 11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.”

As you can see, what Jesus said has nothing in common with what Roger is talking about. Roger thinks that he can fool his constituents into thinking that Jesus said something like, “There’s always going to be poor people. So don’t help them get affordable healthcare.” It was more like, “Now you’re worrying about the poor when you didn’t worry before? Now that someone is doing something nice for me? Now? Srsly?”

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I was going to hunt down other examples of politicians misquoting the Bible they love second only to guns. But I have a lot of other things to get done. For now, I think this example is good enough to remind you to be skeptical of not only the things that come out of politicians’ mouths but the Bible quotes that people try to use to justify their stupidity. Something as simple as reading the entire passage they’re quoting and putting it in context is enough to reveal their deceit. After all, there is a reason why churches have historically discouraged the common folk from reading their sacred scripts.

This was not a sermon. I’m just saying.

Thimerosal Is a Salt, and It’s Pretty Safe

I completely understand why chemicals are scary. From the time that we’re kids, we’re told that there are poisons out there, and that those poisons are chemicals. They usually have really complex-sounding names, names we don’t use everyday. So I also understand when people are skeptical of chemicals included or added in food. Remember the whole debacle over Subway having a “yoga mat chemical” in its bread? It turns out that the chemical in question was in more foods than just the bread at Subway, but, because of the actions of a few “food warriors,” we only freak out about a large company using it.

As it turns out, what makes chemicals safe or dangerous is in large part the concentration of the chemical you ingest. Water, a chemical we need to live, can be dangerous in excess. Drink too much water and you dilute the other stuff in your body that you need for energy, nerve transmission, and waste removal. Botulinum toxin, a chemical found in dangerous bacteria that cause botulism, can be given in very small amounts to treat migraines, muscle pain, and for cosmetic reasons. Eat too much sugar at one time and you drive your metabolism into acidosis (where your blood falls too far below the pH of 7.35). Eat too much over your lifetime, and you are likely to become obese and have all the health complications that come with it.

So you get the gist of how this whole thing with chemicals goes.

Now, let’s talk about salts. In chemistry, a salt is a compound that results from an acid-base reaction. Of course, most people think of table salt (sodium chloride) when they hear the world “salt.”

Just the other day, I tweeted out an article about the influenza vaccine. An antivaxxer from Australia who fancies herself a “whistleblower” about vaccine safety, almost immediately replied to me. She told me to be weary of a “hot shot” from a multi-dose vial of influenza vaccine. By that, she meant that thimerosal can concentrate within the vial and I would get a big dose of it. When I pointed out to her that thimerosal is not pure mercury, just like table salt (sodium chloride) is not pure chlorine, she asked a very reasonable question: “Is English your first language?”

Why is it that these antivaxxers always go there with me?

Even Green Party Presidential Candidate, and physician, Dr. Jill Stein uses the “scary mercury” gambit when talking about thimerosal and vaccines:

This was not a “public health win,” by the way.

The reason thimerosal is needed in vaccines is because vaccines are pretty good as a medium on which bacteria can grow. If a vial is not refrigerated well and opened, bacteria could colonize it and produce their own toxins. Then you give the contaminated vaccine to an individual and end up with some pretty bad results. (Last year, in Chiapas, Mexico, several children had to be hospitalized because of bacterial contamination of the vaccines they received. They got them in a rural part of Mexico where refrigeration is not the best.)

To prevent this contamination, thimerosal is added in very, very low concentrations to the vaccine solution. It’s a concentration high enough to kill any bacteria (or at least keep them from growing) that may have fallen into the solution. But the concentration is also low enough to not cause any health problems in a human being. (This ability to kill things in vials is also why thimerosal is not used in the MMR vaccine, a live virus vaccine, contrary to what “MMR CAUSES AUTISM!!!!” people want you to believe.)

But thimerosal has mercury, and mercury is pretty bad, right?

Well, it’s all in the chemistry. The mercury compound that is thimerosal is not the same as the mercury compound that is found in, say, tuna. Just like ethanol and methanol are both alcohols, their effects on the body can be quite different.

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Effects of ethanol… Drunkedness.

methanol_blind
Effects of methanol… Blindness.

