The Importance of Not Being a Dick

Several years ago Phil Plait gave a talk at TAM that has become known as the “Don’t be a Dick” speech. There he was mainly talking about online skepticism and how to tailor our message so that it is effective rather than off-putting. In that talk the goal was better evangelising (for lack of a better term) skepticism so that the hearers of the message would be more receptive.

With many of us celebrating holidays and gathering with loved ones in the coming weeks I want to make the same plea but narrow the focus to friends and family. How often do we run into a colleague, friend or family member whom we thought believed as we do but it turns out there’s this one thing they hold on to we can’t abide? This might be a conspiracy theory, UFOs, homeopathy, astrology or even religion. At this point what do we do? Our friend is an intelligent rational person so obviously if we just ruthlessly point out why they are wrong they will agree, thank us for setting them straight and we will live happy in the knowledge that we have done our bit for rationality, right? Right?

Anyone who has been in the skeptic game for long will know, that is simply not how people work. At the very least taking this tack means an upset friend, possibly even the loss of a relationship. At the outset you have to decide what is your goal, what is of value to you? What are you trying to do? Is it more important to you to keep this friendship or that your friend thinks like you?

The people around us hold beliefs for any number of reasons; sometimes it is ignorance, sometimes it is comfort, sometimes it is habit. I have been in the position of heedlessly smashing these beliefs and believe me it is not something of which I’m proud and I try to be more careful how I go about things, not always successfully.

There are a wide variety of people who are drawn to skepticism but we all tend to share the same high regard for truth, reason and evidence. But we have to be wary that we don’t use this as an excuse to trample those we care about. Truth is noble, but it is not paramount. There is the tendency to use the truth as a cudgel as well as a shield “What you’re offended? I was just telling the truth.”

This does not mean we should always hold our tongue. If the belief is causing harm, we should speak up, if the belief could lead to poor decisions we should speak up. But not all battles are worth fighting, not all arguments are worth having and not all beliefs need vanquishing.

We may believe that we have right on our side, but so do our loved ones. It is our relationships that help define who we are as people, are we good people or bad people – ask our friends. Before you next gleefully knock over your friend’s beliefs think, is this friend more important to me than being right? If the answer is no, I feel sorry for your friends.

The Anti-Vax Group Formerly Known as AVN

Those in the loop may already know that the long awaited name change for the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), the anti-vaccine mouth piece of Meryl Dorey, ordered in late 2012 has recently occurred.

The new moniker for the group is Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network, I assume the hyphenation is present so that the group might reasonably continue to use the AVN contraction making the transition easier.


As reported on Sciblogs in 2012 in a guest post from Dr Racheal Dunlop (via an article originally posted on The Conversation) the New South Wales Department of Fair Trading ordered the AVN to change their name citing:

“The Australian Vaccination Network does not present a balanced case for vaccination, does not present medical evidence to back-up its claims and therefore poses a serious risk of misleading the community,”

The AVN billed itself as an impartial information source on vaccine matters but even a cursory look at their website and associated materials reveals an organisation whose only purpose is to oppose vaccination. On the information page of their website the AVN states:

“the AVN says that you need to look at both sides of this issue, ask lots of questions, look at your own family’s health history and then – and ONLY then – make a decision that you think is right for your child and yourself.”

further on,

“Let’s look at it this way. If you were going out tomorrow to buy a new car and your budget was $35,000, you would not just go to the first car yard you came to and say, “Here’s $35,000. What can you give me?” That would be stupid!

Instead, you would do research, read car magazines, speak with family and friends about their experiences, do some test drives and then, after you had satisfied yourself that you had found the right care [sic] for your needs, would you plonk down your hard-earned cash to buy a vehicle.”

This sounds reasonable, in the same vein what I would not recommend and would not do is to take as reliable information from a source whose only objective is to tear down the type of car I was looking at. It does not lend credibility to a view for it to only recognise the failings of a particular approach. Regardless, this is merely window dressing which provides a veneer of reasonableness for the group’s anti-vaccination agenda.

This assessment may seem harsh and/or simplistic but it is difficult to come to any other conclusion considering the fact that every news story, article, personal anecdote, everything has some sort of negative light attributed to vaccines or the people who promote them. The assertion above can be refuted by a single instance of positive vaccine related coverage in any AVN publication. Have at it.

