26 August 2008


July 18, a brief little AP article popped up in the New York Times (Pakistan: Polio Found in Baby):
An 8-month-old Pakistani girl has tested positive for polio in an area where militants have opposed vaccination, a World Health Organization official said. The infant, identified as Tanzila, is from Ali Gram in the Swat Valley, where Islamic fundamentalists have beaten polio vaccination teams and the last confirmed case of polio was in 2003, said Dr. Khalid Nawaz of the World Health Organization. Threats to health workers and fighting between government security forces and militants have disrupted vaccinations, he said.
Tragic. Polio is a grainy black-and-white photograph in a grade school textbook, of a room full of children in iron lungs, with a caption to the effect of, "THERE NOW, BUT FOR SCIENCE AND ACTION THEREUPON." It isn't something that's supposed to be happening to 8-month-old Pakistani girls in the twenty-first century. Yet here we are.

And here, it seems, we'll continue to be. At least Pakistan has violence. What's our excuse?

Earlier in July, Orac had reported that measles were, after fourteen years, once again endemic to the United Kingdom. Now this week comes a report that measles cases in the United States are the highest they've been in more than a decade. And the blame rests squarely with pseudoscience.

Growing up, whereas polio was the stuff of history, measles were the stuff of pretend. Old cartoon characters caught measles. Kids in stories would paint little red dots on their faces and claim measles so they could stay home from school. Hell, that's all I knew about the symptoms of measles--little red dots--and I wasn't even sure about that. I guess there was fever? Did it make you cough and sneeze? Did the little red dots itch? We didn't know, because we never caught it. Measles were the perfect imaginary ailment: a real-life contagious disease that anyone could catch. . . but no one ever caught it.

I have vaccination to thank for that.

But now, antivaccinationist cults are undermining one of the greatest advances in preventative medicine since soap.

Of the 131 cases of measles reported by the CDC in the United States in the first seven months of this year, 122 were unvaccinated or had unknown vaccination status. The high incidence of the unvaccinated is disturbing enough. But what really enrages me is the fact that at least nine cases were vaccinated against measles. Vaccination rates in those communities are low enough not only to permit sizable outbreaks, but low enough for the virus to overcome herd immunity.

Public health is truly a public matter. We are in this together. Those who fail to vaccinate aren't just putting themselves and theirs at risk; they're putting us and ours at risk.

Pseudoscience is a scourge wherever it's found, but seldom are its ill effects so immediate and obvious as in the realm of public health.

Vaccines are safe and effective. Anyone who says differently is either grievously misinformed or an Avatar of Woe. The antivax mouthpieces have no excuse; it won't be long before Jenny McCarthy and David Kirby have real blood on their hands.

Speaking thereof, the Huffington Post saw fit to publish the AP's measles article in the same section ("Living," ironically) where they give Kirby and other pseudoscientists a soapbox. If that's some attempt to make amends, it's far too little, too late.

I'm incensed.


My (soon to be) sister-in-law and her husband had a baby recently. They'll be getting him fully vaccinated. At least there's that.

11 August 2008


So, apparently commenting was restricted to users with Blogger or OpenID accounts for a while there? Sorry about that... comments are back to being open to everybody.

09 August 2008

Image and Personality Problems

Matt Nisbet is inexcusable. His latest effort is an absolute hit piece on PZ Myers, disguised as an attempt to give advice to the atheist community: Two Images of Atheism: Hate versus Community

I tried posting a comment there yesterday, but it hasn't made it through moderation yet (and as more than 50 comments have since been posted, I doubt it ever will). So I'll take my points and expand them into a blog post.

My first and most salient point is not just about the attacks on PZ: Nisbet does not appear to have a very high opinion of the atheist community as a whole. Maybe he's just communicating poorly, but the guy is purportedly a communications expert. Nisbet says we atheists have an "image problem," and I doubt most people would disagree, in the sense that atheism is by and large still stigmatized. But Nisbet's whole post feeds into and reinforces those stigmas.