So why did we get rid of thimerosal in vaccines? Public relations. That’s all. False accusations of thimerosal causing autism began to manifest themselves in lower vaccination rates. Vaccine manufacturers and vaccine policymakers began to research the possibility of removing thimerosal from vaccines. In the United States, where refrigeration of vaccines is not a big problem, they decided it would be okay to remove thimerosal. It was a public relations win for the antivaxxers since they were now able to say that thimerosal must be dangerous if it was removed.

The problem with this is that other countries — with less-than-perfect cold chain systems for their vaccines — looked at this and asked why they were still using vaccines with thimerosal. They became more afraid of the false threat of autism than the true threat of infectious disease. And we ended up with events like the one in Chiapas happening in other countries where refrigeration is not widely avaibale.

Another problem is that, to the uninitiated, antivaxxers sound reasonable when they point at thimerosal as a boogeyman. After all, if the US Government took it out of vaccines, it must because it’s bad. Then the same uninitiated read what thimerosal is, and they see the word “mercury,” and they think that the mercury in thimerosal is like the mercury that the same US Government and private organizations warn pregnant women about (from eating tuna and other fish).

Then, when I try to begin an explanation of why thimerosal is not bad in vaccines, I get the “YOU’RE A FOREIGNER, YOU DON’T KNOW ANYTHING” card thrown at me. Because, again, this is how antivaxxers play the game. They will not talk to you about how the dose makes the poison, how saying thimerosal is mercury is like saying table salt is chlorine, and they will make baseless accusations based on preconceived notions.

If only there was a thimerosal-containing vaccine for anti-vaccine lies and misinformation.

Antivaxxers Trumping CDC

I’ve always been impressed by the cognitive dissonance exhibited by many in the anti-vaccine community. But it wasn’t until this election cycle thatI comes to understand exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. When I see Donald Trump, a sweat stain that just wont come off your favorite country, tell a lie and then almost immediately say that the lie he told was part of a conspiracy to discredit him. Antivaxxers do this all the time. They’ll say that vaccines cause autism, and then, when confronted with the evidence that vaccines do no such thing, antivaxxers will quickly yell at you and tell you that you’re part of a conspiracy to hide the truth. If the antivaxxer happens to be a parent, pointing out to them that they’re lying or misrepresenting the evidence quickly comes with an accusation that you’re making fun of their child or their situation, or that you’re not a parent and thus have nothing to say on the matter.

Now, this is the part where I tell you that I’m not making fun of anyone… At least not intentionally. I’m sure that parenting is difficult all on its own with a neurotypical and physically able child. So I’m sure that a child with special needs of any kind must be at least a little more difficult. Sadly, for some parents, it is intolerable to the point that they are convinced when people like Andrew Wakefield sell them the idea that killing their child is preferable to a life of challenges. Again, I am not making fun of you if you are an anti-vaccine parent. And, most importantly in this entire discussion, I am not making fun of your child.

A couple of days ago, antivaxxers decided to have a rally in front of CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. True to form, they brough on the conspiracy theories that the government is in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry to, among other things, kill and maime children through vaccines. They made wild claims as well, like their claim that most children will be autistic in the near future from all the vaccines. (The scientific evidence points more and more to a consistent 1% to 3% rate of autism in the general population at all times.) They claimed that there is no such thing as Suddent Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) because it’s all about the vaccines. And, when random people walked by, they assailed those people with their stories of horror allegedly brought on by vaccines.

This is the video of one such interaction:

The man in the video is clearly just trying to cross the street but is assailed by this woman, a woman who calls her son “mentally retarded after his vaccines.” The man asks her to “go away” a couple of times, but she just keeps it up. She then goes as far as to take a picture of him — because that’s a normal thing to do in these situations, apparently — and he flips her off.

Well, that flipping off just drove the antivaxxers insane. They started complaining on social media and on their blogs that this guy needed to be found and made pay for flipping off this woman. They launched into conspiracy theories about him being a paid actor or someting

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You’re being manipulated alright…

This is all par for the course for antivaxxers. They try to intimidate public health workers (or people whom they think are public health workers) and then claim to be victims if those they are intimidating respond in any way. They lie about conflicts of interest and other improprieties but then claim to be the victims if someone points out to them that they’re selling supplements and scams. Or they cry that they’re being censored when they themselves don’t allow any kind of comments contrary to their beliefs on their blogs.