In 2010 the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission published a public warning advising the AVN to include a statement on their website stating that their purpose is anti-vaccine, that they do not provide medical advise and that vaccination decisions should be made with a doctor. The AVN appealed this warning and won but the judge in that case described Meryl Dorey as “coy” regarding they anti-vaccine nature of her group.

Name Change

As noted above, the AVN was ordered to change it’s name in 2012 or risk being disincorporated. After fighting this order the name change has finally been instituted. Not everyone is happy with the change.

In an effort to restrict the AVN from using names that incorporate the word “skeptic/sceptic” members of the Australian Skeptics registered variations of the AVN name with the word “skeptic/sceptic” included. One of these is very similar to the final name change opted for by the AVN. The action taken to prevent this outcome was undertaken due to the perception that scepticism is not the appropriate description for action taken by a group that advances a particular (scientifically unsupported) conclusion. Scepticism is a process, informed by science, by which we can move ever closer to the truth by clearing away misunderstandings and incorrect conclusions.

This is antithetical to the message of the AVN which is essentially “We have the truth and that truth is: vaccines are harmful”.

It will be interesting to see where this goes in future, legal challenges may well be in the works.

Regarding the AVN referring to themselves as skeptics, they follow in the footsteps of climate change skeptics so this is really nothing new. For the moment I’m preferring to be optimistic, perhaps those on AVN’s side of the fence will take the Skeptic label to heart and be open to all evidence, even if it contradicts their own views.

OK, perhaps that borders on the delusional side of optimism.

Vaccine Education

The AVN styles themselves an educational resource for parents investigating vaccines, news of their name change comes on the heels of recent research investigating the effect of different educational approaches attempting to increase vaccine compliance.

The study was a survey based investigation which tried multiple methods of educating parents about vaccines. The disappointing result was that none of the approaches succeeded in the goal of increasing intent to vaccinate. All of the approaches had negative side effects, ranging from actual decrease in intent to vaccinate to increased belief in vaccine/autism link or other serious vaccine side effects.

While these results need to be investigated further they fit into a larger known pattern known as the “backfire effect” where corrective information ends up reinforcing the false belief rather than replacing it with the facts.

In a climate such as this any public effort to educate could result in lower vaccine uptake, especially among those pre-disposed to be wary of vaccines in the first place. Such is the danger when dealing with the tangled web of bias that is human cognition.

Other resources on this story

Kylie Sturgess of Token Skeptic

Sharon Hill – Doubtful News

Daily Telegraph

Elves Stop Construction

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about Taniwha and whether their alleged presence should constitute a stop sign for construction projects. At the time I was responding to an article which proposed just that on the grounds that the Taniwha claims could represent indigenous knowledge of the area relevant to construction.

I admitted that possibility but argued that any fantastical creature could be substituted for Taniwha and no information would be lost – we would still be confronted with a superstitious claim with no way to verify if there was an underlying consideration that could impact civil works. I suggest alternative creatures such as fairies and gremlins – had I inserted Elves I would have had a much smoother segue to my latest topic.

Icelanders also have mythical creatures that interrupt engineering projects – via human intermediaries of course.

It appears local myth has it that Elves occupy the landscape, including in this case lava fields scheduled to have a road constructed. Many in Iceland believe in, or at least do not dismiss, the existence of these Elves. Might we conclude then that the Elves are stand-ins for other environmental concerns? Perhaps but it seems to me that a more productive case could be made by referencing only known biological and environmental entities – indeed the disruption by Elves routine seems to be almost a matter of amusement in some quarters such that the media employ a stock “The Elves have left the area” bit.

In this case then the inclusion of the Elves may grab interest but it quickly gives ground to ridicule.

Are there parallels to the situation here in NZ? In both cases there are vague claims of supernatural entities who must be appeased/avoided or otherwise respected based on claims by human representatives who may or may not  be transmitting (in garbled fashion) legitimate concerns about the advisability of local engineering projects.

