Tuesday, 3 January 2012

What the @#$%^* do I know?

When I first started to stick my nose where it didn't belong, those dark hidden recesses where the sun doesn't shine (I secretly wanted to be a proctologist?), I discovered things. (Okay, now is this where I insert something like I was looking for the scoop but found the poop?) When I first looked at the idea of blogging, I quickly realized that bloggers use their blogs to state their opinion. Nothing wrong with that but as time wore on, I began to find a number of people stating opinions which didn't match with reality or at least my impression of what reality is. (Okay, Mister Wiseguy, can you really prove that the world is not flat?) All of my entries now have a references section in which I put links to (I hope) reputable sources: newspapers, professional journals and experts (people a hell of a lot smarter than me), all of which supposedly supports the point I'm trying to make. Sometimes I discover that the point I'm trying to make is unfounded. Yes, sometimes even I am full of s**t manure.

If there is one important aspect to all of this, it is that I have found all of us seem to be tainted by our opinion and our experiences. What does that bizarre statement mean? Dr. Marty Klein, an American sex therapist sums it up nicely with a line I keep repeating ad infinitum (Or is it ad nauseum?), "The plural of anecdote is not data." All of what we know, all of what we do, is based on our knowledge, our education, and our experiences however I would put forward that more often than we would care to admit, we make mistakes because we do not realize that our knowledge is incomplete. Because our knowledge is incomplete, we may be taking the wrong course of action.

Some supposed truths seem to be irrefutable. Two plus two equals four. The law of gravity is real; drop a bowling ball on your foot if you don't believe me. I can frizz my hair if I stick a finger in a light socket. Those types of things seem givens and we're not going to argue about them. Each and every one of us has experienced these givens and can reproduce them at any time. However, when we stray into other areas of debate such as religion, politics and human relations, the number of perspectives is startling and the cacophony I hear is everyone voicing their own personal opinion about what's the truth. But just what is the truth? What is it that would be the equivalent of two plus two equals four, something none of us could dispute, and something all of us could accept as "the" truth? Oh boy, I'm sure I'm opening a can of worms with this one.

Seat Belts
According to Wikipedia (Seat Belt Legislation: History), seat belts became mandatory in the United States in 1984 and in Canada in 1976. I remember various people, both friend and family, grumbling about this: I've never needed one. In general, do any of us like being told what to do? But along with the grumbling I remember several people recounting some story about knowing somebody who was in an accident and was better off or saved precisely because they were not wearing a safety belt. Let's be frank. All of this is anecdotal. All of these people had no statistics at all to back up anything they were saying. They were merely saying anything which would support their idea that safety belts were unnecessary.

The truth? The factual data, the statistics overwhelmingly support the benefits of safety beats in both saving lives and reducing injury. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 10,000 lives are saved every year due to safety belts and another 9,000 would be saved if they had been wearing a seat belt. (Estimating the Lives Saved by Safety Belts and Air Bags) I think it would be fair to say that anybody voicing a dissenting opinion about the mandatory use of safety belts would be laughed off the stage. Yes, today it may seem so obvious we may wonder how we could have collectively ignored this safety device for the time we did. Nevertheless, at one time our society accepted quite unquestioningly that seat belts were not part of the landscape.

Are vaccinations good or bad? I quote from Wikipedia (Vaccine controversies: Effectiveness):

Mass vaccination helped eradicate smallpox, which once killed as many as one in seven children in Europe. Vaccination has almost eradicated polio. As a more modest example, incidence of invasive disease with Haemophilus influenzae, a major cause of bacterial meningitis and other serious disease in children, has decreased by over 99% in the US since the introduction of a vaccine in 1988. Fully vaccinating all US children born in a given year from birth to adolescence saves an estimated 33,000 lives and prevents an estimated 14 million infections.

However, the American actress Jenny McCarthy has taken the stance that her son's autism was caused by vaccination. She has published a book supporting this claim; she speaks publicly about it and has made numerous appearances on talk shows to expound her theories. According to Wikipedia: McCarthy's claims that vaccines cause autism are not supported by any medical evidence and the original paper by Andrew Wakefield that formed the basis for the claims (and for whose book McCarthy wrote a foreword) has been shown to be based on manipulated data and fraudulent research.

The James Randi Educational Foundation, with the tagline "an educational resource on the paranormal, pseudoscientific, and the supernatural", awarded Ms. McCarthy their 2008 Pegasus Award for the 'Performer Who Has Fooled The Greatest Number of People with The Least Amount of Effort'.

Jenny McCarthy is well known as a model and actor, but in recent days she's getting far more publicity for her stance that vaccines cause autism. She has a son who may be autistic, and of course we are sympathetic to her plight. But that can only go so far when Ms. McCarthy appears on endless chat shows, is interviewed in magazine articles, and even writes books encouraging people not to vaccinate their children.