Antivaxxers are, in my humble opinion, and it’s a good opinion… A lot of smart people are saying I have a good opinion. And, let me tell you, folks, my opinion is so good that your head will spin. My opinion… By the way, if you go ask for someone else’s opinion, their opinion will not be as good as mine, okay? I’m just saying. Because no one can give you an opinion like mine. And, when you’re not famous, they’ll let you grab them by their opinion any time. Anyway, my opinion is that antivaxxers — who are horrible people — antivaxxers are just like Trump. If they don’t lie, they bend the truth. If they don’t bend the truth, they make something up. And if they don’t make something up, they claim it’s all a conspiracy.

 

The Rorschach Test of anti-vaccine beliefs

You have probably heard by now about a documentary spliced together by known anti-vaccine fraud Andrew Wakefield. I write that it was “spliced together” because so much of it is non-linear. There’s no introduction, thesis statement, and supporting facts. It’s all a hodge podge of talking heads, testimonials, spliced sampling of a recorded conversation of a CDC scientist who never steps in front of the camera, and plenty of imagery of how evil vaccines can be.

It’s like having a fever and having a nightmare where Andrew Wakefield’s feet chase you around to shove something in your brain.

I had a chance to watch the documentary the other day, and let me just say the following: You get from it what you go into it with. That is, if you are a rational human being who has some understanding of basic science and can see bullshit when it is being served to you, then you see the documentary for the filth that it is. If you, on the other hand, are the kind of person who believes in monsters under the bed, massive government conspiracies from a government that can’t fix potholes or respond well to a natural disaster, and believe in the appeal to ignorance (if we don’t know it’s safe, then it must be unsafe), then you see Andrew Wakefield’s and Del Bigtree’s documentary as the seminal documentary to end the debate over the association between vaccines and autism.

Except that it’s not evidence. There’s nothing there. Nothing from that documentary holds up to what we know about vaccines and/or autism. If there is such a thing as “click bait” for the real world, where instead of page views you get cash from ticket sales, this is it. The documentary is sold and presented for parents who are frustrated about their children having a medical condition or their children being autistic (autism is not a medical condition). They want someone to pay for what, in their mind, is a “curse,” and they want vaccines to be the culprit because vaccines are so ubiquitous in the United States that almost everyone who is autistic or has one of those medical conditions has been vaccinated.

The documentary is kind of a Rorschach Test for the viewer. You really do see what your mind wants you to see. As an epidemiologist, there was no evidence there — nor has there ever really been — of a causal association between vaccines and autism. As a person with a college degree and a master’s degree, the science doesn’t hold up. I’m not going to lie to you to tell you that there were plenty of times when I just rolled my eyes, and there were others when I wanted to reach through the screen and put my finger to the mouths of the talking heads and say, “Shh! Shh! You don’t have to keep lying. You have your cash.”

As a non-sociopath, it hurt me to see so many parents being lied to. They were allowed to continue to believe that the best public health intervention of our era is what is causing them distress. (Because it is all about the parents. How the children feel being called, well, being called ugly names, that was all left out.) These parents keep being fed lies in the hope of an eventual cure that is not coming. People that sell fake cures in the United States and elsewhere are known as frauds, and there are legal consequences to what they do. Yet Andrew Wakefield and others continue to sell fake medicine, or fake hope. It’s all fake, all of it.

You know what, on second thought, there is a method to this madness. As I wrote above, this is real-life click bait. The imagery, the splicing of audio recordings, the careful selection of who says what… All of that is intended to get people to pay cold, hard cash to get into theaters to watch this. It is not intended to give anyone hope, even if it does. It is not intended to reveal some grand conspiracy, because there is none. And it is not intended to inform science and medicine about a link between vaccines and autism, because all possible combinations of research into the subject are pretty much done.

Cash is what these people wanted, and cash is what they got from my friend who paid for my ticket in the hopes of convincing me of that link. Sorry, dude, there is none. As I and others have pointed out, we will continue to vaccinate in order to protect the youngest and most vulnerable among us. Furthermore, we will continue our collective efforts to make people understand that autism is not a curse or a disease, and that autistics have always and will always be part of our lives.

Then again, you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are other reviews of the mockumentary:

Left Brain/Right Brain

Skeptical Raptor

The Portland Mercury

The Washington Post

The Guardian