Should we automatically take all claims on equal footing? If so what other entities might we need to be wary of, borrowers? If not – on what basis do we make that determination? Supporting ecological/geological evidence? If so that seems to lead to cultural arrogance itself. What we are in essence saying is “Your cultural heritage need not be taken seriously in its own right – it is just a method of encoding local knowledge of other things”.

Is that better? I’m not sure.

Where cultures clash it it not always possible for both to leave the encounter unchanged, but I’m not sure it is helpful to add in spurious interpretations that at best add little to the conversation and at worse cheapen the whole enterprise.

Vaccines Vs Pneumonia

One of the linchpins of the anti-vaccine movement is the attempt to muddy the issue with regard to vaccine efficacy. From this point various others follow; if vaccines are ineffective then large risks need not be shown – any risk at all makes being vaccinated an unwise choice. If vaccines do not perform their role then “forcing” people to vaccinate their children is unwarranted.

Lucky for them many of the diseases vaccinated against had the debut of their vaccine quite some time ago which makes it easier to cloud the issue as to causation: perhaps the disease was waning naturally, perhaps it was improved sanitation etc.

Lucky for us vaccine development continues and new vaccines get evaluated down the line to determine effectiveness. This gives us a more recent look how vaccines work and their impact on the population that is not as susceptible to these tactics.

For example, pneumonia is a risk for young children and hospitalisations in the US prior to 2000 hovered around the 1,200 per 100,000 mark. In  2000 a pneumonia vaccine was introduced into the vaccine schedule which targeted 7 of the 90 odd bacterial strains that cause the disease. Recently a study was published looking at the effect of the vaccine on incidence of hospitalisations. In particular the researchers were looking to see if the initial drop in hospitalisations seen in 2000 was holding steady considering the other strains that could fill the gap. They also looked at incidence of pneumonia hospitalisation in age groups other than infants (classed as <2 yrs old) to see if the vaccine was having any effects outside of the nominal target population.

I’m not sure if this expanded scope is normal for this sort of study but I gather that the older population tends to contract the disease from the young family members so this sort of cross population effect at least has a plausible mechanism in this case.

So what was found and why did I bring anti-vaccinationists into this?

Well, first off as was hinted above there was a significant drop in infant hospitalisations in 2000 (the year the vaccine was widely introduced) which continued to the end of the study period in 2009, as shown in this graph:

Oops, alt text here: you should really be seeing a picture. Sorry.

Incidence of Hospitalisation due to Pneumonia per year

In other words, the vaccine is doing it’s job. It’s hard to argue that there was a significant change in sanitation or general practice between 1999 and 2000 to account for the dramatic and sustained drop as seen. I would like to have seen the incidence prior to 1997 extended further in order to see what the trend for the previous 10 years was. However given that the purpose of the paper was routine surveillance, not to refute anti-vaccine proponents, that’s probably a bit much for me to ask. This 2004 study suggests that childhood incidence of pneumonia is around 3,500 cases per 100,000 (~35 per 1,000 as noted in the paper, adjusted here to give the same units as the current study) but does not specify how many of these would have required hospitalisation.

Secondly the study also found a significant drop in hospitalisations for older people as shown in this graph:

Alt text again, you should really get that looked at.

Pneumonia hospitalisations across age groups

So you don’t even need to receive the vaccine directly to get a benefit from it. That’s already well known but it’s nice to have an instance graphed out like this.

As I started this article, if you can throw doubt on the effectiveness of vaccines then arguing follow up points becomes much easier. A corollary to this is that if people are unaware of the facts around vaccine efficacy they will be unable to counter the miss-information and will either be persuaded by it or fail to effectively argue with those who have been already persuaded.

With this in mind I offer the above as further ammunition for those who come up against anti-vaccine arguments at home, at work or as you potter around the wilds of the internet.Enhanced by Zemanta

Previous Articles on the topic of vaccines:

IAS Complaint Part 1

IAS Complaint Part 2

IAS Complaint Part 3

IAS Complaint Part 4

Defending The Term “Anti-Vaccine”

The Legitimate Risks of Vaccines

It’s Not Robots, It’s You!

The above words were said by my not-quite-three-year-old son to his slightly bemused mother this morning.

This exchange followed a conversation I had had with my son earlier while getting him dressed which went something like this:

[a noise outside very much like a car door slamming]

Son: What was that noise?