Numerous, well-done studies have shown conclusively that there is no causal link between vaccines and the onset of autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) - the claim that they are connected is spurious, based on anecdotes and the fact that vaccines are given to children around the same time that ASD symptoms begin to appear.

The antivaccination movement has been directly linked with outbreaks of various vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, and there have been numerous illnesses and even deaths associated with these outbreaks. The facts are in, and have been for quite some time: vaccines are an overwhelming modern medical success story, having eradicated such scourges as smallpox, and hugely lowering rates of other diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, polio, influenza, and diptheria. The evidence is also overwhelmingly against any link between vaccines and autism as well.

Yet all that evidence has been overturned in the public's mind with ease and alacrity by Ms. McCarthy, so she wins the Pigasus award for her contribution to the country's ill-health.

CNN- Feb 4/2011
Bill Gates: Vaccine-autism link 'an absolute lie'
Microsoft founder Bill Gates sat down recently with CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta in Davos, Switzerland. The billionaire philanthropist was attending the World Economic Forum to push his mission of eradicating polio by 2012. Gates, through his foundation, also pledged $10 billion to provide vaccinations to children around the world within a decade.

What is truly curious in all this is how the public have taken to Ms. McCarthy as a valid source of information about this issue. She is not a scientist; she has not done herself or relied on factual data from double blind tests with a university sanctioned methodology; she has based everything she says on her one experience with her own son. But the public, or at least some of the public, are following her every word as though she could possibly know what she talking about. Time Magazine (April 26, 2011) reported on this story by saying: Jenny McCarthy is a former Playboy bunny, not an academic expert, a doctor or a vaccine researcher. Yet 24% of parents surveyed recently by the University of Michigan say they place “some trust” in information provided by celebrities such as McCarthy about the safety of vaccines.

Wikipedia gives this definition: Superstition is a belief in supernatural causality: that one event leads to the cause of another without any process in the physical world linking the two events. Interestingly, it goes on to say: The word is often used pejoratively to refer to practices (e.g., Voodoo) other than the one prevailing in a given society (e.g., Christianity in western culture), although the prevailing religion may contain just as many supernatural beliefs.

When I was cogitating (I get into a lot of trouble when I cogitate), it occurred to me that we looked down on the superstitions of our ancestors. Sacrifices to the "gods"? Worshipping the sun? If you walk far enough into the distance, you'll fall off the earth? (Wait! That's not true!?!) Just what were those silly people thinking? Today, we know so much better. Hmmm, but do we?

You and I are sitting in Starbucks having a coffee and chewing the fat. Two plus two equals four. No doubt about it. I can get four stir sticks and demonstrate it so both of us agree that this is, in fact, true. Should we always wear a safety belt when we drive a car? Are vaccinations so dangerous we should stop taking them? Was the world created six thousand years ago or was it formed billions of years ago? But more importantly, does it matter? There's the all important question: does it matter?

If you promote the idea of not wearing a seat belt, the overwhelming statistical evidence shows you to be doing harm to society in general. Yes, you may have a story, a single story, about the exception to the rule but do we then ignore the bigger picture? A rule has an exception but the exception should not make the rule.

Scientific evidence shows that vaccinations are beneficial. However, nothing is perfect. There will always be some risk but at the end of the day, we collectively, we as a society must decide on the greater good. Would you kill one person to save a thousand? It may be a philosophical question but in terms of the greater good, would you remove a vaccine from the market that benefited many because of a problem with one?

I personally don't care if you think the world was created six thousand years ago. Unfortunately, I have found over and over again this is the tip of the iceberg. This is the sign that the mind behind that belief is a literal interpreter of a Bible as the word of God. The Bible is not the writings of men trying to record their history, their stories and their wisdom of the ages which may or may not be God's teachings; no it is literally the word of the Lord. These people justify their actions whether good or oh so bad by stating it is the will of the Lord. Really now? You, yes you know what God wants. The God who "works in mysterious ways". (William Cowper) Gee, considering that God is supposed to be omniscient and omnipotent, the creator of the heavens and the earth, the designer of genes, the inventor of quantums and all that relativity stuff, well, hats off to you who deem yourself to be that much of a genius to know God so intimately you understand him and his ways. "The knowledge of God is beyond man's reason." (Hazrat Inayat Khan) May I remind you that even Albert Einstein was wrong once in a while. And you're no Einstein.

Final Word
I'm just a guy; nobody famous; nobody special. Like you, I'm just trying to make sense of it all. I'm trying to make a buck, pay my bills and figure out life if that is any way possible. I don't know everything... unlike you... no, not you... the guy in the back wearing the tin foil hat... as I would like to be a little more sure of my facts before I make the decision to put on the hat. And like everybody else, I don't always have the time to do my own investigation of whether or not something is true. At some point, I have to put my trust in an expert and accept their opinion. Some guy in an alley told me that if I invest early in the Brooklyn Bridge, he can double my money in less than 6 months.