Take the very opening to his post:
Atheists have a major image problem. There's a reason that when people ask me what I believe I have to say with a smile: "I'm an atheist...but a friendly atheist."
If actions speak louder than words, then this line renders null everything else Nisbet tries to say. Remember, his whole excuse for this post was to offer his communications expertise to help us solve atheism's image problem. His own personal response, however, accepts and fortifies that very negative frame. It's the "but" that does it. It implies, "I'm a friendly atheist, unlike all the others." It's no different from saying, "I'm a Jew, but not a greedy Jew." He may think himself rather noble, setting an example as a paragon of peace and virtue. But rather than establishing himself as a counterexample to the stigma, he's content to make himself an exception to it. In doing so, he leaves the stigma unchallenged and throws the rest of us under the bus.

But then, it never really was about helping the atheist community, was it? Nisbet just wants to help himself (and maybe a few of his friends, like DJ Grothe), and has cravenly decided to do so at the expense of PZ (and the rest of us by extension).

You see, what Nisbet describes in his post isn't an image problem, it's a personality problem. He thinks religious people view us as mean and nasty because we are mean and nasty. And to illustrate that, he tries to drag PZ through the mud.

First there's that ridiculous picture of PZ looking jolly but disheveled at the top of Nisbet's post. PZ's own take:
My opinion of that photo: it's a bad photo that makes me look even homelier than usual, but it's a picture of me laughing and holding a toy panda.
I'm not angry, I'm not slapping small children, I'm not even stabbing any crackers -- so what exactly is Nisbet's point? That the face of atheism should be pretty and have good hair?
The only other notable thing about the photo is that PZ is wearing his Scarlet A t-shirt. So maybe the problem with atheism is that it identifies itself as atheism? Real helpful. But then, Nisbet's post ends with DJ Grothe in a sport jacket lecturing a bunch of bored-looking teenage girls. So maybe it really is all about the hair.

He calls the "New Atheism's" leading voices "usually angry, grumpy, uncharismatic male loners with a passion for attacking and ridiculing religious believers." Is he seriously trying to call the likes of Richard Dawkins (a smiling figure who's been frequenting British TV, including a guest appearance on "Doctor Who") and PZ Myers (who is at this moment joining some of the world's nicest, smartest skeptics on a cruise to the Galapagos) a bunch of "grumpy, uncharismatic... loners"?! That alone should make Nisbet a laughingstock.

He quotes the National Catholic Register, and buys into the bias instead of asking what we can do to dispell it.

Furthermore, by trying to equivilate PZ with hate for religious people, Nisbet is undermining a vital message that our side has to get across. As PhysioProf put it, expanding upon Greg Laden:

I mention this because it seems to be part of PZ Myers philosophy of critical tolerance. It is this part of his approach that allows vehemence and compassion about the same issues and the same people.

It is really, really, really important to understand that this principle applies in a more general way. One can simultaneously be angry about perceived flaws in something and yet care about it very deeply, and even love it. The idea that expression of harsh criticism entails that one “hates” the thing one criticizes is a pernicious rhetorical trick used to discount valid criticism and marginalize the individual who brings it.

So Matt Nisbet can go soak his head, and enjoy his status as the biggest concern troll of the hour. The image problem that atheism really faces is that we are perceived as being mean and nasty, when we really aren't. If Nisbet really want to help, he needs to offer something better than, "Stop being mean and nasty!

"And get a haircut, hippie!"

05 August 2008

One More for the List

Stumbled across this the other night. From Wikipedia:
Hrafnkels saga ([ˈr̥apncɛls ˌsaːɣa] ) is one of the Icelanders' sagas. It tells of struggles between chieftains and farmers in the east of Iceland in the 10th century. The eponymous main character, Hrafnkell, starts out his career as a fearsome duelist and a dedicated worshiper of the god Freyr. After suffering defeat, humiliation, and the destruction of his temple, he becomes an atheist. His character changes and he becomes more peaceful in dealing with others. After gradually rebuilding his power base for several years, he achieves revenge against his enemies and lives out the rest of his life as a powerful and respected chieftain. The saga has been interpreted as the story of a man who arrives at the conclusion that the true basis of power does not lie in the favor of the gods but in the loyalty of one's subordinates.
So I may have to add this one to the reading list, right next to the Poetic Edda. I've been doing quite a bit of browsing of Norse myth lately. Those guys could tell some stories. I much prefer a good campfire story to nebulous modern theology.