Me: Sounds like mum putting something in the car.

Son: No.

Me: ok, what do you think it was?

Son: Robots.

Me: ah…… Where did the robots come from?

Son: Outside.  [so much for the imagination of the young…]

Me:  What where the robots doing?

Son:  Something with mum’s car.

Me: ok…. Have you seen any robots?

Son: No.

Me: Have you seen mum?

Son: Yes.

Me: What do you think made the noise outside?

Son: Not robots.

At which point said mum returns from outside and receives the triumphant exclamation which titles this post.

Proud at having determined we were not being invaded by robots my son wanted to share his conclusion with his mum.

What exactly is my point with this? Well, other than an amusing story I thought is was illustrative of something I want to teach my son as well as convey to others. We should think about what we see and hear, as well as examine our own narrative about how the world works.

When faced with new information and new explanations we should consider them carefully and ask questions like: How do new facts/hypotheses fit into our existing knowledge? Is it reasonable to posit new entities/explanations for things when existing ones will do?

Future episodes like this will provide ever more opportunities to help my son examine the world around him and come to thoughtful conclusions – which are themselves open to revision with new information. Lessons which are appropriate no matter what age you learn them.

Daily Deals and Altmed Pseudoscience

I’ve been noticing the occasional product on the daily deal site I frequent that is, how to put this delicately, BS.

Today I saw one that I just had to have some fun with and hopefully give people some idea of what the product is really about at the same time.

In this case the product was an “Energy Calcium Activation Cup”. I hadn’t heard of these before but the altmed buzzword combo of “energy” and “activation” got my attention.

The forum moderators tend to be quick to remove questions about products that are overtly critical so I had to play a bit dumb and make sure I didn’t get too much to the point. The outcome was quite amusing:

Grabone Magic Cup

You can see the discussion at: (or archived at just in case the entire thing gets deleted after this post goes live)

I would like to thank the company liaison Sabina Chadliwa who here was very forthcoming and quite speedy in comparison with other companies I have interacted with in this way. No offense is meant to her – but BS is BS.

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The Scientific Method On TV

Last week Michael Edmonds asked “Which TV Show Best Demonstrates the Scientific Method?
Various shows where suggested such as CSI and NCIS. Bones made an appearance in the comments as one show that exhibits a fair amount of pseudoscience along with it’s “real” science. House was praised for it’s attention to hypothesis generation and testing. I generally agree with that but found the fact that House always came up with the correct answer alone and via an epiphany type insight a bit unsatisfying.

In any case most shows do poorly at portraying science, this comes inevitably out of the fact that the show is there to tell a story. The science may or may not help with that but in the end it is merely set dressing for the real aim. I’m fine with that – I watch a lot of tv and aside for the odd grumble along the lines of “It would take longer than that!” or “You wouldn’t do it that way!” I’m happy enough to suspend my criticism and enjoy the ride.

But the question remains – which show does it best? Over the weekend an answer came to me that might be cheating a bit, but I think the best I’ve seen lately is one called “Guess with Jess“*.
Guess with Jess

If it sounds like a kids show, you’re right – it is.

The basic set up is like this: A cat decides on a question for the day and then sets about trying to answer it. Pretty simple.

I think it does pretty well showing the methods of science:
A question is generated via an observation of the world, a “literature” search is conducted to find what is already known on the topic (via asking the other animals), a hypothesis is generated that fits the question and what is known, the hypothesis is tested and the results observed to see if it answers the question. Often the first attempt is incorrect, so the question is refined, another “literature” search is conducted, another hypothesis generated and another round of testing conducted.

At the end an answer is arrived at which satisfies our feline protagonist and everyone is happy at having learned something new. Possibly Jess goes off to write a grant proposal – I’m not sure.

So that’s my answer. Adult fiction is too focused on telling a compelling story with relate-able characters in a limited time frame to make more than a passing effort at getting the science right. But that’s ok, we can rely on a young cat named Jess to pick up the slack.


* If a black and white cat named Jess sounds familiar, you might remember that this describes the cat of Postman Pat. According to wikipedia they are one in the same, I’m not sure if Jess has been put out to pasture or if this depicts Jess’s life before settling down with Pat.

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