Socrates supposedly said, "The more I know, the less I know." Like the idea that if you never leave your valley, you never find out the world extends farther than your own borders, when I acquire knowledge, I better understand what I don't know. I certainly do not understand Einstein's theory of relativity but a university course in calculus and another in physics opened my eyes to what it is. Ha! I still don't understand it, but now I do know it's there.

Over the years I have met some very, very smart people. So smart, they almost gave me an inferiority complex. However over my lifetime, I have discovered a truth which I still find startling. Periodically, I am told that I'm good but when I look around me to see the competition, I realize the "truth": it's not that I'm so good, it's that everybody else is so bad. Yep, I'm just your average, run-of-the-mill guy but everybody else around me is either so uneducated, inexperienced or just plain dumb, I look like a shining star. I may be the biggest fish in this particular pond or the king of that particular hill but I've been to other ponds and other hills and realized there is so much more beyond the end of my nose.

The plural of anecdote is not data
- Marty Klein, Ph.D

What @#$%^* do I know? Like Socrates, I know that I don't know and armed with that knowledge, I intend on trying to find out the truth, the truth. Not your truth, not his truth, not her truth, but the truth. Whew. I better get started. I've got a long way to go.


Wikipedia: Seat belt legislation
Seat belt legislation requires the fitting of seat belts to motor vehicles and/or the wearing of seat belts by motor vehicle occupants. The U.S. state of Wisconsin introduced legislation in 1961 requiring front seat belts to be fitted to cars. The Australian state of Victoria mandated front and rear seat belt use from 1970.

Compulsory wearing
Canada: 1976
United Kingdom: 1983
United States: 1984

Wikipedia: Vaccine controversies
A vaccine controversy is a dispute over the morality, ethics, effectiveness, or safety of vaccinations. Medical and scientific evidence surrounding vaccinations generally demonstrate that the benefits of preventing suffering and death from infectious diseases outweigh rare adverse effects of immunization. However, since vaccination began in the late 18th century, opponents have claimed that vaccines do not work, that they are or may be dangerous, that individuals should rely on personal hygiene instead, or that mandatory vaccinations violate individual rights or religious principles. These arguments have succeeded in reducing vaccination rates in certain communities, leading to increased outbreaks of preventable, and sometimes fatal, childhood illnesses.

Wikipedia: Young Earth creationism
Young Earth creationism (YEC) is the religious belief that Heavens, Earth, and all life on Earth were created by direct acts of the Abrahamic God during a relatively short period, sometime between 5,700 and 10,000 years ago. Its primary adherents are Christians and Jews who believe that God created the Earth in six 24-hour days, taking what they regard to be a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative as a basis for their beliefs.

Discover Magazine - July 31/2011
We are (temporarily) vaccinated against Jenny McCarthy
A couple of years back, Oprah Winfrey offered notorious antivaxxer Jenny McCarthy her own show on Oprah’s health network. Needless to say, a lot of people were unhappy about this, including me. Ms. McCarthy’s ideas about health and medicine are not only demonstrably wrong, they are what I consider to be a public health threat. She actively promotes people not taking medicine known to work, and to try things we know don’t work.

Amazon: published 2011
The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear by Seth Mnookin
Who decides which facts are true?

In 1998 Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist with a history of self-promotion, published a paper with a shocking allegation: the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine might cause autism. The media seized hold of the story and, in the process, helped to launch one of the most devastating health scares ever. In the years to come Wakefield would be revealed as a profiteer in league with class-action lawyers, and he would eventually lose his medical license. Meanwhile one study after another failed to find any link between childhood vaccines and autism.

Yet the myth that vaccines somehow cause developmental disorders lives on. Despite the lack of corroborating evidence, it has been popularized by media personalities such as Oprah Winfrey and Jenny McCarthy and legitimized by journalists who claim that they are just being fair to “both sides” of an issue about which there is little debate. Meanwhile millions of dollars have been diverted from potential breakthroughs in autism research, families have spent their savings on ineffective “miracle cures,” and declining vaccination rates have led to outbreaks of deadly illnesses like Hib, measles, and whooping cough. Most tragic of all is the increasing number of children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases.


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BigLittleWolf said...

I do love the anecdote adage.

I guess that means "anecdotal data" is an oxymoron?

Tin foil hat. Hmmm. Shoes to match?

A Political Junkie said...

As a fellow blogger, I couldn't agree more. Like you, I try to reference everything, generally from the original source rather than a media report because, like us, coverage by MSM reporters is slanted by their own viewpoint - the biggest difference between them and us is that they get paid and we don't. Nonetheless, a bit of my snarky side sneaks in and I just can't help but to editorialize. I like to think of the writing process as a cathartic exercise even when I am going against the flow of humanity. I recall getting my first really negative comment; I could feel my face flush just sitting in front of my monitor! But, then there are the positive ones (like yours) that keep all of us going.

Keep it up!